Playing with fire: The journey into the centre of one’s heart

“Whenever he saw a hole, he always wanted to know the depth of it. To him this was important”. Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Extraordinary Voyages vol. 3

17 July 2015, Jerusalem

Friday afternoon. The chalot are baking in the oven following last night’s Challah Baking Event at the Chabad House in Baka. I left them overnight and, consequently, they grew to monstrous sizes. The oven simply doesn’t seem to be able to accommodate them. I have to check on them every 10 minutes, feeling a mild sense of frustration and missing my extremely reliable oven. The smell and the taste of Turkish coffee only intensifies the anticipation towards Shabbat. I always drink Turkish coffee without sugar or milk so every sip hits me with overwhelming bitterness and slight sweetness. I vehemently rebel against instant coffee and hereby offer my insincere apology to all Nescafe fans.

Last night I left the party as soon as it started. I thought I was exhausted, but the moment I began strolling down Ben Yehuda Street towards the Old City, I knew that I needed some space. For the record, there is nothing better than a night stroll around Jerusalem. The Gan Pa’Amon figures on my list as one of the most enchanting places that can be visited at night. Its climbing roses forming into canopies boldly mark the way through the park. The “rail green lane”, which I took back on my way to the seminary, dragging one foot behind another, striving to prolong the experience as much as I could, hid an outdoor library with books not only in Hebrew and English, but also Russian, German and French. That is, only as far as I had a time to check because very quickly I was chatted up by two police officers, who were checking if I was alright, because, after all, who roams through hundreds of books at 2:30 am?

I do, the answer is. I prefer nights. If I could I wouldn’t sleep at all, doing my work during the day and enjoy the quietness of each night finding time away from noise, chatter or daily pettiness to both explore and recharge. Speaking about recharging, I thought it would never happen, but I am actually resting.

Our group is more than half-way through the Mayanot program and what a journey this has been. I was completely taken by surprise with the teaching. I was convinced that all I would do would be to rationalise the life and faith even more, making sure that I manage to build a more fool-proof system around myself. After all, I reasoned, that’s what “Chabad” stood for: chochma (wisdom), binah (intelligence) and da’at (knowledge). Instead I was skilfully thrown into the deep waters of my emotions and into the rooms in my soul which, so far, I failed to understand; both appeared to be too dangerous to venture into. Every barrier that I had methodologically built over years was broken into and the initial panic and anxiety was replaced by simple, stirring and overwhelming curiosity: what if I can actually get to know me? Instead of pushing myself aside in the every day fight for survival, not admitting to scars, both old and new, pretending before myself that I am fine and I can systemise both life and G-d, not expecting much, but simply putting inhuman effort into things to make a change, constantly running away into the quietness of my mind where I managed to analyse things, stripping them of any emotions and attachments, surgically examining the remaining bones of what used to be an emotion and being convinced that I did a great favour to myself, because that way I would never be hurt again – I opened the door. Curiosity took the better of me and I decided to make a cautious step forward into instead of away from myself.

Pragmatically speaking, ironically, being at Mayanot is like buying a ticket for an emotional and intellectual roller-coaster. I always loved roller-coasters; feeling the sense of accomplishment when the ride stopped, but gripping the rail, holding on to my seat, closing my eyes and not breathing for the entire ride. Then I would go again to overcome my fear, each time forcing myself to keep my eyes open until I was no longer paralysed by fear. This time, being here, I cannot close my eyes and refuse to breathe. My mind and my heart actually talk with one another for the first time in many years and they are chalk and cheese. They speak different languages and I keep asking myself, others and Hashem – who came up with this?! I wish now I didn’t divorce my own heart all those years ago, I wish I didn’t kill it at that darkest moment. Instead, I wish I had a courage then to let it speak; because now it shouts and I often catch myself locking it up, only allowing it to throw a tantrum or two at a time.

The good thing about Mayanot is that, at some point, one feels overwhelmed with knowledge and self-analysis they have to do on a daily basis; it’s like training a muscle. You feel pain after the workout, but you have to continue in spite of the discomfort. The muscle protest the whole time, but then it will learn to protect itself, by strengthening and growing bigger, leaning and shedding the surroundings of unnecessary fat and, eventually, in itself, enjoying and expecting more exercise. I spoke with my mum the day before yesterday and we had a quiet talk. She, being very much like me, brushing anything that lacks reason (namely emotions) under the carpet, stopped my reasoning and said: “No, you were hurt. It’s fine to admit it”. Sadly, this was a revelation for me as much as the theory of relativity to Einstein despite the fact that I wasn’t born yesterday.

Another amazing thing is that Chassidut believes in controlling your emotions with intellect, but not negating it. I wish I was taught that when I was overly trusting with people. I was always taught to be open, nice, polite, pleasant, turn-the-other-cheek type of a person, but I was not taught how to protect myself. Then I fell into the other extreme, intentionally closing all doors to let myself heal and never see the light of day again.

Jules Verne’s words come to my mind here:

“Then I returned to partial life, my face was wet with tears. How long that state of insensibility had lasted I cannot say. I had no means now of taking account of time. Never was solitude equal to this, never had any living being been so utterly forsaken”.

Then I came to Israel and allowed myself less than more successfully to open a bit to people. And then Mayanot happened to me.

I am actually looking through my notes, selecting what I should write about, because all this is much too personal for my taste. I think I am going to drop a few things that I jotted down and rather turn my focus on the amazing time we, both as a group and individually, had in Tzfat. We went on a three-day Shabbaton and the mental and physical exhaustion were palpable throughout the group on the third day. However, that was the day that we went to watch a glass artist, Sheva-Chaya, blowing glass. One of her works consist of incorporating broken chupa glass into a new cup. It was more than relaxing to see someone comfortably applying the deadly force of fire into forming something so beautiful and fragile.

The precision of this process was more than fascinating. Her words stroke me the most. She said:

“We are all broken like this glass, but then through fire we are incorporated into a new vessel. Fire needs to be approached from the distance because, if we get to close to quickly, we will burn ourselves. Luckily, the bigger the danger of burns, the more careful we are, but sadly, once we do burn, the burn is severe”.

Our group is an amazing combination of different personalities and life experiences. To every person there is a story and being here in such relaxed environment wouldn’t be possible without the all-encompassing feeling of warmth from the staff. I have never seen anyone being so ready to answer any question one may have, patiently and extensively; challenging, but not preaching. It is a physically safe environment where one doesn’t have to fight for immediate survival; rather everyone has been offered this space to make that journey into one’s core, dropping the masks and ceasing all pretence and every time when the flashbacks reappear, all that needs to be remembered are Jules’ words:

“Science, my boy, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth”.

¬ E.

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