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Lions Roar : March 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2008 83 love, joy, and celebration? Yet one of his religious duties was to help heal the suffering of his community—not an easy task given the magnitude of the suffering, and with all the trap- pings of piety outlawed. Shapira’s Hasidism included tran- scendent meditation—training the imagination and channeling the emo- tions to achieve mystical visions. The ideal way, Shapira taught, was to “wit- ness one’s thoughts to correct negative habits and character traits.” A thought observed will start to weaken, he ex- plained, especially negative thoughts, which he advised students not to enter into but to examine dispassionately. If they sat on the bank watching their stream of thoughts flow by, without being swept away by them, they might achieve a form of meditation called hashkatah, silencing the conscious mind. He also preached “sen- sitization to holiness,” a process of discovering the holiness within oneself and the natural world. This included mindfully attending to everyday life, as the eighteenth-century teacher Alexander Suss- kind had taught: “When you eat and drink, you experience enjoy- ment and pleasure from the food and drink. Arouse yourself every moment to ask in wonder, ‘What is this enjoyment and pleasure? What is it that I am tasting?’” The etymology of the Hebrew word for prophet, navi, combines three processes: navach, “to cry out”; nava, “to gush or flow”; and navuv, “to be hollow.” The task of this meditation was to open the heart, to unclog the channel between the infinite and the mortal, and to rise into a state of rapture known as “Great Mind.” “ There is only one God,” Hassidic teacher Avram Davis writes, “by which we mean the Oneness that subsumes all categories. We might call this Oneness the ocean of reality and everything that swims in it [which abides by] the first teaching of the Ten Commandments, ‘there is only one zot, thisness.’ Zot is a feminine word for ‘this.’ The word zot is itself one of the names of God—the thisness of what is.” THE WEAK, SICK, EXHAUSTED, HUNGRY, tortured, and in- sane all came to Rabbi Shapira for spiritual nourishment, which he combined with leadership and soup kitchens. How did he manage such feats of compassion while staying sane and creative? By stilling the mind and communing with nature. He gathered this teaching “from the world as a whole, from the chirping of the birds, the mooing of the cows, from the voices and tumult of human beings; from all these one hears the voice of God...” All our senses feed the brain, and if it dieted mainly on cruelty and suffering, how could it remain healthy? Rabbi Shapira’s mes- sage was that even in the ghetto, common people, not just ascet- ics or rabbis, could temper their suffering through meditation. It’s especially poignant that he chose for meditative practice the beauty of nature, because for most people in the ghetto na- ture lived only in memory—no parks, birds, or greenery existed in the ghetto—and they suffered the loss of nature like a phantom limb pain, an amputation that scrambled the body’s rhythms, starved the senses, and made basic ideas about the world impos- sible for children to fathom. As one ghetto inhabitant wrote: In the ghetto, a mother is trying to explain to her child the concept of distance. Distance, she says, “is more than our Lez- no Street. It is an open field, and a field is a large area where the grass grows, or ears of corn, and when one is standing in its midst, one does not see its beginning or its end. Distance is so large and open and empty that the sky and the earth meet there...[Distance is] a continuous journey for many hours and sometimes for days and nights, in a train or a car, and perhaps aboard an airplane...The railway train breathes and puffs and swallows lots of coal, like the ones pictured in your book, but is real, and the sea is a huge and real bath where the waves rise and fall in an endless game. And these forests are trees, trees like those in Karmelicka Street and Nowolipie, so many trees one cannot count them. They are strong and Poet, essayist, and naturalist DIANE ACKERMAN is the author of many books of nonfiction and poetry, including A Natural History of the Senses, Cultivating Delight, and, most recently, The Zookeeper’s Wife. They Were Taken at Night, by Pavel Fantl (died in Auschwitz, 1945). INDIAINK,WASHANDWATERCOLOURONPAPER.COLLECTIONOFTHEYADVASHEMARTMUSEUM,JERUSALEM.GIFTOFTHEPRAGUECOMMITTEEFORDOCUMENTATION,COURTESYOFALISASHEK,CAESAREA. MAR 78-107.indd 83 MAR 78-107.indd 83 12/19/07 2:43:26 PM 12/19/07 2:43:26 PM