The Dance of the Dolphin: Finding Prayer, Perspective and Meaning in the Stories of Our Livesby Karen D. Kedar
We live in two seemingly incompatible worldsrational and spiritual.
How can we keep our balance?
Like the dolphin who exists in both water and air, so must we learn to live and thrive in two conflicting worldsthe rational, material, everyday craziness of life versus the still, spiritual soulfulness of our deepest selves. Balancing the two&/b>
We live in two seemingly incompatible worldsrational and spiritual.
How can we keep our balance?
Like the dolphin who exists in both water and air, so must we learn to live and thrive in two conflicting worldsthe rational, material, everyday craziness of life versus the still, spiritual soulfulness of our deepest selves. Balancing the twodifficult as it often can beis the key to our spiritual survival.
Through poignant stories, spiritual teaching and insights, Karyn Kedar shares with us the ways we can integrate the everydayfamily, work, personal challengeswith our quest for deeper spiritual understanding. She helps us to decode the three “languages” we must learn to weave the seemingly ordinary and extraordinary together:
- PrayerThe path through which our souls connect with the Divine.
- PerspectiveHow we define life’s twists and turns, and how our words and actions define the quality of our lives.
- MeaningThe quest to understand and make sense of all that seems incompatible.
In graceful ways, Kedar shows us that by realizing the connection between the ordinary and the awe-inspiring, we can synchronize our hearts with the ways of the world and live with joy, a sense of calm and greater purpose.
- Jewish Lights Publishing
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.73(d)
Read an Excerpt
THE IRON WINGS
In the moments before my eyes opened, the morning deceived me. The smell of the air, the quality of the sunlight, the birds, the sense of peace all transplanted me from a suburb in northeast Illinois to Hod HaSharon, Israel. In the mid-eighties, the Hod, as we called it, was a dusty village. It had no traffic lights, only stop signs. It had no supermarket, only small, crowded Mom and Pop stores, one every couple of blocks, where you paid for milk and fresh rolls by signing an index card at the owner's cash register. Instead of a sidewalk, it had a long dusty dirt path that connected it to the next village, which was called Magdiel. It was a path I walked at least twice daily. I lived in the Hod and I worked in Magdiel and my sandled feet were always dirty.
The Hod was famous for two things. First, if you traveled from Haifa to Jerusalem, it was a bus stop for those who lived in one of the nearby cities that clustered together to form Israel's belly. Second, and perhaps most important, it was in serious competition for the site of the best falafel in the country. On the side of the road, right near the busy bus stop, was a wooden hut about the size of a small backyard shed. It was painted vibrant blue, lest you miss it. Inside the hut stood one man; there was only room for one. Without moving his feet, with the mere twist of his waist and wrist, he formed falafel balls from the batter, placed them in the vat of boiling oil behind him, and scooped them out into fresh pita stuffed with chopped salad and tehina.
He moved so quickly, so gracefully, with such concentration and focus, that often I found myself standing at a short distance, watching him as if I had discovered a street dancer bound for greatness. The bus stop was always busy, and there was always a crowd huddled around the hut, waiting for their manna. The word manna was used in the Book of Exodus for the sweet sustenance that fell from heaven as the Israelites wandered in the desert; today it means a portion of food, or, in slang, a falafel with pita. I passed this hut at least twice daily on my trek from the Hod to Magdiel and back again.
Once, I was in a hurry to get to work and I didn't pause to watch the falafel man and his devotees. I rushed past to the dirt road, but when I was a distance away, something made me turn around. There it was, the vibrant blue hut in the distance, with a thin line of smoke rising from the cooking falafel, giving off the most delectable aroma. As I stood fixed in the dirt between Magdiel and the Hod watching the hut and its cult, I saw the smoke rising first toward the sandy foothills of the coastal plains, then to the Judean Mountains, then to the heavens to an unsuspecting God.
Suddenly, I pictured the sacrificial cult of the early Israelites who offered incense to God just fifty miles southeast of there in Jerusalem at the Holy Temple. Ketorit, they called it. Worship in those days involved all the senses: smell, touch, taste, hearing, and, of course, sight. I envisioned the devoted group, huddled around the altar to a God they could only imagine, a people sure that this invisible God would enjoy the sensations of this worldotherwise, what's a world for? Worship was physical, it was messy, and it had everything to do with the life you lived. It involved the best the agrarian life had to offer. The best fruit, wine, grain, livestock, the best effort. Worship was gratitude for life and its abundance.
We don't pray like that any more. We do not offer up the entrails of bulls, the broken-necked turtledoves, the libations of wine, and alas, no incense offerings. Most of us are just as happy to read about the days of sacrifice, relegating it to the category of "what we used to do, but no longer." Instead we pray from books in sanctuaries and occasionally alone.
But too often our prayers are sterile, primitive, or stillborn. They are sterile when they are the rote response of a prescribed tradition. They are dull when they lack the emotional commitment and physical labor of the pilgrim who walked one hundred miles to offer his first fruits at Jerusalem's Temple. They are primitive when they are yet another transaction we perform: If You do this, I will do that. They are stillborn when they lack the spiritual and intellectual energy that gives life to the things we hold dear.
