בסיעתא דשמיא

שמע | An illustrated meditation on the unification of imagination and awareness through empathy

"Hidden in Plain Sight" 8.5x11" print toner on paper. An image of a page found in a box of shemot at Isabella Freedman Retreat Center. Found art by Aharon Varady  (h/t Gila Lyons) license: CC-BY-SA.

“Hidden in Plain Sight” 8.5×11″ print toner on paper. An image of a page found in a box of shemot at Isabella Freedman Retreat Center. Found art by Aharon Varady (h/t Gila Lyons) license: CC-BY-SA.

When works are printed bearing sheimot, any one of the ten divine names sacred to Judaism, they are cared for with love. If a page or bound work bearing shemot falls to the ground it’s a Jewish custom to draw up the page or book and kiss it. Just as loved ones are cared for after they’ve fallen and passed away, when the binding fails and leaves fall from siddurim and other seforim they are collected in boxes and bins and brought for burial, where their holy words can decompose back into the earth from which their constituent elements once grew, and were once harvested to become paper and books, and ink, string, glue. While teaching at the Teva Learning Center last Fall 2010, I collected all pages with shemot that we had intentionally or unintentionally made on our copy machine, or which we had collected from the itinerant teachers who pass through the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center on so many beautiful weekend shabbatonim.

Leafing through the pages left for the darkness of the genizah, granted to be studied by the Yeshivah shel Sheol, I preserved one. It’s a page with the declaration of the Shema written on it with the whispered refrain, barukh shem kavod malkhuto, all but obscured by copy toner ink. You can imagine some teacher of Jewish meditation coming to the copy machine with a much plainer page, and then alerted to the copier’s distress, opening its guts to extirpate the misprint or misprints jammed inside like God freeing Yonah from inside the giant fish. Teva’s Program Coordinator that season, Gila Lyons, was the first to recognize it. I first noticed it tacked to the wall left of her workspace in the Teva office. At the end of the season, she had left it behind. Later, she admitted, she was glad I found it. I’m happy to share it with the world with a CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported license.

In saying the shema, I’ve adopted the custom I first learned while reading Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, to take full breaths between each word of the shema, visualizing the letters comprising each word and translating the meaning of the divine names and their connection one to the other in this sequence of words. With my eyes closed, I open my ears to hear and appreciate the meaning in the sound of others saying the shema around me, entwined together with the sound of my shema. With my minds eye, I come to the word eḥad, and remember Rabi Shimon Ben Zoma’s warning in tractate Berakhot, not to dwell on the letter ḥet, ח, a lintel and doorway into pondering divine oneness without end, ‘eyn sof אֵין סוֺף. Through the shema, I’ve limited my visual awareness and bound my hearing and breathing and loving, to my imagination, the only recourse I have to perceiving the divine as Transcendent.

Then, I tear myself away from this vision by deliberately opening my eyes, and blessing with some humility what I perceive, saying, really desperately to see the world in its precious immanence with all the beauty that is hidden by its sheer ubiquity, I whisper: barukh, blessed, is the shem kavod malkhuto, the vast Name writ in the Glorious Kingdom — the natural world about me, even with its real sorrows. Barukh haShem, with empathy and mitzvah actions, I can help redeem its suffering and cultivate more compassion in this beautiful world, and because with free will, I can choose not to add to this suffering by avoiding predatory actions as much as possible. Through the barukh shem kavod malkhuto, I bind all of my senses and empathy with my imagination. perceive Nature in all of its beauty and sorrows with my sensory awareness (poteiaḥ ‘ivrim), and signify this reality as that which is immanent by naming it the Shem Kavod Malkhuto. By linking signifier (the Name) with the signified (the unNameable), I unify the Immanent world I can perceive with the Transcendent world I can only ponder — endless in its abstractions and endless in its the interdependent relationships expressed in the infinite multiplicity of evolving lifeforms and ecosystems. Perception and imagination: I need both to know and feel, to nurture and rescue. From kavanah to mitzvah — from intention to action.

I do this by being stringent in not eating other animals, and to make the mitzvot of bal tashkhit, v’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha (each one of us is tselem elohim), and tza’ar baalei ḥayim central to my practice of Torah. This is why on Yom Kippur, when I am taken so completely out of the cycle of predatory nature that I am not consuming any other forms of life, I can proclaim without whispering or deference, barukh shem kavod malkhuto.

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