Tag Archives: Torah

On “Bullet in the Brain” – A Story from Shavuot


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By Michael Fallon

It was three in the morning at Beit T’Shuvah on Shavuot when I started reading aloud the story “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff, eager to share it with those members of the audience hardy enough to stay up that long. There were several people dead asleep on the couches in front of me, but if Wolff’s sharp, funny and startling story didn’t wake them up, at least it would entertain and inspire those still alert.

“Bullet in the Brain” is the story of a man standing in line at the bank for the last minutes of his life. Anders is a book critic, and his cutting and supercilious remarks are interrupted by two bank robbers who take the customers hostage. Anders is so superior and oblivious to the danger he faces that he ends up repeatedly insulting one of the robbers, who shoots him in the head.

The rest of the story concerns the last memory to which Anders flashes back as the bullet travels through his brain. Wolff makes clear Anders was not always a joyless, judgmental curmudgeon, but started out with a love of words, of language, that curdled into a desperate infatuation with his own vitriol.

The story recalls what Anders doesn’t, reeling backwards through his life, like a time-lapse film in reverse: through the years of disappointment with his dull wife and indifferent daughter, his love and affection toward that same daughter when she was a child, the honest horror with which he reacts to a tragedy he witnesses shortly after her birth, the pang of jealously he feels at a colleague’s first published work, and finally his respect toward its worthiness, long before he came to “regard the heap of books on his desk with boredom and dread.”

Finally we come to the moment he does remember: on a baseball field, in the waning daylight, when he was captivated by what a boy from Mississippi said when asked what position he wanted to play: “‘Shortstop,’ the boy says. ‘Short’s the best position they is.’ …Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final words, their pure unexpectedness and their music.”

Anders leaves this world basking in a memory of his youth, of a time when he stood in a baseball field smacking his “sweat-blackened glove and chant(ing), They is, they is, they is.”

I had timed the story out at 9 and ½ minutes, but by the time I finished reading it, I had left only a couple minutes of my allotted time, and so was unable, until this blog, to share my thoughts on this trenchant work, and some of the questions it raises.

Why is Anders so cavalier about the lethal threat he faces? Does Anders, on some level, want to end his life? Or maybe the scene is simply unreal to Anders, for whom everything has begun “to remind him of something else.” He reacts to the unfolding bank robbery as if it were in a movie, and even compares it to “The Killers” – a movie, and a short story by Ernest Hemingway. Only when he is eye to eye with one of the robbers, and can smell the man’s breath, does the situation grow real for him.

Is there an aspect to Anders to which we can relate? Do we never judge people instantaneously, according to preconceptions about their class, how they look, dress, sound, their accent, their tattoos, or lack of tattoos?

Do we take, if you will, everybody’s inventory? When I see a new client at BTS, do I think “Ah, another jerk-off?” Or do I see a human being, frightened, uncertain, defensive, hopeful, wounded…but nonetheless a child of God?

As we experience life, weather harsh experience, compromise and loss, must we become jaded and bored?
Where are we in that trajectory from innocence to fatigue, from awe to cynicism, from tolerance to indifference, disdain and intolerance?

A saying credited to the Talmudist Yisreol Salanter states that most people “worry about their own bellies, and other people’s souls, when we all ought to be worried about our own souls, and other people’s bellies.”

Must we grow tired of life? Become childish: petulant, stubborn, entitled? Or can we remain child-like? Is there a way for us to see the world with new eyes every day, with a sense of wonder and possibility?

I think they is.

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Happy Birthday Rabbi Mark!!!


 

Today is Rabbi Mark’s birthday!  We didn’t want to let the day go by without acknowledging this special day.  For one more year, Mark Borovitz has added the edge and spice that defines Beit T’Shuvah and has found a way to teach the principles of Torah to even the most seemingly unteachable among us.  Feel free to leave him a birthday message on our Facebook page here.  Here’s hoping your day is enjoyable, Rabbi Mark, and that we may celebrate many more simcahs with you in the years to come!

