In Dara Horn's 2006 work of spiritual fiction The World to Come, she portrays Marc Chagall and the enigmatic Yiddish poet Der Nister (The Hidden One) as teachers at a Ukranian school for Jewish orphans. Der Nister sees a blue painting Chagall has just completed and asks "What does it mean?" Chagall's response is mystifying: "It means blue."
When texts, headlines, and faces are searched for deeper layers of significance; when disease and tragedy are "explained" by survivors and those who would be comforters; when we, in our helplessness as observers, try to fill up the void that inevitably follows loss -- that is when we forget that sometimes meaning is exactly what we feel: blue.
There aren't always redemptive answers. How can we possibly explain the death of a young person? The death of any person? When we say kaddish, are we truly extolling God as "magnified and sanctified"? Are we instead standing with Allen Ginsberg who composed a radical and original kaddish for his mother, writing: "Toward education marriage nervous breakdown, operation, teaching school, and learning to be mad, in a dream -- what is this life?" Are we saying what we mean?
Stating the pain, accepting a comforting hug -- screaming "Oh God!" -- they "mean" the emotions behind them. Saying "baruch dayan emet", a ritual blessing, incomprehensible in its literal translation "blessed is the judge of truth", when we hear of someone's death is not an answer, not an explanation, not a justification. These rituals -- the hug, the crying, the blessing -- they are useful even while not expressible meaning. They force us to hear our own voices, to recognize that we have a body, to know that we're not alone. But they mean "blue." They mean "happy." They mean "sad."
I sat on a beit din (ritual tribunal) recently, witnessing the spiritual rebirths of individuals, young and old, as Jews. As soon as I emerged from the mikveh (ritual bath), I heard news first of an attack in Israel and then of the death of a precious young person. Mikveh/birth, life/death. What does it mean?
As soon as we emerge from our own birth waters, we experience the cold air, the unfamiliar bright lights, heightened vulnerability. Life is not soothing.
The world-controllers of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World pacified their inhabitants with a powerful drug taken to escape pain and bad memories through fantasy. And there are moments where fantasy does sound a whole lot easier than the worries of our world. But life calls, bringing unsolicited rapture along with complicating pain. Being born is not easy. Horn writes:
"What does a child resemble while it waits in its mother's womb? As a boy, Der Nister had been taught the answer: a folded writing tablet. Its hands rest on its temples, its elbows rest on its legs, its heels rest on its backside, and a lit candle shines above its head. And from behind eyelids folded closed like blank paper, it can see from one end of the world to the other. There are no days in a person's life that are better or happier than those days in the womb. When those days must end, an angel approaches the child in the womb and says, the time has come. But the child refuses -- wouldn't you? (Didn't you?) Please, the child begs, please don't make me go. And then the angel smacks it under the nose so that it falls from the womb and forgets -- which is why babies are always born screaming. But before that they are happy, and they wait. (The World to Come, p. 81)"
We are not handed happiness in this world. But we are not purposeful before we are born.
Each of us has that angelic impression under our nose. Each of us experiences moments of jolted memory, blinded again by the candle we saw through closed eyes, called back to consciousness by shocking events, both happy and sad. These moments mean just that: happy and sad.
Blue... Gold... Sunsets... Life is too precious, too full of unfolding remembering to willingly miss.
As Horn writes, "The World to Come will come." Perhaps the goal to set is to not lose ourselves in a search for meaning beyond Life.
Perhaps God is most present when all we can mean is what we are.
Perhaps, in this way, we strive to feel less alone, day by day.
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