Sunday, September 15, 2013

Around Town: Unafraid thoughts for the new year

Despite the virtually unlivable traffic conditions on the west side of Los Angeles, most Westside Angelenos posit that their neighborhoods are the best in the county.

This regional chauvinism cuts across all demographics and ethnicities. I once heard a Westside rabbi invoke traffic as a metaphor for the transition between the sacred and the ordinary. On one side, she said, there is the world, with stress, impatience and honking horns. Each week, she rushes to get ready for the Sabbath. She fears that the traffic will make her late. Then the sun sets. She arrives on time. She takes a breath.

As the rabbi described this process, the Westsiders all nodded in agreement. All I could think about was how empty the streets are at night in La Cañada Flintridge.

It is good to make time to step back.

Today is the first day of the Jewish New Year. The holiday is called Rosh Hashana. It began at sundown on Wednesday and ends at sundown on Friday.

The holiday means different things to different people. Some Jewish people go to services once a year, during this holiday. For others, the holiday is part, albeit an important part, of a pattern of daily, weekly and yearly observance. This is the time of year when attendance swells, when teenagers socialize and when families gather together.

Once again, we begin the holiday with violence in the Middle East, with differences of opinion that cut across party lines. Sen. John McCain, a veteran and former POW, is in favor of intervention in Syria. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a veteran and double amputee, is not.

Duckworth's point is that we need to take care of our service members and veterans who have suffered during this long war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the longest war in our nation's history.

In the midst of this came the unexpected death of Irish poet Seamus Heaney, a Nobel laureate who also asked these questions.
Nearly 20 years ago, in his poem “A Dog Was Crying Tonight in Wicklow Also,” Heaney wrote how a dog was entrusted by human beings with a message for the African god Chukwu. The dog's job was to tell the deity that death should be reversible:

When human beings found out about death

They sent the dog to Chukwu with a message:

They wanted to be let back to the house of life.

They didn't want to end up lost forever....

Death would be like a night spent in a wood

At first light, they'd be back in the house of life

But Heaney's dog forgets to deliver the message. The deity sets up the opposite system.

At his funeral, Seamus Heaney's son related his father's last words. They were “noli timere,” Latin for do not be afraid.

Heaney's words resonate with the Rosh Hashana tradition. This week, some of us will sing “Kol ha-o-lam ku-lo gesher tzar me'od.” The words are attributed to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810). The English translation is: “the whole world is a narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid.”,0,2645261.story

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