Sylvia Plath writes this criticism of poetry:
These poems do not live; it's a sad diagnosis.
They grew their toes and fingers well enough,
Their little foreheads bulged with concentration.
If they missed out on walking about like people
It wasn't for any lack of mother love.
O I cannot understand what happened to them!
They are proper in shape and number and every part.
They sit so nicely in the pickling fluid!
They smile and smile and smile and smile at me.
And still the lungs won't fill and the heart won't start.
They are not pigs, they are not even fish,
Though they have a piggy and a fishy air
It would be better if they were alive, and that's what they were.
But they are dead, and their mother near dead with distraction, And they stupidly stare, and do not speak of her.
Our prayers do not suffer from bad composition, nor do they lack wisdom and healing power. When they lack life, it is because we have not infused them with energy and vitality. They contain all they need to fly, and yet "the lungs won't fill and the heart won't start," because we, who pray, merely sit and rise on command, read and are silent at the appropriate moments, politely listen to music and sermons. We have become passive. "They are dead, and their mother near dead with distraction, and they stupidly stare, and do not speak of her." To speak of Her, of God, we must act as if prayer is an activity, a dance, a song, a communal and private journey through time and inner space. The ancient ones had it right: prayer is physical as well as spiritual, and it involves commitment greater than simply filling a pew.
This story is not new, however. It is not simply a sign of the times that prayer, spiritual poetry, and song are absent despite the attempts at reading the words. Meyer Levin tells a story handed down from the disciples of Rabbi Israel, known as the Baal Shem Tov. He lived in the Carpathian Mountains during the seventeenth century. Levin begins the tale in this way:
The Enemy did not forswear the battle, but came out openly and spread his iron wings between the earth and heaven. The wings were as thick as the mountain is high, and all through they were made of heavy iron. He wrapped his wings around the earth as he would enclose it within the cups of his hand.
On the earth, all was darkness. The wings of the Enemy pressed forever closer to the earth, and crushed the spirits of men.
When Rabbi Israel was about to enter into a synagogue, he stopped outside the door and said, "I cannot go in. There is no room for me to enter."
But the Chassidim said, "There are not many people in the synagogue."
"The house is filled from the ground to the roof with prayers!" said the Master.
But as he saw the Chassidim take great pride because of his words, he said, "Those prayers are all dead prayers. They have no strength to fly to heaven. They are crushed, they lie one on top of the other, the house is filled with them."
What is the Enemy that envelops our world with iron wings and prevents our prayerful ascent to God? What causes our world to be darkened and our souls to be heavy and sluggish? We feel superior to those who lived in the days of sacrifice. But then, the masses walked on foot and the rich brought donkeys, and they traveled from the ends of the known world, Babylonia and Egypt, to "go up" to Jerusalem and offer their best produce and livestock. They walked for days, carrying, lugging, leaving behind. Does the word sacrifice apply to their burnt offering or to the calluses on their sandled dirty feet?
Hannah Senesh lived during a dark time, when the enemy of all that was good in humanity was closing in fast. She had emigrated from Hungary in 1939 to settle on a kibbutz in Israel; however, her life was not destined to be lived as a simple poet-farmer. In 1943, she joined the Palmach, the Jewish army in Palestine. She became a paratrooper and was the only woman chosen to be part of an elite unit whose mission would bring her behind enemy lines in Hungary in the midst of the Nazi invasion. The unit successfully retrieved vital information for the Allies and aided Jews in their escape.
Hannah was captured, tortured, and beaten beyond recognition. Yet she did not reveal to the enemy the radio code, which would have harmed the Allies. She died at the hands of her anti-Semitic countrymen.
One day, before she was called to be a heroine, before she joined the army, before she knew her fate was not to be a poet-farmer, Hannah was walking on the beach, not too far from Hod HaSharon. She was overcome by the perfection of it all, feeling the sand of a million years between her toes, and she wrote the following prayer:
I pray that these things never end
The sand and the sea
The rush of the waters
The crash of the heavens
The prayer of the heart.
The prayeror poem, as she probably would have preferredis so simple that it may seem trite to our modern sensibilities, and yet, how true are her words. So many of us blame the Evil One for our lack of faith or our inability to connect through prayer. But Hannah Senesh did not succumb to evil. For Hannah, prayer and simplicity were the same. "May these things never end," she wrote. Simply that. "May the rush of the waters and the crash of the heavens" never end. May our prayers never end. The language of the spirit speaks in the simplest terms. It is a language that hears the music of the world and the beat of the heart as one. It is a language that senses what is true and right in muted sounds and wispy images.
Simplicity is a lost human trait.
And yet it was simplicity with which Rabbi Israel sought to pierce the wings of the Enemy. The story continues that one day a young boy who was known to be "slow-witted" came to Rabbi Israel's synagogue for the high holidays. He brought with him a flute that he had made from a reed. During the prayers he became restless, for he was unable to read the Hebrew and participate. During the last prayer of the holiday when all were on their feet, the boy could no longer contain himself and took the flute from his pocket,
set it in his mouth, and began to play his music. A silence of terror fell upon the congregation. Aghast, they looked upon the boy; their backs cringed, as if they waited instantly for the walls to fall upon them. But a flood of joy came over the countenance of Rabbi Israel. He raised his spread palms over the boy David. "The cloud is pierced and broken!" cried the Master of the Name, "and evil is scattered from the face of the earth."
