12/17/08

NINE/SIT VaYeshev

‘Are you sitting down’?
Actually, I was – sitting at my desk looking out the window at the morning rain finally feeding a parched Jerusalem, with a cup of tea in my left hand and the phone in the other. N., across the Atlantic, was the bearer of bad news, the kind one sits down for. Madoff’s scheme trickled down to our immediate reality –a few of Storahtelling’s important funders badly hit and will be unable to support us this year. Also, a major foundation with a significant investment in our programs slated for later this year – simply erased off the map. The implications are severe. I remained sitting for a long time after the phone call ended, cheeks wet like rain, throat parched like earth. Just sitting.

There are different kinds of ‘sitting’. There is the casual sit down at a café, with a newspaper or a book, or a rigid 9-5 at your computer or sewing machine or at the wheel. There is meditation, often done sitting down – (in Hebrew one doesn’t say ‘did you mediate today? But rather – ‘have you sat today?’) There’s the sitting down for Shiva – mourning for a loved one – a required ritualized act of sitting low for a week. There are seating charts for dinner parties, and the toilet seat that often follows, there’s finding your assigned seat in the theater or choosing one in the movies, there’s the nervous sitting at job interviews (‘please take your seat’), or hospital waiting rooms. Then there’s the race for a seat of an elected official, or the jumping out of one’s seat to cheer a sports event. We do a lot of sitting as means to a greater end. And yet, sometimes it is the act itself that matters, just pausing to bend the knees, and find as comfortable  a place as possible to let the butt rest and the feet rest and all the rest, rest: ‘are you sitting down??’

Jacob sits down this week, and the Torah portion ‘VaYeshev’ is named for this much awaited rest;.  ‘Jacob sat in the land of his father’s dwelling, in the land of Canaan’ (Genesis 36:1)  Jacob hopes to settle down – physically and emotionally – recovering  from the recent  ‘Dina Disaster’, and more recently – the death of his beloved wife Rachel. He is hoping to find a peaceful place among his neighbors, to prosper, to take a deep breath. But the peace is temporary… The commentaries sigh ‘he wanted to sit quietly and then came the saga of Joseph….’

But not yet.

At this point in the story, this weekly re-run, he is just ‘sitting’. Yes, his has been a difficult life, full of challenges and hardships, but now he is home, and to ‘sit’ in Hebrew also means to ‘dwell’. He is re-grounding himself in reality. Sitting down, Jacob shows us, has to do with re-charging one’s batteries, with tapping into a greater resource of inspiration and hope – especially at times of heartbreak and crisis and fear. It is no coincidence that the Hebrew word ‘Yeshiva’ comes from the same root of “Shev’ – sitting down. The Jewish art of study is done at yeshivas – the places where we sit down to connect to our roots and stretch our minds and hearts like branches, further out into the world. Sitting matters. It is also no coincidence that the word ‘Shabbat’ comes from the same root as ‘sit’ or ‘stop’ – Shabbat is the wise weekly invitation to breath deep, sit down, ground one’s self as the storms rage. “Are you sitting down?”

Jacob’s been hit hard, and more is to come, but at this point in the story, he, the protagonist, doesn’t know it yet – and neither do we, the ‘readers’. Yes, terrible news will shatter his life, but years later, great consolation will mend his heart and family. For now, he, and we, are just quietly sitting, taking it in, sitting with it, looking outside the window at the rain quenching the thirst of this parched land.

21F: My seat on a flight from Tel Aviv to New York City, as I write this blog entry, on my way to a series of important meetings and vital decisions to be made.  I cherish this quiet in between time zones, no emails, no phones. Outside my window the pitch black of somewhere and nowhere at all and in the horizon the pale strip of light – dawn over North America. I sit there, seatbelt and on – I try not to worry about everything, be here and now – breathe deeply, and simply sit down, gathering hope and strength for the rising of the dawn and for what comes next.

PS. In his commentary on Jacob’s dwelling in Canaan, Rashi, the French Torah Commentator quotes an odd parable, eerily appropriate of current events: ‘This merchant of flax enters the market with a caravan of camels, laden with flax. ‘Where will all this flax be stored’? a local metal-smith asked. ‘Just one spark from your furnace and there will be no flax left…’ answered another merchant.  Is the modern parable painful obvious enough?