I had a weird dream last night. The background to it is a conversation I had with E. about my Jewish identity. E. is worried that I sacrifice a lot for Jewish law without getting much in return in terms of meaning or joy. I agreed that I should do something about this. What I will do is probably going to take a lot of time here over the coming weeks and months.
Last night I had a dream. A little old man with a long rabbinical beard, who was some kind of father-figure was trying to get me to put on different tefillin, the leather boxes containing parchments with Bible verses on them that Orthodox Jewish men wear during weekday morning prayer services. In reality, there are two types; most people wear “Rashi tefillin” but some people also wear “Rabbeinu Tam tefillin” named after the eleventh century sage Rashi and his grandson Rabbeinu Tam, who interpreted the commandment differently and put the verses in different orders. In my dream, this rabbinic debate was projected backwards a thousand years to Hillel and Shammai, the Jewish leaders in the first century BCE. Based on their legal rulings and stories about them, Hillel has a reputation for being lenient and kind, while Shammai is seen as strict and critical. I have long felt Shammai to have an unfairly bad reputation (I’m still talking in real life) and in the dream I was pleased that the old man was trying to get me to wear Shammai tefillin. There was a deep identification with Shammai as someone who had an approach that resonated with me personally and that set me apart from other people with a more liberal (if that’s the right word) approach.
As time went on, though, it stopped being so clear-cut. I can’t remember the details, but other people (I think my mother and others) tried to get me to stop wearing the Shammai tefillin. I myself began to have doubts about whether I really connected with him any more and if that was the appropriate outlook for me to have. I can’t remember how the dream ended, but it does seem to be a sign from my unconscious that I’ve identified with the stricter aspects of my religion and for a while took a degree of pride in the dedication that needed, but it’s not working out well for me any more and I need to find something more positive to identify with.
I felt at a loose end today. I just wanted to get on with Purim, but I had to wait. I didn’t want to waste the day, but I didn’t want to do a lot and go into Purim drained and in a bad mood. I did a little Torah study and spent an hour working on my novel. I felt blocked, but I managed to write about 600 words. At the moment I’m just trying to press on as quickly as possible, to get something, anything, down on paper so I don’t lose momentum or lose confidence in my ability to write. I realise I’m going to have to do a lot of redrafting, so I just want to write something to get started. I feel like the book I’m writing might need some significant changes, but I’m not sure what or how to do it and I’m hoping having a finished draft will help. I feel like I don’t have such a clear model of the book in my head any more. I ordered the first series of Life on Mars (which I have never seen, perhaps surprisingly) to look at how it shifts to surreal interludes in an otherwise realistic story, which I hope will help with inspiration for my story and what I want to do.
I would have liked to have done more today, but by late afternoon some Purim anxiety and depression was setting in and, as I said, I was worried about overstretching myself and going in to Purim more anxious and depressed than I needed to be.
Shul was reasonably good in the end. To understand the next bit, you have to understand that Jews read the Megillah (The Book of Esther) twice (in Hebrew) on Purim, evening and morning, and that, from an Orthodox perspective, one must hear every word on both occasions (the only time we have such a strict rule about a recitation). Paradoxically, we also encourage children (and adults) to make noise at the name of the villain Haman, who wanted to wipe out the Jews. So you have a situation where you have to be very quiet or very noisy and shift easily between the two. When my OCD was at its worst I used to worry that I had missed words or, worse, that the reader had made a mistake and only I had noticed. The noise is not always easy with autism either and the fact that it’s considered a child-friendly festival and there are lots of kids going in and out.
I carried a lot of anxiety to today’s reading because of that, but I was mostly OK. I think I heard every word and I told myself if I didn’t, I had done all I could reasonably do. My second line of defence, if I thought I had messed up and needed to go to hear it again somewhere else, would have been to tell myself that going to a later reading would just be giving in to the OCD and I would probably come out doubtful again, but I didn’t go that far. I did wonder if the reader had pronounced a word wrong, but I told myself that the rabbi and gabbaim on the bimah have the job of checking, not me, and they could hear better as they were next to him.
There seemed to be more noise than in recent years, but I coped OK. There was a really noisy, stroppy kid in front of me, but his father took him out early on, which I was glad for; not all parents would have been so considerate. I dressed up in my Tom Baker/Doctor Who scarf again, with my sonic screwdriver but no one got (or admitted to getting) the reference. There were some pop cultural costumes, mostly Harry Potter and Star Wars.
After the service, there was a lot of milling around. There was supposed to be food and then a “bubble show” for the children (it basically looked like people blowing really big soap bubbles), but it took ages to reorganise the room for food. I wanted to help, but in these situations I tend to mill about helplessly and get in the way unless someone gives me something very specific to do, which I think is another classic autism trait, but I still feel bad about it. I ate two jacket potatoes, but am still hungry. There were no hamantaschen, the pastries traditionally eaten on Purim. I will have some more dinner in a minute, and definitely some hamantaschen.
Mum had another scan today. It looks like the nodule they were worried about is on the known tumour itself, which we gathered was positive, as these things go. She had some bleeding from the PICC line, the tube inserted in her arm for the chemotherapy, which apparently is normal. As she went to the hospital to ask about that today, she doesn’t need to go back tomorrow to get the PICC line cleaned as arranged.
I saw an interesting devar Torah (Torah thought) from Rabbi Lord Sacks about the Jewish festival of Purim. Purim is the supreme Jewish festival of joy. The Purim story, as recorded in the Book of Esther, is about the Vizier of the Persian Empire wanting to wipe out the Jews, but his plans were thwarted through the intervention of Queen Esther and Mordechai. As Rabbi Sacks says, this should be a festival of relief at best, not joy, so why do we celebrate so ecstatically? His answer is as follows:
There are two kinds of joy. There’s expressive joy, the joy you experience and communicate because that’s how you feel. But there’s also therapeutic joy, the joy you will yourself to feel in order to protect yourself against negative emotions. And when we rejoice on Purim, on this festival which is actually the festival about antisemitism, we are saying something very important. “We will not be intimidated. We will not be traumatised. We will not be defined by our enemies. We will live with the threats and even laugh at them because what we can laugh at, we cannot be held captive by.” And that therefore is really what the joy of Purim is about. It’s about surviving, and beyond that, thriving, even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. It’s a way of saying, “I will eat and I will drink and I will celebrate and I will not let dark clouds enter my mind or my heart.”
This resonated a lot today. We are trying not to be intimated by Mum’s cancer and to carry on as normal as best we can. Likewise, I try to function with all my issues on the most difficult Jewish festival (OK, joint most difficult with Simchat Torah, but I don’t really need to stay for all of that). I wonder if I can experience that joy even in the midst of depression. There is, I suppose, something almost Nietzschean about it, about willing yourself to experience joy in the face of death (“That which does not kill me only makes me stronger”).
I need to be up early for the second Megillah reading tomorrow, but I’m probably going to watch some TV before bed as I need to unwind. I still feel quite tense. I feel like watching Doctor Who, but I’m procrastinating over which story to watch. I feel like something with Tom Baker after just being dressed as him. I’m thinking The Robots of Death, which I find a bit over-rated by fans, but has the kind of detailed science fictional world-building that the BBC used to do well in the seventies, on Doctor Who and Blake’s 7, but doesn’t seem to be able to do any more, being fixated on the “emotional journeys” of the characters instead.