I know a man who has been the gabai of a small Moroccan synagogue for many years. It is a synagogue that only holds prayers on Shabbatot and holidays. Often times there isn’t a minyan anymore, and it is rare that women pray there. There is no women’s section. The man, who made aliyah from Morocco, likely before I was born, is entirely devoted to the synagogue, coming every Friday morning to check that it is clean, that the lights are set, that all is in order. And then he returns in the late afternoon to open the synagogue for the few remaining faithful.
The man is now in his 90s and his mind has started to deteriorate. He now thinks that every day is Shabbat, and he comes to the synagogue early every morning, sometimes wearing his tallit, and, six days a week, is disappointed that no one has shown up to pray. They must have all moved to the bigger, newer Moroccan synagogue in the neighborhood, he thinks, sadly. Sometimes I meet him on a weekday morning, and he greets me with “Shabbat Shalom.”
To me, this sad situation is, in its way, wondrous. The fact that someone’s senility can take the form of believing that each day is Shabbat (perhaps he has reached that promised and privileged state that is entirely Shabbat). This man’s life was oriented around the Shabbat, and the synagogue was his physical focal point, around which all revolved. This is what has remained for him, expanded in its dimensions, while much else disappears into confusion.
When I was younger, I travelled for extended periods. In 1993, I spent a year in India, mostly studying yoga. By then I was religiously observant, and I travelled with a compass, so that I would always know in which direction to pray. Later, I realized that I could calculate this from the location of the rising sun, so I no longer need the compass when I travel. We Jews pray in the direction of the Temple Mount. Moslems pray facing Mecca. These are our orientations, our grounding points. “Everywhere I go, I am going to Jerusalem,” said Rav Nachman, even though he never made it here physically.
Last week, as I was on my roof with the big window open, I saw a small bird fly into my house. When I went in to look for her, to help her get out, I couldn’t find her. I looked throughout the house to no avail, and was happy to think that, perhaps, she had flown back out through another open window. Later, I found her dead on my bedroom floor, with spots of bird shit around the room. I picked her up, took her still warm, small body (it fit in the palm of my hand) outside and buried her under a pile of leaves. It was morning, and the sadness I felt stayed with me for the rest of the day, mingled with guilt for having left the window open, or not going in sooner to find her. That bird lost its orientation, it’s natural need to be in open space, and it cost it its life.
For years I had a special place in the forest, where I would go to meditate and daven. It was a twenty-minute uphill walk to get there, just right to fill my daily fitness requirement. I would usually go in the early morning, when it was still cool in the summer. It was a ledge of rock, and another standing boulder with a flat side that I could lean on as I sat. It was surrounded by pine trees which kept it shaded. I had a little collection of shells and pine cones there, and loved getting up in the morning, making a thermos of strong coffee, and heading up hill.
Two years ago, there was a massive fire in that part of the forest. When I next went there, all the trees were blackened and the ground covered with ash. I cried. The fire had stopped just past there, my place had nearly been spared, but nearly is meaningless in this case. Since then, all the burnt trees, and many others as well, have been cut down, and what was once a forest is now a valley lined with hills of dried grasses. It took me time to even recognize my beloved place. It had been an orientation point for me for so many years, and now it was completely foreign. I still weep whenever I go there, mourn the loss of my sanctuary, my grounding spot. When I wake up in the morning now, I don’t know where to go. Our losses relate to our points of orientation.
And so I found another place, under the pines, in another part of the forest where there hadn’t been a fire. And then they cut down the trees there, in order that any potential fire not spread. They spared the olive trees, one that I especially love, with a broad, smooth branch on which one can nap. The tree under which I buried my beloved cats, at least it remains. I walked by there today. There are the remains of a campfire nearby, and in the place where I used to sit, scattered soiled tissues. A place once sacred has become a toilet, and the forest, barren.
I remember, as a child in Canada, that we would “plant trees in Israel.” We would get a colorful certificate from the Keren Kayemet saying that our parents had planted a tree for us. I always wondered where the trees I’d planted actually were, and now I wonder whether some of these trees that have been cut down were my trees. With great Zionist fervor, we were enthusiastically encouraged to plant trees. And now they are being cut down. A complete change in orientation. I walk home through the forest, through the grove planted to commemorate fallen soldiers, by the plaques bearing their names and where they were killed, the plaques so much more exposed, now that the trees planted in the soldiers’ memory have also fallen.
I eat my first picked-from-the-tree figs of the year, and also my first carobs, and they are sweet and comforting. It is so early, being a leap year (shana me’uberet). Usually the figs and carobs are ripe in Elul, but we are not yet in Av, and already they offer their sweetness.
We have spatial, spiritual and temporal orientations, which often overlap or interact. Physical and spiritual touch points that are our reference, that give our lives meaning. As with Rav Nachman, our spatial orientation can be to somewhere we have never physically been, and our spiritual orientation is generally to something beyond our world. Our temporal orientation may have less to do with the times of day than with the season of the year or when holy days fall. Tisha B’Av marks the loss of our spiritual and ethical orientation, the consequence of which was the loss of our physical Temple. And yet we have not lost our yearning for Jerusalem, for the freedom of open space, for the time and consciousness that is entirely Shabbat.