Knitting Lace

Recently, I realized that my knitting was becoming somewhat routinized. I’ve been knitting the same patterns (mainly socks) over and over. Don’t get me wrong. I love knitting socks, I love having socks I knit. But I’m getting a touch stale. There is a lack of challenge in socks. It’s not like…lace.

Lace is a challenge. Lace is an adventure. Lace is something, that when you screw it up, you have to rip it all the way back to the beginning (or, if you are very clever and put in a lifeline, to your last lifeline). Lace is intricate and complex and detailed work. To do lace, you need to concentrate. So I said to myself, “let’s do some lace.”

I cast on my 56 stitches for 3 repeats of the pattern (18 stitch repeat with 2 stitches at the end). It’s not a particularly complext pattern, just 12 pattern rows (which you then repeat until the scarf is the desired length). I got through my first set of 12 rows, and realized that instead of the predicted 6 inches wide scarf, mine was closer to 12. Now, this isn’t a terrible problem, but it is wider than I wanted the scarf to be. So I ripped the whole thing out, and cast on 38 stitches (2 repeats of the 18 stitch pattern plus 2 stitches at the end).

That’s when the trouble began. I got six rows in, and realized I had the wrong number of stitches. Out came the needle and I rip out the six rows.I cast on again. Four rows in, one of my repeats of 18 stitches is 20 stitches long. Pull out the needle, rip out the knitting. Cast on again. Two rows in, and my stitch count is wrong. Rip it out again.

Tonight, after letting it lie fallow for about a week, I cast on again (after discovering I had to rip out, again). I’ve gotten through the first 12 rows, and so far so good. I’ve made an adjustment: I’ve added stitch markers every 9 stitches to keep track of my place in the pattern. It makes it easier to catch mistakes before I get too far. As I say, so far so good.

This would be the point when I would normally insert a photo, but my camera batteries are currently charging, so while I could insert a photo from my walk to work this morning (of flowers, not of lace), I don’t think the picture would illustrate any of my points particularly. While a picture may be worth a thousand words, a thousand off topic words in a 600 word post seems like a bad idea.

David’s rules for knitting lace:

  • Never knit lace after any alcohol.Trust me, when you pick up again the next day, the stitch count won’t be right.
  • Lace knitting is not for meetings; you have to concentrate too much (or at least I do) to be able to fully pay attention to the meeting.
  • Don’t knit lace while tired. See above under “alcohol.”
  • Put in lifelines frequently (a piece of yarn threaded through the stitches of a row which lets you safetly rip back to that point). OK…so far I’m failing this one.
  • Be committed to the process not the finished product (be prepared to rip out a lot, and be okay with that).

I’ll point out that these rules for knitting lace are all lovely, but I do much of my knitting during meetings. Often I knit when I’m too tired to do other work. Occasionally I like to knit while sipping a glass of wine. And I’ve never quite gotten good about putting in lifelines. Nut I’m quite skilled at ripping out my knitting.

Sparks of Love, Sparks of Holiness

I performed a wedding yesterday. Nothing especially odd about that–I perform 7 – 12 weddings a year. What made this one notable (for me…they are all notable for the couples involved) was the intensity of the interaction between the couple underneath the huppah (Jewish wedding canopy).

The bride and the groom were completely focused on each other throughout the ceremony. This may seem commonplace, but in my experience, it’s far more common for the the couple’s attention to be fairly diffuse during a wedding ceremony. A little bit on me, a little bit on the guests, a little bit on each other. In fact, I routinely have to remind the bride and groom to look at each other rather than to look at me, while they are repeating their vows to each other. Not this time. The groom and bride were intensely focused on one another. It was as though sparks of love were flying between them throughout the ceremony. It was as though their love was powerful enough that it was a presence in and of itself. And in my line of work, we often call that presence “God.”

I’ve experienced this under the huppah before. It hasn’t happened often, but it has happened. Yet this time it took me completely by surprise. In all the other cases, I’ve known the couple had this connection going into the ceremony, and expected that focus. This time, it came at me from out of the blue. Most often, couples who experience this love focus on one another under the huppah have a deeply spiritual component to their relationship…and that tends to come out in our conversations. It doesn’t mean they love each other more than other couples I marry, but it tends to mean that they conceptualize the relationship in spiritual terms, often regarding the relationship as possesing salvific power. During our conversations, yesterday’s couple never talked about their relationship in that way, and I’m not sure that they consciously regard their relationship that way. Yet under the huppah yesterday, the intensity of their connection was electric.

