When I first moved to Boulder, Colorado, during a midday chai tea break at Starbucks, I sat across from a man who informed me he was talking to aliens on his cell phone. Not long ago, on a flight home from Connecticut, I sat by a young man who convinced me that I had met the that alien. He introduced himself as Justin. Shortly after Justin sat down, he put on a headset that blasted what must have been some freakin' jammin' music. He bounced up and down in his seat so intensely that I couldn't type on my computer. My hands literally flew off the keyboard. At times Justin's hands punched invisible enemies above him; at other times, his fists flew into his body, covered his face, made patterns that danced in harmony with each other, sliced through the air, or made gestures that seemed to ask “why?”, to convey heartbreak and love.
Halfway through the flight he pulled his stocking cap halfway down his face, covering his eyes, and let loose with a variety of dances that rivaled shamans, making me fearful he'd bring down one heck of a storm through which we'd have to fly. When it comes to people, I'm absolutely a voyeur. My favorite genre is memoir because I'm incredibly nosy. I eavesdrop any chance I get. I stare at people if I think they aren't looking. Fortunately for me, the guy next to me was oblivious. In my defense, I'm not judgmental, at least by my definition. While the diversity in nature takes my breath away, the various stories and lives and behavior of human beings fascinate me. Weird people exist, just like lizards (my favorite creature) exist, and cats (I have no idea for what purpose they evolved, in the same way that I don't understand flies) and snow (I'd sleep in it if it wasn't cold). I don't think odd people should be different than they are. In fact, I can't imagine my life without them. As I watched this young man for the entire duration of my nearly three-hour flight, though, I felt a little envious of him. I had just left a conference where I had spent many hours each day in the ultimate of vibrant prayer and study with other rabbinical students, rabbis, cantors, and other Jewish leaders.
Every minute filled me to overflowing with exhilarating joy, and when it was over, I was spent. Emotionally drained, but in a good way. I had, however, been quickly brought down by the current realities of difficult situations in my life. Now I sat by a young man who obviously didn't need any other individual or a particularly vibrant week of spiritual immersion to groove to the music. During the last fifteen minutes of our flight, Justin took off his headsets and began to talk to me. The eighteen years of his life had been rough. He had no relationship with the person he referred to as his “biological dad”, and he'd grown up watching his stepdad abuse his mother then, when Justin was eleven, the man who raised him disappeared. Justin's trade was masonry, he told me, and he was moving to Colorado because he had been offered a job in his field, and because his girlfriend lived there.
His arrival would be a surprise for her – hopefully a good one, he said. One day Justin wanted their children to know he had spent all of his money to fly from Connecticut to Colorado to ask their mother to marry him. I realized that whatever music he'd been listening to was irrelevant. The music was all inside him. Walking off the plane that day, I took with me a valuable lesson. The most beautiful music can only be truly heard if it's playing within. Majestic vistas leave only fleeting memories if you don't have Divine expansiveness in your kishkes. Vibrant, joyful communal prayer can only be assimilated if your heart is an empty receptacle.
Unskilled performers and lifeless prayer services and unkind words exist, and they certainly can dampen our enthusiasm, just as the unexpected leap of a graceful deer across your back yard, a particularly magnificent sunset, or a beautifully sung prayer with which you connect can inspire a deep connection with God. The former, however, isn't entirely empty if you're full, and the latter isn't entirely full if you're empty. Creating that space requires consistency and patience and openness. Each morning I wrap myself in my tallit, pull out my guitar, face the forest that cascades down the mountain in my yard, and open my siddur (prayer book) and my heart. The moment I feel the intensity of the Divine Presence, I remain there, as my rebbe, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of the rabbinical program of which I'm a part, has taught me. I grab onto it and locate that place in my neshama and in my physical body so that I can re-member – bring it back into motion – at any point during the day when I need it, again, as Reb Zalman has taught us. I may sing my prayers, but the music has to be inside me.
Meri Blye Kramer is an award-winning author of two books and more than 100 articles. Enrolled through ALEPH, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, she is currently studying to receive smicha (ordination) as a rabbi. Website: www.MeriBlyeKramer.com.