Great is my pain and great my anguish,
O, my God, my God, be a help in my trouble,
Find for me the graces of expression,
Grant me language and the gift of utterance,
I shall declare before the multitudes
My fragments of Your truth, O my God.
--Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, "Expanses, Expanses""
This sentence was torture.
This sentence is therapy.
My life is a conflict of interests. I am a writer plagued by the ineffability of my visions. I am an editor prone to shaking the tree free of every leaf. I am a dreamer with no morning memory.
Words war across pages and consume my mind. I often lose myself for hours at a time within the borders of a good book. But ask me to describe the terrain, and I will not know where to begin or how to end.
Words swirl in the well of my heart and stream through my veins, until my arms begin to burn if I don’t reach for a pen. But ask me what I’ve written, and I will show you an empty stage.
Words appear in their proper places. Chaos gives way to order. But my soul -- O my soul! -- knows that all of our pains and triumphs and questions and praises are nothing but empty letters, that the song of our redemption has no words.
And yet, letters make words and words make claims and the life of text calls out my name. Now, then, always.
At freshman orientation, before choosing classes or moving in or finding friends, they made us pick a major. No big deal. Just the next four years of your life. Just a make-or-break chance at a lucrative career. So I thought about my interests, my hobbies. In high school, I kept a pen in every pocket, wrote scraps of verse on gas station receipts, and self-published and distributed a subversive (or was it angsty?) ‘zine that questioned the authority of clipboard-carrying hall pass jockeys everywhere. Also, I’d had a girlfriend who wrote novels in the margins of her notebooks and had an internship at a newspaper.
So, I picked journalism. I thought college classes in that department -- Reporting, Editing, Magazine Writing, Fact Finding -- would teach me how to write, how to tell stories. I thought joining the editorial board of a student-run Jewish newspaper would bring me fame and fortune.
I wasn’t too far off. In fact, after graduating and hopping on a one-way flight to New York City with a dream in my heart and an entire industry crumbling on the horizon, I landed a (paid!) editorial internship in the religion section of a fast-growing Internet newspaper based on the strength of my prior experience at the abovementioned student-run Jewish newspaper. The internship turned into a real job, and soon I moved off of a friend’s couch in Harlem and into my very own possibly haunted, but relatively cheap room on the edge of a hip neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Things were looking up. At my job, I was encouraged to write about whatever interested me, but if I wasn’t feeling inspired or didn’t have the time, that was OK, too. There were plenty of words from other people to edit and search-engine-optimize, and because the driving mission of our page was to “share light in the digital darkness,” I got to spend my days reading life-affirming, boundary-transcending calls to peace and progress. And when I did choose to write, suddenly my ideas were published on a platform that literally reached millions of people. It was unbelievable. I felt like I was making a difference. I felt empowered.
So empowered that I left the job, decided to move to Israel with the love of my life. She wanted to pursue a teaching degree, and I needed a change of pace. If I could make it in New York, I could make it anywhere. So after hopping on a one-way flight to Tel Aviv with the dream of peace in my heart and the world’s most contentious strip of sand on the horizon, I landed a full-time job as a reporter at a Jerusalem-based news agency whose editors were committed to telling the untold stories, to publishing real, balanced journalism.
Words can heal wounds. Words can open eyes. Words can move millions.
In Israel, most people work multiple part-time jobs to pay rent, so when I nabbed this full-time gig as a journalist, everyone said I was lucky, that I should be grateful and happy.
But words can go unread. Words can become stale. Words can torture or fail.
Every day, on the 15-minute walk from my apartment to the office, “I can do this!” wilted into “I will die if I have to do this for one more minute.” Friends who saw me in the fading light of evening after work said it looked as though my life force had been sucked away. My fiancé worried for my health. I walked the streets of Jerusalem followed by a black cloud of doubt, confusion and depression.
