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Climbing, clouds, and clarity

A sharp question from a puzzled adolescent sheds light on what it means to pray when you're stuck in cloudy darkness

I am a proud faculty member at the middle school of our local Jewish day school here in Albany, New York. In the past, I have taught a class on prayer and rabbinics to eighth graders at the school.

One day, I was showing the kids a chart that maps out the prayer service and the siddur using the image of a mountain to explain what prayer is. Predictably, the mountain imagery explains prayer as a trek to a summit. The one who prays warms up at the foot of the mountain, then slowly ascends, climbing hopefully to ever more sweeping, comprehensive vistas, using the different prayer services and techniques as tools for making the ascent.

It should only be that easy.

I tried to lay out for my students how this mountain-climbing metaphor applies to the emotional and spiritual complexity of getting close to God through words and rituals, likely the hardest and least immediately fulfilling of all Jewish spiritual practices: “So, guys, do you now see how we can take this mountain-climbing image to its next and most important step? Reaching that point through prayer when you can see the world and life from the widest perspective, from God’s point of view, is like reaching the summit of a mountain. It’s all hard work, but once you get up there, you see and feel things you couldn’t when you were stuck at the bottom of the mountain.”

Normally, middle school kids are so self-absorbed and distracted by the explosions inside of their changing bodies and brains that they can barely sit through such an abstract discussion, let alone understand it. Most adults don’t know what to do with this thing called prayer due to its demanding abstractions. Still, if anyone could get these ideas, even at a more basic level, it was this group of eighth graders. If anyone could turn these ideas on their heads and leave me scratching my own, it was this group of eighth graders. Yet, when I finished my monologue, they stared at me like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights.

What I had to say was lost on them, and I knew this to be true, because they started to fidget, slap each other, and pass notes. Suddenly, one of the kids blurted out: “Rabbi Dan, what if you’re climbing the mountain and you get stuck, because you’ve been blinded by clouds and fog?”

I don’t recall how I responded, but I suspect that my response was likely not too substantive. Even I, who think quickly on my feet, was flummoxed. I do remember thinking that I had so cavalierly used this mountain-climbing metaphor to teach about Jewish prayer in theory that I had ignored just how difficult a metaphor it can be for Jewish prayer in reality, especially for a young teenager.

We have all flailed around in the fog, clouds and darkness of that turbulent adolescent ascent out of childhood. Once we climb that mountain, we try our best to forget the bruises the climb inflicted upon us as we prepare for the next climb into adulthood. My student’s question reminded me that not only a teen’s life, but all living is less a direct hike to a summit, and more a combination of running, limping, stumbling, and stopping on our way to a series of summits, some clear to us, others occluded or distorted by thick clouds.

The Hasidic master of the Slonimer Hasidic sect, Rabbi Shalom Noach Beresovsky, known by his pen name, Netivot Shalom, understood this truth as well. He provided us, his students, with a sensitive, insightful way of thinking about it, also using clouds as a metaphor. He noted how the Torah so emphatically describes the cloud that hung over the mishkan, the desert sanctuary, by day, and the fire that hovered above it by night, as the Israelites journeyed in the wilderness of Sinai:

On the day that the mishkan was set up, the cloud covered the mishkan, the tent of the Pact; and in the evening it rested over the mishkan in the likeness of fire until morning. It was always so; the cloud covered it, appearing as fire by night. And whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Israelites would set out accordingly. And at the spot where the cloud settled, there the Israelites would make camp. At a command of the Lord the Israelites broke camp, and at a command of the Lord they made camp: they remained encamped as long as the cloud stayed over the mishkan. (Numbers 9:15-18)

This passage describes what is roughly the Torah’s version of magical realism. The Torah narrates this extraordinary description of how God oversaw the Israelites’ travel schedule in a very matter-of-fact, commonplace way: it’s just what God did for administrative purposes. Seeking a deeper sense of the text and its message for us, The Netivot Shalom took these verses about the cloud and the mishkan and breathed a whole new interior, spiritual meaning into them.

He wrote that the mishkan is not merely a reference to the original building. Each of us is a mishkan, a holy sanctuary within which God’s fire, the soul resides. There are times when we, the mishkan, can move forward, when the journey before us is clear, revealing the paths and the pitfalls ahead. Those pitfalls that we can anticipate are in many respects far less dangerous to us than those thick clouds that envelop and close us in. We know what it feels like to have them surround us, whether in the form of depression, dereliction, destructiveness or despair. Rejecting Nike-style, can-do platitudes about the importance of continuing the journey forward at all costs, the Netivot Shalom teaches us something quite different. The mishkan and the Israelites moved forward when there was no cloud and the path was clear.

They stood still and encamped when the cloud covered the mishkan. This was not some random mishap derailing the people’s journey. It was part of the plan for the journey that God set up. So too with us, teaches the Netivot Shalom. At times, God beckons us to move forward spiritually and emotionally. At other times, just standing still, as stuck as we may feel we are, is what we need to do. It isn’t a diversion from our life trek, it is our life trek. Our teacher put it this way: “In those times of cloudy darkness, the path we are being asked to take in service of God is precisely to stand still, to serve God out of that opaque and dark place and not to move forward. When the cloud lifts, then we continue to move on the path.”

I do not believe that the pain, sorrow and frustration we suffer are literally from God. So, let me offer you my way of applying this insight of our teacher to understanding our personal struggles. Forward movement in life, toward joy, meaning, and accomplishment is critical. God gave us bodies and brains so we could walk the path, take the journey, make a life worth living. We are permitted and even obligated to do every legitimate thing within our power to overcome disability, depression, doubt.

We are not meant to stay stuck.

Yet like a hiker caught on a dangerous mountain trail in fog, or like our ancestors traveling through the harsh desert, we at times need to recognize that our most furious attempts at taking our next steps forward might actually be steps toward death, not life. When forced into those dark places that forbid us from moving forward safely, can we perhaps ask ourselves, “I need to stop walking right now. How can I replenish myself for the journey that is to come when the darkness lifts? How can I be gentle enough with myself to be still and to allow my journey to be still with me, in a place of contemplation and silence? What can I learn staying here on the side of my life’s road at this moment, that I could never learn bounding ahead toward the summits awaiting me?”

Now I know what I think I would answer my student, who likely asked me that question about hiking the mountain in cloudy fog because my student was struggling with adolescent darkness. “You might not understand this now in your young life. But as you make your ascent up your own mountain paths, I hope the times you feel blocked, even paralyzed, by the clouds of fear and confusion, will also be times when you can stop, ask God to be with you, and listen to God calling you from the thick fog: ‘Don’t worry, I’m here.’”

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.
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