I love doing weddings. To paraphrase, even when it’s bad, it’s good. Weddings are feel good events. Sometimes I feel like it didn’t go quite as well as I might have liked (rarely), but I almost always feel like I’ve been a part of a powerful experience for the couple and their family and friends.  It’s a part of why I became a rabbi: to help create meaningful ceremonies for people at critical moments in their lives. I strive to make every wedding a mean ingful and spiritual experience for the couple. Rarely, however, is it a spiritual experience for me (which is as it should be). Yesterday was a deeply spiritual experience for me, as I bore witness to their love.  Sometimes, when we expect it least, the Divine shows up and reminds us what really matters.

Things We Remember

I was struck this morning by the way the human mind (or at least mine) remembers things. There are things I struggle to memorize, to cram into my brain. Then there are pieces of useful information that just lodge there. Some examples:

It took me a great deal of memorization to stuff the second person feminine plural imperfect endings in Hebrew into my brain (they are not usually used and are basically an archaism). However, ask me where the $4, #6, #8, #10, #12, #14, #15, #17,  #19, #20,  # 70, #75, #77 bus routes in Portland run, and I can outline them pretty well.

What is the schema of Oregon license plate numbers? That I know. What is Eva’s Social Security number? Not a clue.

There are texts I can quote at length, despite not having read them in years. There are things I read last night that I can’t even remember the main idea from.

How does memory work? Why does it retain certain things and not others? And why does it seem to retain less and less as I get older?

Reading Tomer D'vorah

As I previously mentioned, I am reading spriritual texts during each day of the omer. In particular, I’ve been reading a lot of Tomer D’vorah by Moses Cordovero. He is a mystic and a teacher of Mussar (albeit a few hundred years before the “Mussar Movement” came into being). As a result, I’m going in a direction I almost never travel in this blog: the theological. I should also give a “shout out” to Bram, who tweeted and asked me to share some of what I’m studying in the blog. So Bram, this one’s for you.

His basic thesis (at least as far as I’ve gotten), is that we live appropriately when we live in imitation of the Divine. That is, as God is forgiving, we should be forgiving; As God does not hold onto anger, neither should we (he is working off of a definition of God found in Micah 7:18 – 20).

I love the idea of imatatio Dei as an ethical basis on a number of levels. It serves us well in terms of thinking of ourselves as “God’s actors in this world” (which is the direction my theology tends to flow). It also connects nicely with a mystical mindview that sees any division between ourselves and the Divine as illusory. Finally, it takes Kant’s categorical imperative to a not necessary logical extreme*.

To the degree that we think of ourselves as God’s hands in this world, the idea that we act in imitation of God is almost tautological. For if God’s actions in this world are manifested only through our own actions, than our actions necessarily are related to Divine action (though not necessarily imitative). Rather, our actions may be almost definitional of Divine action, at least when we are at our very best.

When we adopt the mystical worldview, seeing ourselves and everything else which exists as part of a whole which we refer to as God, the case does not get any simpler. Rather, the question of us acting in imitation of God because even more complex. If we are a part of Divinity and act in imitation of Divinity, it is as though we are saying that our little finger may act in imitation of our entire body: I’m not sure it has any real meaning. We act, and by so doing, represent Divine action in the world (actually, the more I think about this, the less sure I am that it has any practical difference from the first case above).

Finally, looking at this from a Kantian lens (which is probably a terrible idea, because I never fully understood the Categorical Imperative, a fact which my college girlfriend who went on to get a PhD in Ethics bemoaned regularly) we find that ethical action is being defined as those actions which are generalizable not just to humans, but even to the Divine. While this is not (I’m pretty sure) where Kant went with this idea, it is a curious direction to go nonetheless. It raises the question of whether the same rules apply above and below (to use the mystical terms for the distinctions between the human realm and the divine realm), and suggests that the same rules do, in fact, apply. I’m not sure what that teaches us, except I’m pretty sure I don’t feel like it’s a useful direction to go, unless we are positing a God who is a product of humanity, rather than in some sense superior to humanity or having existence outside of humanity.

As I run through these ideas, I realize I’m clarifying my thinking a little, but not getting anywhere particularly new or useful. I guess it seems more like theological masturbation than anything else. Nonetheless, I believe that the value of what I teach lies more in what people hear than in what I say, and perhaps someone will read in my words something of use to them.

