Normally, I start out a “meditation” with some sort of meaningful or inspirational quote, usually from Chabad.org, but I’ve got other things on my mind. Most of you know that I recently attended the First Fruits of Zion 2012 Shavuot Conference, hosted by Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, Wisconsin. After five wonderful, exhausting days, I’m back home in Idaho. I’m really tired, even after sleeping all night, but I need to start writing about all this.
Blogging is inherently lonely. I know it might not seem that way, since in theory, I’m talking to anyone who has Internet access, but the reality of blogging is that I’m sitting at a computer keyboard alone and writing to myself. Ultimately, when I post this online, it’s available to anyone and everyone, but from my point of view, it’s like being a man who is stranded on a small, desert island, writing a note, putting it in a bottle, and then throwing it into the ocean. The tide takes it out and I’ll probably never see it again or know what happens to it. Will the cork work loose and pop out, letting water in and sinking my bottle? Will just enough water get in and ruin the message so that even if someone finds the bottle, they’ll never be able to read the note inside? Or will the bottle just float and float, carried here and there by nameless, unknown currents, bobbing around the seas, lost to time and man forever and ever?
Who knows, but that’s how I feel. Even if someone responds to a blog post, they are far away and faceless, an identity I can communicate with but never really know. An almost anonymous cardboard cut out, but never a living, breathing flesh-and-blood human being.
There’s a long story about everything that happened up to the point when I entered Beth Immanuel for the first time last Thursday afternoon, but I won’t tell that tale right now. Jeremiah, my ride from the motel to the conference on the first day, dropped me off and then was called away. I walked into the congregation building (which is a very beautiful and richly textured synagogue) and didn’t get two steps inside before someone said (I can’t remember the exact wording), “You’re Jim Pyles. I love your blog.” (Hi, Michele)
Needless to say, I was stunned.
I really didn’t expect to get any attention relative to this blog. I figured that I’d meet one or two people I know through Facebook but otherwise I’d be pretty much anonymous. That never happened.
Please don’t think I’m saying this to blow my own horn, but probably fifteen people or so came up to me during the conference, recognizing me on sight, and saying something complementary about my blog. Daniel Lancaster publicly introduced all of the staff of FFOZ the first evening of the conference, asking each person to stand up when their name was called. I didn’t think much of it until he called my name.
It probably didn’t help that I agreed be a presenter at Tikkun Leil Shavuos Saturday night (Sunday morning at about 2, actually).
Why am I telling you all this? It’s what happens when someone finds the bottle, reads the message, and comes to rescue you with a boat. It’s what happens when you get on the boat and you realize that a lot of people read the message and because of that, they feel like they know you and they want to get to know you better. It’s when you feel disconnected and alone on a desert island and then the island fills up with people who all know your name and story and all of them want you to know them, too. They tell you their stories and somehow your story and their stories interact, weave, and blend into each other to create a different, larger story about people who come from radically different places and yet all have something in common. To use a “star trek-ism”, it’s infinite diversity coming together to form an infinite combination.
Disconnection becomes connection.
And then it’s over.
Anyone who’s been to a conference like this knows that you are put through a whirlwind of events, worship services, presentations, meals, discussions, and fellowship. Suddenly, you’re back in your motel room asleep and then the next thing you know, it’s another morning and you’re praying shacharit with the congregation again. What seems like a days long stream of activities compresses into a few minutes, and once they blur by, you’re on a plane in the middle of the night, fighting the urge to try to sleep in an extremely uncomfortable seat while wedged between two people, flying back home.
I actually started to feel this loneliness the evening of the first full day of the conference. Some “vision” of the end presented itself to me during one of the presentations and I felt compelled to write notes for this particular blog post. I can’t find the notes but I still feel the separation and disconnection. I suppose that’s to be expected. After one of these events when you make or re-make so many connections so quickly, you almost always feel a sense of profound loss when it’s over. I remember thinking at one point that I could happily settle down into the community at Beth Immanuel and spend the rest of my life in worship there.
Of course, that will never happen for more reasons than I have time to recount in this missive.
Since I didn’t have a car, Jeremiah Detwiler picked me up from the airport (thanks for all your help, Jeremiah), and during the first night, I met a fellow named Dave who was staying at the same motel, so he agreed to ferry me back and forth (thanks, Dave). Dave and I met in the motel lobby on Friday morning after breakfast and drove back to Beth Immanuel. We got there a little early and sat in the sanctuary. After a few minutes, I heard the faint sound of Hebrew prayers and followed it into the library (the library by the way, is to die for). In a small room above the library, a group of men had gathered together for shacharit before the public ceremonies began.