Who is the Enemy that envelops our world? Perhaps a modernity that values complexity and tolerates complacency. Truth need not be complicated, and complacency must never be tolerated. How dare we live in a world where cynicism rather than curiosity guards our souls like soldiers of the iron-winged Evil One? Perhaps we cannot pray because for a century or so we have been taught not to. It is illogical to pray.
Indeed it is. Faith, God, and prayer are suspect, for they cannot be measured or easily understood. So we of faith have gone underground. As a civilization, we have forgotten how to open the soul. The irony is that we have not abandoned our sanctuaries entirely. We sit there quietly, politely, rather bored, not quite getting it. Our prayers are deadened by our minds.
To pray, we must relearn how to sacrifice. Not the animal sacrifice of the ancient days but a sacrifice of self or, even better, of self-consciousness. It is not silly to loosen your thoughts in moments of wonder. It helps you leave the prison of self-obsession and enables you to connect with the universe in its most basic and pure state: the sand, the sea, the rush of the waters, the crash of the heavens.
The words of others, the words of your heart, silenceall are not only legitimate but are necessary steps toward reconnecting with the world in a way that will ultimately bring you peace. Simplicity is what we need: the ability to spontaneously call a moment beautiful, like the smoke rising from a blue hut at the crossroads of a village town, or the crush of pilgrims at Jerusalem's gate, or the sound of the waves against the shore. These are prayers that pierce the iron wings of the Enemy.
You seek forgiveness, then seek the most basic prayer there is: God, teach me to know, feel, and live the beauty of life.
Say this every day until you know that it is true, and then say it every day thereafter, so we all may learn.
* * *
I met the boy in Baal Shem Tov's story at a camp in Wisconsin one cold and rainy summer. We were praying: I, the rabbi; they, the teenagers. Our prayers had been rather weak, dampened by routine, exhaustion, and sore throats. Adam volunteered to read a prayer. A few days before he had told us that he had attention deficit disorder and was taking medication for his condition. Indeed, Adam was different, keeping to himself, prone to outbursts, never really looking me in the eye. But this morning, he volunteered to read.
He began, pausing after every word as if to check himself for accuracy. In fact, every so often he became stuck, like we all did when we began to read. When his pauses grew a bit too long, I would help him by saying the words for him: "struggles and strivings," "companionship," "confusion," "uncomplaining," "loneliness," "exult," "toil." He would repeat after me and we formed a rhythm, slow, steady, together.
As he quietly read on, laboring, glowing with a true and earned sincerity, my heart opened up, aching for all those who suffer the pain and gift of being so clearly different. I felt a tenderness for this boy, for the countless boys and girls whose lives are a struggle. I remembered the pain of my own youth. I heard his halting prayer and my heart soared, piercing the iron wings. With a lowered gaze, he gently and ever so sweetly brought the prayer book to his lips and kissed a corner of the cover. I felt as if his lips had touched my soul. He had led us in prayer.
I turned to him and thanked him for finding the dead prayers. I told him that I had prayed, really prayed, for the first time in a long while. Though we were finished, I opened to the page that Adam had conquered. I told the rest of the group that they should not take for granted what came easily. That many of us, many of them, struggled, that God was with them in their struggle. I began to read once again the prayer he had opened with:
Lord, You give meaning to our hopes, to our struggles and our strivings. Without You we are lost, our lives empty. And so when all else fails us, we turn to You! In the stillness of the night, when the outer darkness enters the soul; in the press of the crowd, when we walk alone though yearning for companionship; and when in agony we are bystanders to our confusion, we look to You for hope and peace.
Lord, we do not ask for a life of ease, for happiness without alloy. Instead we ask You to teach us to be uncomplaining and unafraid. In our darkness help us to find Your light, and in our loneliness to discover the many spirits akin to our own. Give us strength to face life with hope and courage, that even from its discords and conflicts we may draw blessing. Make us understand that life calls us not merely to enjoy the richness of the earth, but to exult in the heights attained after the toil of climbing.
Dear, dear Adam, may it be true. Amen, Selah!
Excerpted from THE DANCE OF THE DOLPHIN by KARYN D. KEDAR. Copyright © 2001 by Karyn D. Kedar. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar teaches matters of the spirit to groups throughout the U.S. She is senior rabbi at Congregation B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in the Chicago area, and the inspiring author of The Bridge to Forgiveness: Stories and Prayers for Finding God and Restoring Wholeness; Our Dance with God: Finding Prayer, Perspective and Meaning in the Stories of Our Lives and God Whispers: Stories of the Soul, Lessons of the Heart and contributed to May God Remember: Memory and Memorializing in JudaismYizkor; Who by Fire, Who by WaterUn'taneh Tokef and All These VowsKol Nidre (all Jewish Lights).
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