Sometimes I am not quite sure how much I should reveal about myself. Should I tell people I’m a rabbi? What happens if I come out to this person as gay? Or the big one: should I reveal that I am huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer?
Speaking of Buffy, have you ever seen “Once More, With Feeling,” the musical episode from season six? Well I have. More than a few times. And I may or may not listen to the soundtrack on a semi-regular basis. There is one song in particular that has been stuck in my head for a couple weeks: “Where Do We Go from Here?”
The last time this song randomly popped into my head was back in October when I learned I would no longer be working at the retreat center. Like, it just started playing in my head as the news sank in. “Where do we go from here? Where do we go from here? … Why is the path unclear when we know home is near?”
The path was seemingly not unclear. I knew that in just a few months I would be hiking the Appalachian Trail. And I’ve always felt at home on the AT. After the initial shock wore off, I began planning my next steps. I called family members and gave them the news. I think I even bought a flight to Oregon that same day for right after Thanksgiving.
But the fact is, I haven’t a clue. I don’t know where to go from here. Yes, I’ll be thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. Yes, I’ll have loads of friends and family join me for portions. Yes, when I get to Katahdin, I believe I will feel a huge sense of accomplishment. It’s only recently, though, that I am realizing that the question isn’t literal. My soul isn’t asking what the next step is along the way. It’s asking something far deeper and my best guess is that it’s asking now because it thinks I might find the answer during my journey.
For many years now, it has been my practice to pray every morning. Some mornings I am convinced that the only person listening to my hushed recitation of ancient Hebrew texts is me. Some mornings I feel as though I am wrapped in the essence of that transcendent spirit of life some of us call G-d. But most mornings I just feel good for having taken some time to focus on spiritual matters, whether I feel one way or another about G-d. That is, until recently.
Every morning I begin my prayers and within minutes it becomes an outpouring of everything I’ve been holding in my heart. Forget the prayer book, it’s been weeks since I followed the daily liturgy. I just talk. Sometimes through heavy tears, sometimes with laughter. But most of that time it’s just straight talk. When I’m done, I start openly asking G-d to reveal Him/Herself to me, as though my demand should be heard above all others.
This morning was a little different than usual. After I finished praying, I closed my eyes and did everything I could to just listen. Whenever a stray thought popped in, I let it run its course and then just let it go. Finally, I heard a voice I knew immediately.
In my mind I was taken back to a Shabbat afternoon two summers ago. There I was again, sitting on the edge of Lake Miriam in Falls Village, CT with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, זצ״ל. We had just finished the afternoon prayers and we were sitting in silence for a few minutes.
“Yankele, are there any questions you wish to ask me?”
It took me a while to respond. Who was I that I got to have this precious time with one of the greatest rabbis of our day? Any questions I had left me the moment he asked. Suddenly, I found myself speaking.
“Reb Zalman, isn’t is amazing how G-d created the universe?”
“No, Yankele! This is not right thinking. It isn’t about how G-d created the universe,” he said, waving his hand over the lake and toward the hills. “It’s about how G-d became the universe.”
Right then, I knew I learned a great teaching. I told everyone the story, sharing it as often as I could. But its application in my life is only now starting to become clear.
Creating and becoming are interesting words. I often say that I want to create the kind of life from which I don’t need a vacation or that I want to create a spiritual practice that helps me live life more fully. But creating doesn’t always lead to becoming. The fact is, I need to become the things I keep seeking to create.
What I realized after experiencing this profound memory, is that I have been using G-d as a lightning rod for all my inner struggles. I’ve been placing the blame (and even the credit) on G-d for all that I need to confront from within myself. Creation is a act outside of ourselves, but becoming involves the act of being. G-d isn’t the one I needed to confront about Their existence. It was me. Reb Zalman was teaching that I needed to be exactly who I am.
So, where do we go from here? Who knows, really? But at least I now have a direction to start walking.