Tales of Prayers, Repairs and i-Pods
We devote an enormous amount of time to simple maintenance. The house we live in always has something that needs fixing. If it's not the plumbing,it's the electricity. The shower door in the master bathroom needs rubber seals.I have ordered various sizes from an outfit in San Diego, each time with reassurance that this was finally the right size. Well, it never was and we finally hired The Shower Door Doctor to solve the problem. Dr. Jose sports two silver earrings and a gory Christian tattoo on his forearm. I paid Jose way too much money to slam thin strips of plastic on our shower door. But I did it because Karen and I cannot bear to live in the midst of broken things. We both come from homes where a broken air conditioner was not really broken. It was just... resting. We both come from homes where changing a burnt out light bulb was cause for a solemn family council. We both come from homes where the complexities of the Talmud pale when compared to a flat tire--a disaster beyond imagination. And so, when something goes wrong in our house, Karen and I spring into action the way Superman does when Lois Lane is threatened. There's no time to waste, for if we let these problems go, if we let them slide, they will multiply and we will drown in chaos.
The other day, the i-Pod that was a birthday gift for Karen, froze. Karen and I exchanged looks of pure terror for there is nothing as frighteningas a machine that seems to have a mind of its own. We are children of the 50's and as such we are reasonably literate about computers and bits and bytes, but technology is not second nature to us. Karen and I still vividly remember college and pounding away on manual typewriters to get our papers done. I wrote my first screenplays on legal pads and then spent weeks hunting and pecking on an ancient manual that I inherited from my mother. Karen wrote her dissertation on a more advanced machine: an electric typewriter.
Karen has a series of lectures on psychology that she listens to when she exercises. I downloaded the lectures to my Powerbook and from there to her i-Pod. Karen was relieved that we finally found a way for her to listen to the lectures in a way that enhanced her exercise time. And now the i-Pod was frozen.
After work, Karen came home with that determined expression on her face that I have come to recognize. It's the look that Olympic athletes have when they dig deep to achieve their goals; it's a look that I admire for when Karen makes up her mind to do something, it gets done.
Karen told me that she was going to The Grove, to the Apple Store, to have the i-Pod fixed. I was tired after a full day of working on a script for an animated film about the Baal Shem Tov for Rabbi Berel Wein's Destiny Foundation. This script has exhausted me; it has sucked the energy out ofmy brain in a way that no script has ever done before. How do you write about the Baal Shem Tov? How did he talk to his wife? How did he talk to his brother-in-law,Reb Gershon, who at first had contempt for the great founder of Chasidus? A thousand problems on each page. I was only able to crack the story when I imagined Ariel as the Baal Shem Tov. Once I saw my son Ariel in the role, everything fell into place. But as I said, I was exhausted and all I wanted to surf the blogs I like to read every day, and unwind. I told Karen that I was too tired to go with her. Karen was disappointed, I could tell by the way her shoulders sagged for a fraction of a moment. As she dressed to go, I realized that I was making a mistake. Here I had the chance to spend more time with my wife, even if it is just running an errand, Karen and I have a way of making the ordinary a bit extraordinary. And so, I told her that I was coming with her. You don't have to, she said. But I could tell, she was happy, relieved.
At the Apple store in the The Grove, you sign in at the Genius Bar. We had to wait for over an hour. Karen sat down and worked on a few of her psych reports. I attended the lecture given by a perky Apple girl about the i-Photo program. And then it was our turn. The Genius pressed two buttons on the i-Pod and zzzip! It was fixed. A simple reset problem. Karen and I laughed.
"That's all it takes?" we said.
Karen and I were seized with the same thought at that moment: why couldn't Ariel be fixed in the same way? Wouldn't it have been just and good if some gentle geek could have reset Ariel and poof, the brain tumor would have just disappeared?
How is it that we can fix our i-Pod, but not our child?
We drove home and talked about Ariel. Karen is only now beginning to feel his absence. She maintained faith in his ability to cheat the angel of death until the very last moments of his life. I was prepared for his death months before it happened. Something in me did not permit a belief in further miracles. Somehow, I sensed that Ariel had used up his allotment of miracle. At a certain point, the statistics outweigh even the most stubborn and righteous beings.
Back home, I wondered if Ariel's soul is hovering in his room, in our house. And if I know for certain that it is, that his soul is here, why don't I feel it on a deeper physical level? Is it because I lack faith in Hashem, or is it because a soul without a body does not have the authority that the soul with a body commands?
In our house, where Torah is the primary authority, the rational and the irrational bump into each other on a daily basis. But ultimately, the religious, the irrational, is the only comfort that endures.
That night, I was unable able to sleep. I padded downstairs and crept into Ariel's room. I clamped the i-Pod to my ears and listened to the MiamiBoys Choir, some of Ariel's favorite music. I stretched out on his bed andsoon I crossed over into a heavy twilight. I recalled a Chasidic tale I heard as a child.
Once upon a time, The Baal Shem Tov and his disciples met at shul to say the morning prayers. Just as the Baal Shem Tov was about to enter the shul, he hesitated. He refused to cross the threshhold.
"What's wrong, Rebbe?" asked his disciples.
"It's too crowded," answered the Baal Shem Tov.
"But Rebbe," said his perplexed followers, "the shul is empty."
"No," exclaimed the Baal Shem Tov. "The shul is crowded with stale prayers."
Perhaps that's my problem. My life is crowded with a lifetime of stale prayers. Maybe it's my stale prayers that need to be repaired. But I cannot fix them because Ariel is no longer here. I was the father, but Ariel was the teacher.
Karen Comments. Robert, you neglected to mention that just two days before, I went with you to the Apple Store to fix your i-Pod,and we spent two hours there. I also felt somewhat entitled (childishly)that I should get some company fixing the i-Pod, since after all, it was a present from you. But I also felt frustration that even when it seems so complex, when the computer genius was showing us how he cleaned up all yourprograms, and gave the computer a clean bill of health, we couldn't do the same for Ariel. We could not find the replacement part, the lung he needed,and we were helpless. The flip side, however, is somewhat reassuring. We are not machines, there is something beyond circuitry and electronics. We have an eternal neshama. Even when we are alive you know you feel your soul apart from your body, it is that internal voice that makes you, you. I know that scientists are working on artificial intelligence prototypes, but I don't think they will ever succeed. I know that despite current brain research,no matter how specific brain functions are located, they will never find the locus of the human soul.