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A Message on Chai


By Jaron Zanerhaft

In the Jewish tradition, the number 18 is said to bring luck, happiness, and health through its mysterious, divine powers. In Gematria, the Jewish numerology, each letter of the Torah and Hebrew alphabet is given a numerical value. With the right combination of letters, any number can be calculated. This means that not just every letter, but every word as well has a number that corresponds to it. Many of these numbers are believed to have mystical powers contained within. Of these, the most well known and most powerful is the number 18, which corresponds with the Hebrew word Chai. Chai, which translates in English to Life, is spelled with two Hebrew letters— Chet and Yud. In Gematria, Chet = 8 and Yud = 10. Therefore, Chai = 18.

Chai Five!

Judaism holds life in the highest regard. Though we believe in an afterlife, we are taught to focus our efforts on improving our situation here on Earth. We believe that life on Earth is what we were created for, and therefore is the most important and noblest cause. The number 18 reminds us to be present for our lives and not to just watch them as if they were playing out on screens. Chai embodies fervor and awareness, letting us know that we can control our lives, we can determine our own directions, and we can improve the physical world around us. It is why, when Jews make a toast, they toast ‘To Life.’ So let’s raise our sparkling apple juices and make a toast to making this life on earth, the only one we’ve got, count. “L’Chaim!”

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Chai Five!: A History*


By Jaron Zanerhaft

Since the dawn of time, our ancestors believed in powers beyond the limits of our senses.  When Prehistoric Man found himself on the brink of self-awareness, he forged within the fires of his very soul a single gesture that contained the power to unite all people and maintain peace in the world.  And when the gesture was complete, Man named it… Chai Five! It was a blessing of unfathomable strength, a potent force of untold skill.  However, the power of Chai Five! proved too strong for early Man to wield, and the gesture was lost for many ages.  Throughout time, Chai Five! has appeared briefly, testing our species to see if we were ready for its mighty and awesome gift.

The first known Chai Five! to go wrong

In Biblical Egypt, Moses invoked Chai Five! on his 9th try to free the Hebrew slaves.  Unfortunately it backfired and a plague of darkness ensued.  Chai Five! next surfaced in Ancient Rome circa 435 A.D. when Emperor Valentinian III attempted to congratulate one of his Gladiators with a gesture greater than “thumbs up.”  But Mankind was still not ready, and Chai Five! collapsed much of the Coliseum into rubble.  Most recently, the Chai Five! was called upon by a young John Lennon who, in 1960, heeded the world’s outcry for a band to champion in an era of love.  Though initially successful, Chai Five! broke in 1969, leaving in its wake more crappy cover bands than the world had ever known.

Ancient Rome circa 435 A.D.

But now the time has come for Chai Five! to clap again!  At long last, we have reached the apex of anticipation.  The air has never been more ripe, the universe never more fertile for a new age.  Chai Five! has completed its incubation so that it may bequeath its jubilance upon us.  And of all the worthy hands by which to gesticulate Chai Five! into being, it has chosen two— yours and ours.  Yes, we cannot Chai Five! alone, so, believing that the time of Chai Five! is here, we have exposed our open palm to you.  You have but only to slap it with yours to bring into being paradise beyond the farthest borders of imagination.  The choice is yours— Will you Chai Five!?

John Lennon's almost successful Chai Five! attempt--unfortunately, the world was not yet ready

* No actual Chai Five!s were documented to have influenced the historical events contained within this blog.  It is purely the speculation and

opinion of the author that these occurrences are too radically similar to not have shared in common Chai Five!. 

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T’Shuvah Means Redemption


By Jaron Zanerhaft

At some point in the midst of life’s successes, everyone must eventually fall. When you do, what’s the thing to do next?  With what
method do you move forward?

Sometimes, in order to keep moving forward, you need to move forward in a different direction.  By recognizing that the path you are on
does not lead to where you want to go, you commit the first step of T’Shuvah.  Sometimes it’s difficult, however, to know in which
direction to turn and how to proceed.

T’Shuvah is a complex concept and quite pervasive ‘round these parts. It’s what we are supposed to do, who we are supposed to represent to the outside world, and what we venture towards within ourselves.  But what does it mean?

