Soul, spirit, and the potential of play

Vayishlach sketches

Vayishlach sketches

I'd like to dedicate this blog as a whole to the memory of two educators: Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmaish Shapiro and Janusz Korczak, both of blessed memory. In so many ways, they each worked to ensure respect and true consideration for children as the valuable and whole human beings they are. While Rabbi Shapiro and Dr. Korczak's lives were brutally cut short in the Holocaust, educators and parents continue to be inspired and energized by their example. Today's post is a reflection surrounding a teaching from Rabbi Shapiro, and I hope to have a post devoted to some aspect of Dr. Korczak's work at some point in the future.

This past Shabbat I experienced a miracle. A minor, personal miracle. But a miracle nonetheless. We were at my parents house -- me, my husband and our three delicious, energetic young kiddos. Every Shabbat morning that my parents are in town my father leads a learning session in their dining room for any community folk who want to join. Usually, when we're visiting them, my husband and I are both occupied by feeding, playing, defusing tantrums, cleaning food splatters, changing diapers, etc. and can only manage a few wistful glances towards the learning happening in the other room. Somehow, this Shabbat, the baby had gone back to sleep, my husband kept the older kids entertained, and I, cautiously, quietly, took a seat in the dining room and settled into the learning.

Much of the week that had preceded that moment felt to me like sand slipping through my desperately grasping fingers. During the first half of the week I attended a conference that I had been looking forward to, and had a really helpful phone conversation with a professional contact whose advice I had been seeking. Both of these were focused on issues relating to the Beyond Noah's Ark project, and I was hoping to be able to channel the inspiration and momentum from them into writing and concretizing my ideas. But every time I sat down to write, I found myself inexplicably drawn into distractions -- distractions about Very Important Things, to be sure: the impending Trump presidency, the humanitarian crisis in Syria, emails from the social justice group I signed up for (SURJ) requesting IMMEDIATE ACTION, any number of other critical issues that friends and friends of friends were posting about on Facebook.

I have always known that my ability to be unhelpfully distracted by Facebook is strong, and my relationship with it therefore needs to be quite limited. But I had gotten the word out about this blog by posting the link in my status, and was encouraged by the comments, and I might as well scroll through my timeline, and oh this looks VERY IMPORTANT, and suddenly my brain was a Facebook timeline scroll, #NoDAPL Aleppo TrumpLies! Women'sMarchonWashington Recount Electors BlackLivesMatter #NoDAPL Aleppo morecrazythingsTrumpsaid...

And so I stayed up late too many nights in a row, trying to push through, trying to get some work done, hardly ever succeeding in convincing myself to focus, and by Friday I was so tired, the world was looking so dark, my brain was totally fried, and I had written almost nothing new.

Which brings us back to the dining room this past Shabbos, where I sat quiet, grateful to be present within the community of dear family friends, grateful to be listening. And my father began reading a teaching from the Derech Hamelech (Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapiro, also known as the Piaseczner Rebbe, and eventually the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto). The teaching was about a verse in Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18), which was not even that week's parshah (weekly Torah portion), but which seemed to speak directly to so much of what I had been struggling with, trying to get on top of and sinking again and again.

The Piaseczner Rebbe teaches that everything in this world has a certain unique energy that it transmits, a vital presence that can impact anything with which it comes into contact. He refers to this as the נפש nefesh, or spirit of that thing. In addition, each person has a נשמה neshamah, a soul, that uniquely human trait. This soul is rooted in God's Self, and desires always to be aligned with its source. When we move through the world we are influenced by the nefesh of each object, experience, story, or person that we encounter. Good, bad or neutral, in the absence of any specific filter, we can be distracted and influenced by it all. Think of the effect of scrolling down your Facebook timeline -- how many news stories, cute baby pictures, calls to action, random corners of the internet, etc, suddenly enter your consciousness and ask, all at once, for your attention?!

Many of these things are, of course, very important. But being superficially distracted by a constant stream of data and stimuli tends to dull our ability to proceed toward the work we need to do -- the unique work that each person, each neshamah, is here to do -- and dulls our ability to do very much at all that is truly meaningful.

In the process of trying to make sense of and accommodate all of these inputs, something tragic happens: Our soul gets elbowed down, struck out of alignment with what it truly seeks. The Piaseczner Rebbe describes this as living right next door to someone who is terribly distressed, and not even realizing it. While we are swept up, not truly giving anything our total focus and attention, our soul has been so pushed down that we do not feel its pain. We may, though, recognize that we are anxious, ill at ease, yet we feel unable to pinpoint exactly why.

What to do, then, to prepare ourselves for the inevitable daily onslaught of big and small, important and wholly unimportant distractions, that threaten to blindside us, dislodge our souls, ourselves, from we truly seek to achieve?

We must work to live as an integrated self, where the soul is embraced and deeply familiar. Understanding what our soul truly seeks lets us respond to the ever-present call of sanctity and higher purpose in the world (that bears a unique message for each person), and lets us know when we are being purely reactive to the things around us that merely speak to our animal instincts. We are focused and open enough to ask the deepest questions of existential presence in the world, and are then able to proceed with confident action.

How does this all relate to Judaica for children? Maybe not directly, but my intuition tells me that if even some of the things surrounding our children carry the values and depth of our tradition -- in a wavelength that speaks to them -- these will help them maintain and refine the spiritual focus for which all of our souls yearn. Rather than providing entertainment or just yet another stream of content, our Judaica should provide anchors for our children to contemplate and confront their existential limits, to cultivate a relationship with the deepest questions of meaning within the spirit of play.