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 growing strong outside and the birds were singing with such gusto.  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 a cuckoo was calling so loudly and constantly.  I did not see it, nor am I an expert of any sort on bird calls, but this one was easy, as the bird speaks its name so unmistakably: "Cuckoo, cuckoo!"  I also gained some understanding as to why we use the term "cuckoo" to indicate craziness--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 paddled for a couple of hours, had 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 is blowing upstream right at us, but we are making good progress.  Tomorrow the forecast calls for rain, but we shall see.

Before we set out in the morning, I sounded 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 those who left before the war and those who survived.  The Jewish people.  It is a call of defiance in the face of destruction.  It is a trumpeting of pride.

The pattern of shofar calls reinforce this.  We begin with tekiah--a whole, unbroken blast.  One, it says, we were whole.  Then shevarim and teruah--three shorter and then nine even shorter staccato blasts.  The sound of brokenness.  But we end with tekiah again--the promise of wholeness restored. And so we move, with the shofar calls, and in 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 wholeness.  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 revolution, too.  Now there are tiny sparks and shards of that life.   I hope to collect some of those as my tikkun during my time here.

Finally, as I davvened this morning in my tallit and tefillin---another practice I am committed to daily during my time here--two phrases from the liturgy jumped out at me.  I've uttered them hundreds of times, but the context here gave them new meaning and emphasis, which is part of the beauty of prayer. The first was the blessing thanking God for making me a Jew--Baruch atah. . . Sh'asani Yisrael.  I try to imagine saying this when the words were, effectily, a death sentence.  How to praise God for making one a Jew (or, as my ancestors would have said, using the traditional 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 second blessing before the recital of the Shema.  We ask God to have mercy on us, " Ba'avor avotayanu 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 our history!  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 who put their faith in God here and learned these "laws of life": brutality, torture, death?  What about the other laws of life--kindness, cooperation, compassion, blessing, justice?  Perhaps God leaves it up to us to be the teachers of these to one another, calling us to rise to the challenge and lamenting when, so often, we do not?  Can we trust enough, even knowing the ravages of history, to merit blessing?



After lunch, we made a stop at a very long staircase leading up from the river banks to a park.  We pulled over, tied the boat up, and climbed the 200+ stairs to Neris Regional Park and hiked about for 30 minutes or so.  Then we paddled a few more hours, until 8:00 pm.  This was a bit too long for our first day on the river.  We were exhausted, but had a tough time finding a good campsite.  Finally, as it got late and we grew more eager to call it a day, we settled for a rather overgrown spot that was buggy and not so scenic, but very welcome, thank you so much.  We had macaroni and cheese for dinner and I did my best, with almost no cell phone coverage, to text my daughter, Rachel, a happy 17th birthday!  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 on this trip, 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.  It is not the same--lamentably, and thank goodness.  Much water has passed under the bridges and streets.  Still, it means something significant, at least to me, 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, meaning in this life, on this earth, at this moment, alive, beyond all odds, precisely because my family left the Old Country when they did.  And grateful, too, to be here, on this very place of water and earth, on the Neris, moving from Vilnius to Kaunas, from Vilna to Kovno, with my beloved daughter, Rosa.  Grateful to be here to learn, to live, to grow.

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