Traditionally thought of as “return” or “repentance,” T’Shuvah is what we are commanded to engage in during the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).  It’s the act of considering and accepting our misdeeds and the active attempt to both rectify our actions and return to holiness.

Different from other methods of forgiveness such as absolution, T’Shuvah is not something that you are granted but rather something you seek.  It is up to the person who committed a regret-worthy act to make amends to all he has harmed.  It’s about responsibility, and that’s not always easy.

Now, this is the difficult part.  This is where you change your life. To continue T’Shuvah, you must take the necessary measures to ensure that a hate of the same nature will not reoccur.

At Beit T’Shuvah, T’Shuvah claims a large portion of everyday actions and practices.  Groups, meetings, study sessions, and more involved projects here are all in some ways created for residents to engage in T’Shuvah for their own past.  This way, similar mistakes in the future may be prevented.  Here we learn that T’Shuvah is a way of life that drives a person to constantly excel and improve on his being.  By continually examining our lives for actions we might regret, we take strides in becoming integrated human beings who face truth and righteousness instead of deceit and shadows.

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How Do You Help Someone Who Won’t Get Help?


By Ben Spielberg

I recently received a call from an old friend who used to be sober and is now using drugs again. He said that he wants help, but he doesn’t want to do anything about it. I offered him the option of treatment, I offered him meetings. He wants none of it.

After living in treatment for 9 months and still working at Beit T’Shuvah, I’ve become relatively desensitized to the standard woes of addiction—on a daily basis I am exposed to somebody who begs for help one day and relapses the next morning. However, when I talked to my old friend, I realized that he was going about his situation the exact same way I once had: he wanted to stop, but he didn’t want to do anything?

For the next few hours, I racked my brain trying to think of something I could say, some action I could take that would enlighten him and make him realize the error of his ways. I wanted to show him the path that I have chosen. As I continued to reflect, I even tried to figure out the point where my thought process changed—when did I actually start to trust Beit T’Shuvah? When did I realize that I actually need to do something?

This was, in fact, not a recognizable point. In fact, I think I got real lucky—something clicked after a few weeks in treatment, and that thing was not a palpable feeling or event that I went through. I just happened to stop fighting and start trying. But the question is, how do I communicate this to somebody else? What do you say to an addict or alcoholic who wants to stop emotionally, but isn’t willing to physically put in any action?

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Our Very Own Beit T’Shuvah Brand of Torah


"Adam and Eve" - Adriaen van der Wer...

Image by Tilemahos Efthimiadis via Flickr

By M. Alexander

The Torah has always interested me, both as a piece of literature and as a historic document; as a point of contention, rather than as a means of connection. I studied it in college and criticized it with my friends. I rejected it, seeing it as a document to control the masses.

It wasn’t until I came to Beit T’Shuvah that I began to see the Torah as a path, as a way, as instruction, as teaching, and as law. Beit T’Shuvah’s brand of Torah is one of personal redemption and of recovery.  Each story in the Torah can teach a lesson to the drug addict, the depressed, the gambler, and the person who wants a better life. I had been looking at The Torah through the eyes of a cynical rejectionist contrarian; once my mind was opened, even by one grain of sand, the messages were able to flood in.

I had always learned that the first sin was eating from The Tree of Knowledge.  Beit T’Shuvah teaches that the true sin in the Garden Story is hiding.  When Adam and Eve realize what they have done, they hide, attempting to avoid God’s wrath.  Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake. I have committed many errors (heit, missing the mark) in my life.  I must stop hiding when I miss the mark and show through my actions that I can change.

While wandering in the desert, after leaving my master, Pharaoh Heroin, I search for other comforts.  These are my golden calves—the girl across the hall, the new job, the power, and the prestige. The battle for freedom is just beginning.  I am free from the grips of The Pharaoh, but false gods are omnipresent. I must not find false gods in sobriety.

During Simchat Torah, the celebration that marks the end of Deuteronomy and the beginning of Genesis, we wrap the Torah around each of the residents and community members. Everybody is assigned a word from the Torah; mine was B’reishit (the beginning). Just as the Torah is incomplete if one word is missing, the community suffers if one member is missing.  Every word matters and every person matters.  What a novel, enlightening concept for this cynic!

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