RE:VERB FORTY-ONE / VA'ETCHANAN / WRITE
A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie
A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.
Most of the apartment is packed, boxes and suitcases gradually filling up with accumulated books and pieces of Armenian pottery and random papers. Moving out becomes an opportunity for selection, for reflection: a year’s worth of history and future priorities sorted out, shelf by shelf. I’ll miss living in Jerusalem, and I’ll miss this little apartment that quickly became a real home. My last day of packing is today – Tisha B’av – the annual fast day in memorial of Jerusalem’s ancient destruction and the (perpetual?) Jewish exile. Perfect. It’s a bit of challenge to be packing up while fasting but it’s no big deal and actually quite a visceral experience, an echo of the question asked by so many of my ancestors as they packed emptying rooms, for mundane or tragic reasons: how do I create memories of a home? What do I choose to remember? Do I really need all this history? (And how do I avoid being charged for overweight luggage?)
I’ll remember, and miss most, the little balcony–quiet at all times, lush with greenery, with the round plastic table my mother got me for my birthday. “You’ll see”, she said, “come spring – it will be an extra – and the nicest – room.” She’s a wise Jerusalemite. I’ve sat here, as I do right now, lots of times- with friends in the cool evenings drinking Arak with fresh mint, but most often alone, throughout the days, fingers on keyboard, coffee fuel, focused on writing. The balcony became my writing space, a bubble of inspiration and effort and frustration and satisfied periods at the end of this or that essay, or chapter, or blog. I’ve ‘written’ in various forms for most of my life - but somehow, sometime this past year, rather early on in the fall, the focus on ‘writing’ has changed. I began observing more of how I write – and why I write – and how I can perfect this craft, this art, further. By spring, I had read some great books on writing, including Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ and Michal Chabon’s 'Maps and Legends.’ And also, by spring I had started sitting daily on the balcony, at regular early morning hours, just showing up and doing my damn best to write something and get into the swing of regularity. We all know this, and all writers write about it – the difficult art of just sitting there and committing to the articulation of thoughts in the rigid and fabulous confines of letters, words, punctuation marks. It helped that I had deadlines to meet, and ideas that I wanted to share, and the time (carefully, painfully, carved out) to sit and try – and it helped that I had this peaceful space, this balcony, to help make writing happen.
So of course I want to pack the balcony and take it with me anywhere I go – if only the balcony was as mobile as my laptop! Can I keep up the pace and tempo of writing that I’ve cultivated in Jerusalem and write the same way at my desk back in Manhattan??
Yeah, I know it’s not about the physical balcony. It’s like the story about the Jewish kids who come back from summer camp and refuse to perform Sabbath rituals unless those are conducted by a lake. But the balcony became a symbol – a private – now public – icon of the personal mental place in which I reside as a writer: right there between the innermost private musings and the general public – on the balcony, so to speak, of my life. I want to figure out how to keep ‘sitting on the balcony’ – entering this state of mind, regularly carving out the time and voicing my thoughts in words that enter the public domain, generate conversation. (Why do I need to do that? Well, why do you now read these words? There’s something here about conversation, about dialogue and learning and sharing concepts and symbols and questions that help me make sense of my life and, mysteriously, magically, touch the mind and heart of one, say, you – reading, listening, reacting - moved (hopefully!) in some way to be more present, or attentive, or alive.)
Writing is taken for granted, like walking, like air. But it’s humbling to think of its sacredness, its once-upon-a-time rarity. Texting, like writing, gets the message across, but writing, like slow food, benefits from time and patience. In this week’s Torah tale, Va’etchanan, as Moses reflects on the Sinai years, he delivers several poetic paragraphs that will eventually dominate Jewish liturgy: the S’hma prayer. Within the S’hma is the following instruction to write things down, an instruction aimed at preserving literacy, and ensuring that our multiply exiled people will always have a way to stay grounded:
"And you shall write the words upon the door-posts of your house, and your gates." (Dvarim 6:9)
The ‘words’ mentioned here are these precise words – this very verse. Jewish households to this day are marked on their doorposts with these exact words, written in Hebrew on tiny parchments: in essence, we are nailing the instruction manual of how to be Jewish to our thresholds. (It’s not a bad idea for what to do with instruction manuals. While packing I must have thrown out at least a dozen different manuals, little fold outs of how to assemble and maintain a printer, a water filter, a camera, a phone.)
What strikes me is the insistence on regularity. Say these words daily, see them before you as you enter and exit your home – mark your life with these reminders for better living.
The laptop will be the last to be packed. In a few days I will close it and take a last look around, and kiss the mezuzah on this door, and cross this threshold and say thank you and goodbye little house. But for now, I’m still here, on the balcony, afternoon breeze, still fasting in memory of exiles gone, writing about writing, reminding myself to remember what this has all been about. I’ll pack the words, spoken here, and written, and I’ll inscribe them on the doorpost that leads out to this balcony, and I’ll pack the door handles and the sunsets, and the breeze.