A short poetry meme
Interfaith Thanksgiving in Austin

The Chernobyler: food for spiritual life

The question was, "How is studying the Chernobyler impacting your spiritual practice?" This is my answer.

Studying the Chernobyler plants seeds in my head and heart. They germinate quickly; I can already feel them sprouting. But these are the kinds of ideas that grow up to be trees. As their roots take hold, who knows how my internal landscape will be transformed? Any text that I live with for a while necessarily impacts my writing, my prayer life, and the internal monologue that runs perennially inside my brain. Here are four teachings from Meor Eynayim that are sinking roots in me:

Since the power of the creator remains in the creature, Torah is to be found in all things and throughout all worlds.

Both clauses in that sentence knock me flat. First, the reminder that  we partake in God's creative power! Every time I say baruch she'amar ("Blessed is the One who speaks worlds into being...") I'm reminded that I too speak worlds into being. The words I use have creative power. I am a reflection of the Holy Blessed One. That’s a powerful meditation all by itself.

But Reb Menahem Nahum doesn't stop there. Because everything that exists reflects a spark of God's holiness, the Chernobyler continues, there is Torah in all things. If I really integrate that awareness into my being, then everything I encounter is subtly changed. The hills where I live are suffused with holiness. The animals I greet at the CSA where we belong are themselves a kind of Torah. The holy Torah of our texts and the lived Torah of embodied experience are facets of the Torah of creation. There's poetry in the Chernobyler's assertion that all the worlds, all the levels, every realm of existence came into being in some mystical way through the 22 letters of Torah. And creation wasn't just a onetime thing; everything is perpetually sustained and enlivened by emanations from on high.

Since it is the Torah in all things that gives them life, it behooves us not to look at their external nature, but rather at their inner selves.

This too is a mantra I carry with me. In every interpersonal interaction, I try to be awake not only to the text of the conversation but also to the subtext: what's really going on, beneath and behind the words we say? The Chernobyler calls me to be awake in an even subtler way: not only to the emotional realities of my interactions, but also to the hidden nature of each person and each thing, which is a nature of holiness. It's that inner spark that really matters.

You struggle and find the light that God has hidden in His Torah, a light not revealed except through struggle. After a person has truly worked at such searching, it comes to be called his (her) Torah.

Over the summer, my teacher Reb Elliot Ginsburg counseled us to choose a brief teaching, copy it, and carry it in purse or wallet or pocket, to see how the teaching changes (and how it changes one) when it is carried with one. I've copied this particular teaching twice, once into my commonplace book and once onto an index card that I slipped into my briefcase. It resonates for me on so many levels. Sometimes I feel I'm struggling with the pshat (surface level) of Torah, trying to find the light of understanding and insight when a passage is linguistically or emotionally challenging for me. Sometimes I find that when I write about a piece of Torah (broadly-defined) or teach it to someone, it becomes "mine" in a new way. Isn't this our life's work -- searching for the light that is hidden in the text of human experience, the text of creation?

That is the service of the tzaddik: to bring that flow of goodness into the world.

The Chernobyler teaches that a tzaddik (righteous person) serves God by going into the places where darkness is. In so doing, she mitigates the harshness of divine judgment -- not by changing a divine decree, whatever it might be, but by walking with God and thereby making holiness manifest in the world. The tzaddik's service lies in being present to what is, even when what is is painful. Being awake to what is, sweetens what is.

This teaching challenges me, as chaplaincy work challenged me, first to be aware of my intrinsic goodness, to know that I can be tzaddik despite my flaws. Second, to be a conduit for the influx of shefa (holy abundance) into creation through my willingness to be present to what is, instead of succumbing to the temptation to look away or to pursue a facile, "feel-good" solution to suffering. And third, to accept that mindful presence itself sweetens creation. I don't have to "do" anything; the Chernobyler is calling me to be.

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