“Don’t scare yourself. Stop terrorizing yourself with your thoughts. It’s a dreadful way to live. Find a mental image that gives you pleasure (mine is yellow roses), and immediately switch your scary thought to a pleasant thought.”
Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank, Meta-Siddur
According to the secular calendar, this coming Monday is the yahrzeit–the anniversary of the death–of Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank, an inspiring teacher with whom I was privileged to study for a short time before his untimely death in a road accident in 1998. (On the Hebrew calendar, the anniversary is on 8 Elul, which this year falls on September first.)
The month of Elul is a special time because it marks the end of a year, leading into the High Holy Days: Rosh HaShanah (the Jewish New Year), Yom Kippur and the other annual milestones that punctuate our autumn. Because David passed from this world early in Elul, I find myself remembering him especially at the time when Jews are called upon to perform a cheshbon hanefesh–a soul inventory–in preparation for this season’s acts of reorientation and healing.
This year, an especially vivid picture has come into my mind: David meditating on a bowl of yellow roses, in the practice described at the beginning of this essay. In Jewish tradition, the scent of roses is associated with the ineffable, the transcendent, the edenic. It is more difficult to imagine a scent than a sight, but somehow this image enables me to do both.
Yet when I look at the page carrying this message, a critical voice often arises in my head. “Yellow roses, humbug!” it says, “that sounds like escapism.” I’ve been struggling with this voice all my life; it seems always to be broadcasting the same message, that while there is suffering in the world, integrity and valor reside in keeping my attention fixed on it until I am absolutely immobilized with terror and pain.
What nonsense! How is suffering alleviated by my alarm and paralysis? How is the world helped by it? In truth, I’ve discovered that when I take David’s advice, switching from manufacturing fear to my personal image of the ineffable (sunlight on water does it for me), I free myself to actually work toward healing the source of dread. This is one reason I honor the transformative energy of artists, transmuting the fear attaching to painful experience into the energy of possibility. Whether offering a glimpse of things as they are or as they might be, the power of creativity conquers all.
I love paging through the Meta-Siddur (“siddur” is prayerbook in Hebrew), one of Reb David’s two masterworks (the other is the Meta-Parshiot 4-volume set, a wildly creative commentary on the parsha–Torah reading–for each week ). Both are available from the online ALEPH ReSources Catalog. The Meta-Siddur features hundreds of creative interpretations of spiritual practices and ideas, snippets of wisdom from many spiritual teachers, practical worksheets and principled statements. My favorite pages are full-sheet versions of simple statements that David evidently felt were worth a full stop for serious consideration. Here’s another one, which begins with a quote from the Buddhist teacher Thikh Nhat Hahn:
“‘On the wooden board outside of the meditation hall in Zen monasteries, there is a four-line inscription. The last line is Don’t Waste Your Life.’ If you look carefully, the same point is written on every page of the Siddur.”
One page in particular gives me the full flavor of David’s personality. Sweet and brave, it makes me laugh out loud:
“Personal Psychological Bill of Rights”
“1) I have the right to move through my emotions at my own tempo.
“2) I have the right to self-appreciation regarding my work-efficiency (even if it doesn’t fit other peoples’ preferences and standards of efficiency).
“3) I have the right to a certain amount of purposeless activity, as long as it is meaningful to me.”
Reb David’s teachings were brought out by several people at the spiritual retreat I attended last week. It makes me happy to see that, eight years on, his wisdom continues to spread. A life cut short, but in no sense wasted.