Saturday, May 27, 2017

Upstream 7: The River, Twice (Outside Kernave, Neris River, Tuesday, May 23)

I woke up thinking it was 6:30 or 7:00 am, as the sunlight was strong even through the tent walls and the birds were singing gustily.  Then I looked at my watch and saw that it was 4:15!  Come late spring/summer, there is not much darkness in this northern land.  It was hard to go back to sleep, because somewhere just outside, a cuckoo was calling, with brain-hammering volume and constancy. I did not see it, and I know practically nothing about bird calls, but this one was unmistakable, just like the clock: "Cuu-ckoo, cuu-ckoo!"  I also gained some insight into why we use the term "cuckoo" as slang for insanity--the incessant repetition of this call can be a little maddening.  At any rate, I eventually fell back asleep until 8:15, despite the cuckoo and the light.

We eat and pack, then paddle for a couple of hours, until we break for lunch on an island around 1:30. Rosa and I are working well together as a team, and so far, the weather has been lovely--blue skies, temperatures in the mid-60s. The breeze can be stiff, especially when it's blowing upstream in our faces, but we are making good progress.  Tomorrow the forecast calls for rain, but we shall see.

Before we set out in the morning, I sound the shofar.  I plan to start each day, except Shabbat, this way.  I think of the Partisan's Song, written in the Vilna Ghetto, which ends with "Mir zaynen daw--We are here!"  I want to honor those who were here with the shofar's call, which, for me, echoes that same message: "Hinenu--We are here!"  We are here, still, the descendants of both those who left before the war and the tiny remnant who stayed and survived.  The Jewish people endure.  It is a call of defiance in the face of destruction, a trumpeting of pride.

The pattern of shofar calls echoes this message.  We begin with tekiah--a whole, unbroken blast. Once, it reminds us, we were whole.  Then shevarim and teruah--three short, then nine even shorter staccato bursts.  The sound of brokenness.  But we end with tekiah again--the promise of wholeness restored. And so, the shofar teaches us, we move through this life, from wholeness to brokenness and back, we hope, toward the promise of wholeness restored.  Of course in this world, that restoration is never in full.  The immense horror of the Shoah cannot be redeemed.  But we who are blessed to be here, now, must do our part to work toward renewal.  Once there was a wholeness to Jewish life here in Lithuania.  It was hard and poor, but also filled with the beauty of learning, of Torah and tradition and Enlightenment and activism and revolution, too.  Now only tiny sparks and shards of that life remain.   I hope to collect some of those as an act of tikkun during my time here.

Finally, as I daven this morning in my tallit and tefillin---another practice I am committed to daily during my time here--two phrases from the liturgy leap out at me.  I've uttered them hundreds of times, but the context here gives them new meaning and emphasis, which is part of the beauty of prayer. The first is the blessing thanking God for making me a Jew--Baruch atah Adonai. . . Sh'asani Yisrael.  I try to imagine saying this when the words were, effectively, a death sentence. How to praise God for making one a Jew (or, as my ancestors would have said, using the traditional negative formulation, for not making them non-Jews), when Jews were being rounded up for execution?  I, who am blessed to live in happier and easier times, want to affirm those words.  

And second, from Ahavah Rabbah, the blessing just before the recital of Shema.  We ask God to have mercy on us. . . ba'avor avotayanu v'imotaynu, sh'batchu v'chah va-t'lamdem chukay chaim--for the sake of our ancestors, who trusted in You, so you taught them the laws of life.   What a statement to make here, in the shadow of the killing grounds!  Our ancestors trusted in You--and you taught them the laws of life.  Not the laws of Torah, the mitzvot, that some of them studied so ardently.  The laws of life, good and bad.  What to make of those countless Litvaks who put their faith in God  and learned these laws of life: brutality, torture, death?  What about the other laws of life--kindness, cooperation, compassion, blessing, justice and the like?  Perhaps God leaves it up to us to teach and embody these to one another.  Does the Holy One call us to meet this challenge--and does God lament when, so often, we fail to do so?  Can we trust enough, with full awareness of history's ravages,  to merit blessing?



After lunch, we stopped at a very long staircase leading up from the river bank into thick forest.  We pulled over, tied up the boat, and climbed the 200+ stairs to Neris Regional Park, where we hiked for about for 30 minutes, through dense, fragrant, wind-rustled pines  Then we paddle a few more hours, until 8:00 pm.  This is a bit too long for our first day on the river.  We're exhausted, but keep going because we have such a tough time finding a decent campsite.  Finally, as the evening sun sinks toward the horizon and we grow ever more eager to call it a day, we settle for a rather overgrown spot.  It's buggy and not so scenic, but very welcome, thank you.  We have macaroni and cheese for dinner and I do my best, with almost no cell phone coverage, to text my daughter, Rachel, a happy 17th birthday!  I'm so proud of her, and missing her on this big day!


Heraclitus famously taught: "You can't step in the same river twice."  He was the pre-Socratic philosopher of flux, and of course he's right.  The river is, by definition, always changing.  And so are we, along with the rocks and trees, wind and weather.  So not only is it never the same river, it's not the same "you" either.  

I'm acutely aware of this here in the Old Country, as I return to places where my ancestors lived over a century ago.  In a real sense, Thomas Wolfe was right--you can't go home again.  Lithuania is not Lita--not the same place it was for Yehuda Tzvi and Feige Rivke Finkelstein, or for those who were murdered in these forests.  Much has changed, for better and for worse.   Endless water has passed under the bridges and streets.  Still, it feels significant to stand in this river, even if neither I nor it can ever be the same.  I am grateful, beyond words, to be here--in every sense.  Grateful to be here, alive, on this earth, at this moment, beyond all odds, precisely because my family left Kovno when they did.  And grateful, too, to be here, on this very place of water and stone and soil, on the Neris, moving from Vilnius to Kaunas--Vilna to Kovno--with my beloved daughter, Rosa.

I am grateful to be here.  

To learn.

To live.

To grow.

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