I remember standing directly under the room and being filled with…something, an emotion, just listening to the prayers, and I found myself floating on the surface of the rhythm of the words, letting myself be carried off to sea. I’m terrible at languages and on my best day in life, I’ll never be able to learn Hebrew, but for some reason I can’t explain, Hebrew prayer just calls to me. However, it would have been too embarrassing to actually try to participate in the prayers with them, and since I’m not Jewish, I’ve promised myself I won’t put on a tallit again for that, and more reasons than I have time to recount here. But I couldn’t help myself when I followed the sound of the prayers from the sanctuary to the library and then I just stood in awe and wonder and longing, and I listened.
The prayers ended and I quickly returned to my seat in the sanctuary, but those precious moments when I was listening to the men praying are one of the highlights of my entire experience at the conference. I really do miss the prayers and while they resonate in some mysterious way with my soul, they also remind me that I can only be who I am and that there is a world I will always orbit but never truly arrive upon. My bird has no legs, so I must forever be suspended alone in flight.
And so I’m disconnected again, but it’s even worse than that.
It’s not simply that I’m restored to my previous state. If that’s all it was, I would eventually return to my “normal life” and that would be the end of it. After all, there’s always next year and I can attend the 2013 conference if I want to.
But it’s not just that.
I brought something back with me from the conference. Yes, I brought books back, and materials back, and memories back, but that’s not what changed things for me, not really. I also brought back questions about purpose, identity, and mission. I’m wondering about goals, and process, and destination. In the days ahead, I’m going to write about what I brought back, some of which is vast in scope and some that touches on just a few tiny details.
In many ways, blogging is futile. While I know now that I’ve touched a lot of people just by writing, I also realize that in a much grander scope, it doesn’t really matter. I can only touch people who choose to read this blog and even then, only those people who choose to be touched. And as a said before, there are severe limitations to the (dis)connections I can make in a virtual universe when, after all, both God and man exist and talk in the real one.
It’s like something really strange happened to the man rescued from the desert island and to all the people who welcomed him on their boat. Instead of going away from the island and letting himself go back to their land with them, the man ate with those people, and talked with those people, and shared experiences with those people for four or five days, and at the end of that time, he got off the boat and went back to the island. The people turned their boat around and went back where they came from. And again, they are isolated from him and he is isolated from them. From disconnection to connection to disconnection.
But he carried away their notes with him and he’s reading them. And he can’t just send out messages in a bottle anymore. And he doesn’t know what to do instead. So he reads. And he thinks. And he prays. And he waits.
And he still writes messages and sends them off upon the currents of the sea every morning as the sun rises because he doesn’t know what else to do.
Maybe one day, God will reach onto the surface of the deep and find one of those messages and read it.
And maybe one day, God will be the one to come to the island and talk to the man.
And then, He’ll tell the man how to leave the island without a boat, even if he has to walk.
And he’ll go to a place where he’ll find someone new to talk to.
I want to thank Dave, and Jeremiah, and Michele, and Karen, and Jim, and Mel, and Jacob, and Jacob, and Michael, and Bill, and Cliff, and lots and lots and lots of other people for talking to me and spending time with me and sharing your lives with me. If I didn’t mention your name, it’s because my memory leaks and sometimes certain details go away. It’s nothing personal, my brain is just getting older.
I also want to thank the leaders and congregation at Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship for hosting the conference and for allowing me to participate in your community. I also want to thank everyone at First Fruits of Zion for creating and producing an absolutely amazing conference that not only informed but illuminated human beings. I now have a lot of new mysteries to experience and anguish over (but in a good way). I want to thank Aaron who I’ve never met before and Daniel who I have, as well as Toby, even though he thought I was a different person at first, and Shayna who kept the entire event under control. I want to thank Nick and Jordan who I never met before and who are two of the most amazing young people it has ever been my privilege to encounter, and Jacob who is an amazing young person who I have (virtually) encountered before.
Most of all, I want to thank Boaz Michael who I have met before but who I never got to know so well as I did over the past five days or so. It’s fairly common to encounter Boaz’s thoughts but I am blessed to have experienced his heart, and his passion, and his desire to please God and to serve not only the Jewish community, but the body of all believers in the Jewish Messiah, no matter who they are or where they may be found.
I’m sitting in a chair in front of a computer on a desert island on a Tuesday afternoon as I write this. I have no idea what’s going to happen next as I listen to the waves softly washing up to the sandy shore and hear the wind rustle the palm fronds above my head. But as I experience the loss of connection and settle back into my solitary niche, I proceed hopefully.