*Kant’s categorical imperitive, as I understand it, says that for an action to be ethical it needs to be universalizable. That is, if an action is ethical it must be ethical not just for me to undertake that action but for everyone to undertake that action.

The Omer: Making It Count

Between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot, Jews traditionally count out the 49 days between. This period of time is called “the Omer.” Over the course of time, people have created various different counting calendars (much like Advent calendars). People have also used the counting as a way to add some practice to their lives, be it text study, or attempting some sort of “self-improvement project.”

Some years I’ve used the time to become more committed to blogging. Other years, I’ve tried to meditate more regularly during the Omer. This year, I’m thinking of trying to study some Jewish or spiritual text each day of the Omer.

Text study is, for Jews, a form of spiritual practice. For me, it is about reading the text and trying to understand two things:

  1. What did the author intend?
  2. What does the text mean to me?

Sometimes these two meanings are similar. Sometimes I find a personal meaning in the text that the author could not have intended, but makes the text deeply influential in my life. Sometimes the process of text study is more about decyphering Hebrew, and sometimes it’s more about re-interpreting an outdated text.

What texts will I be studying? I don’t fully know yet. I know I’d like to do some more reading in Psalms. But I think I’d also like to spend some time on later texts, probably either Mussar or Maimonides Mishne Torah. I’m sure I’ll wind up doing a wide variety of other texts as well. Maybe some Kabbalah or other Jewish mystical texts (Rav Kook?).

For me, the opportunity to spend some time studying Jewish spiritual texts is an opportunity to examine myself, how I am leading my life, and what matters to me. It is also a chance for me to stimulate my brain which will likely leak into increased creativity in other areas of my life.

What impact will this have on this blog? Probably there will be more frequent posts connected to the texts I’m reading. When I’m thinking about something, it has a way of finding expression here, so it’s likely that you’ll be getting a bit more Jewish content over the next 7 weeks.

For those of you counting the omer, I invite you to think about whether there is a habit you would like to inculcate in yourself over this period of time. If so, go ahead and give it a shot.

The Passover Story: Release from Constraint

The Jewish holiday of Passover begins tomorrow night (Wednesday, April 8th) at sunset. It celebrates the Israelites’ going free from Egyptian bondage, and is one of the most important holidays of the Jewish year. Yet there is another layer of meaning in the exodus from Egypt, that is apparent when one looks at the Hebrew. “Egypt”, in Hebrew, is mitzrayim, which comes from the root meaning “narrow” (presumably because Egypt was a long narrow country settled around the  Nile river). Yet from this same root, comes another word tzarot, or the more familiar Yiddish, tzurres, meaning “troubles.” The idea is that when one is that troubles constrain one in narrow places. When one comes out of troubled times, one is released from the tightness.

There is a long tradition in Judaism of looking at the going forth from Egypt (mitzrayim) as symbolic of coming out of troubles. It is a metaphor that has been often used around depression and other emotional troubles. It has also been used to symbolize economically hard times. For all of these, Passover serves as a reminder that there is the hope of release from bondage, whatever form that bondage takes for us.

This year, many of us are very aware of the economic contraints we find ourselves in. Others are dealing with sadness from family situations. All in all, there are a lot of us who are feeling beset by our problems at the moment. We struggle with worries about what the future will bring, and sadness over opportunities lost.

Passover is the opportunity for us to assert that redemption from our problems is possible. Coming in the spring, it is a holiday of rebirth, reminding us that even though we may feel trapped at the instant, new life is beginning, new opportunities constantly presenting themselves. Whether we find the message of a Divine force who liberates us from our troubles comforting or whether we see that as a fairytale we cannot believe in, the holiday itself celebrates the ability for humans to overcome obstacles. Whether we view God or Moses as the liberator, we can celebrate liberation.

For me, this year in particular, Passover serves as a reminder that troubles are surmountable. For me it is a reminder that we are able to overcome obstacles and barriers. That there are forces in the universe which help us accomplish things we believe we cannot do. I call those forces God. Others refer to those forces as “luck”, or “friends”, or “the universe.” The words we use do not so much matter as does the fact that we acknowledge that sometimes life is too challenging for us to fix by ourselves, yet solutions may appear when we most need them.

May this Passover  season be one of rebirth of hope and of freedom. May we all go from bondage to liberation, and help others to make the same journey. The Israelites did not leave Egypt as individuals, but as a mixed multitude 600,000 strong. Together, let us all go forth.