From flying to falling. From seize-the-day existentialism to nothing-matters nihilism. Whereas in New York I’d felt that my work was a benefit to all of humanity, a very similar job in Israel felt like hammering a thousand nails into my own coffin. I’d forgotten that the industry was crumbling. I’d ignored the fact that conflict feeds on the attention it receives. The sight of a blank page paralyzed me. The joys of language laughed in my face and ran away. I no longer wanted to throw punches at my shadow while tumbling from the 100th story window. I lost the will to tell stories. I forgot what brought me here in the first place.
Artwork by Ilan Block
Falling, falling, falling, a fragment, perhaps only a figment, of memory: On the playground among the North Florida pine, my best friend can’t contain the excitement. His older brother wrote a play that will soon be produced and performed. In the community newsletter’s report, the budding playwright says he wants to pursue writing as a career. I’m repulsed. Writing is like homework and homework is like torture. I know I will never be a writer. This conviction is visceral. It is emblazoned on my psyche.
My friend’s brother, a lawyer, did not pursue writing as a career. I did, and here I sit, writing about my reflection in the flame, remembering another shard of self, the text that first set me on the path, though only now can I see and understand the words. It says in Shemot, the Torah portion of my bar mitzvah:
"An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire from within the thorn bush, and behold, the thorn bush was burning with fire, but the thorn bush was not consumed. So Moses said, 'Let me turn now and see this great spectacle why does the thorn bush not burn up?' The Lord saw that he had turned to see, and God called to him from within the thorn bush, and God said, 'Moses, Moses!' And he said, 'Here I am!' And God said, 'Do not draw near here. Take your shoes off your feet, because the place upon which you stand is holy soil.'"
The Midrash says that Moses was not the first person to walk by the burning bush. Dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions passed it by. Innumerable were the eyes and ears closed to the flaming divine revelation. Not yet the greatest of all prophets, now just a shepherd on the lam, Moses is just the first person to notice the miraculous sight. He’s the first to stop, turn and investigate.
God sees Moses turn and calls out to him. Moses sees that God sees, and he responds. Immediately. No hesitation. Perhaps Moses knows something funky is afoot. Perhaps he already is the greatest of prophets, and he sees the whole exchange unfold before him. Perhaps he fled from Egypt and headed straight to the burning bush to hear God’s command that he should return and redeem the Children of Israel from slavery. All we know is how Moses responded: “Who am I?”
All we know is that the man who hearkened to the voice from the shrub feared that the people he was meant to redeem would not believe what he’d seen.
All we know is that even after God gave him the keys to set the slaves free, Moses protested: “I am not a man of words, neither from yesterday nor from the day before yesterday, nor from the time You have spoken to Your servant, for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” (Exodus 4:10).
All we know is that Moses returned to Egypt, brought the Children out of slavery, led them through the wilderness and scribed the greatest story ever told. Somewhere along the way, to appease the haters, God told him to speak to a stone, compelling it to provide water. Moses chose force instead, and, yes, water came forth, but for striking the stone with his staff he was not allowed to enter the Land of Israel.
Which calls do you answer and which do you ignore? What moments of pain do you endure? When do you enter the land and when do you flee?
What are the fragments of your truth?
All I know about myself is this: I am a writer brimming with self-doubt, fearful of the depths of my imagination, stunted by the idol of silence, blinded by the searing light of an empty page. And despite this fear and doubt, despite this deaf-mute-blindness, I will continue to write. I have no choice: It’s homework assigned from the Teacher on high, the One who asks, “Who gave man a mouth? Who makes one dumb or deaf, seeing or blind?”
What I write, however, will be for prayer, not pay. When I write, it will be from an outpouring of my soul, not a doomed attempt to feed the black holes of viral Internet and violent conflict.
Sometimes you must quit the job to get your life back.
Sometimes, God is the One who strikes stone with staff.
All the water I will ever need flows at my feet.
O, my God, my God, grant me the strength to crouch down, dip my hands in and drink.
Josh Fleet is a Jerusalem-based writer, editor and listener, currently completing a book about ecstatic improvisational rock music as a Jewish spiritual practice. Reach out on Twitter: @JoshLyleFleet and @PhishTalmud.
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