essays kaddish in two-part harmony

a kaddish for winter

I’ve been thinking about rebirth a lot, lately and wondering why.  All that rebirth stuff — I’ve always thought of it as merely wishful thinking, codified into religious precepts, to ease the mind regarding inescapable misery.

Rebirth, opiate of the masses.  Or something like that.

Rebirth, the place we put our hopes and dreams.  Next time.  Next time, things will be better.  Now what’s the likelihood of that?  Hopes and dreams are for this life, aren’t they?

And that’s what troubles me about the whole rebirth thing.  It feels like giving up.  It feels like letting go, but not the good kind of letting go — as in I really don’t need this.  But the letting go in disappointment of the things we cannot or will not have.   It feels like a way to talk about what we want without taking responsibility for them.  Without saying, goddamn it, you know, I could make this happen.  My life could take on this other pattern.  If I were willing to take the steps to make it happen.

Or:  life, just surprise me.

I’m up for that.  Throw me what you’ve got, and I’ll be grateful.  Throw me what you’ve got, and I’ll just deal.  Hand me my allotted time, and like clay, I’ll mold it myself.  And remold it.  Again and again.  And never bake it into a hard and brittle form that might look pretty for a while, but drop it and it cracks.  At first just hairline. But it’s broken,  And then it really breaks.  I’ll take my lump of clay, instead, and play!  Why not?  Is that too immature? What children do?

Are we supposed to find a form and stick to it, and say okay, this is me this time.  Next life I will be different?

I do actually believe in rebirth.

I believe in rebirth every year when spring comes.  Every year  when those dead looking trees of mine show signs of something yet to come.  Not quite buds yet, but a kind of swelling at their tips, just waiting to burst forth into the welcoming air.  I am fascinated by springtime.   I lie on the stones and stare into the soil and watch things grow before my eyes.  And watch busy little creatures scurry by.  And everybody’s just gearing up for here-it-comes folks, here it comes!  The little folk know,  The grasses know.  The buds know.  The blossoms too.  Except for the annuals, the rest all know about rebirth.  Bummer.  Being an annual.

So.   I’ll take the rebirth of the trees.  Rebirth that we call springtime, that I will accept.

The ancient Egyptian word ‘neter‘ tends to be translated as ‘god’ or ‘the gods’ — and that seems wrong to me.  Or maybe it’s just right:  the ancient gods are personifications of natural forces.  The wind, the storm, rivers and seas.  Thunder. Lightning.  Birth and death.  Given names and anthropomorphic figures,  We pray to them, hoping they’ll be kind.

But neter is no more and no less than our word ‘nature.’   And either we’ve forgotten to think of it as sacred, or the peoples of the ancient world were just plain stupid.  And came up with this notion of afterlife and rebirth and next time, to cope with the terrible misfortunes dealt them by fate.

Or maybe it’s we rational modern (and post-modern) folk who are the dumb ones. Not recognizing rebirth when we see it.  Not taking a chance in making things anew.  Not knowing there’s volition and there’s action.  Not seeing our dreams so vividly and working to make them true.

I’m in Brooklyn, and it’s bitterly cold outside.  The air is clear and crisp, but not quite clean.  No sign of life stirs in the trees outside my window,  save the birds, they’re there.  They’re  waiting.  Waiting.  They know what’s coming.  And they don’t need religion or prayer to make it happen.  Oh.  Noisily, they’re singing.  Well, I don’t care. Call it what you will.

Neter.  Pretty glorious.  With no apologies to winter.  Gratitude only, for all the fine work done underground while we weren’t paying any attention at all.

Did you ever hear a tree say, “next time, next time it’ll be better”?

No.  They just make it happen, as best they can.

And if they’re an apple tree, well, they just don’t expect the pears.  “Life, just surprise me,” they said one winter.   Did they know about grafting?  Or do the gods just answer prayers?

Rebirth.  Shall I just wait?  Or sing?  Or ask to make it true?  Asking is so rude, don’t you think?

Just surprise me.  I think that’ll have to do.

By mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

6 replies on “a kaddish for winter”

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Wow. I’m smiling.

It just so happens that the birds davven shacharit and mincha/maariv. Start singing at first light (sometimes before — once I heard a robin singing its heart out in April at 1 or 2am) and keep going through the first part of the morning. Start calling to each other as the sun is westering and settle down just as darkness comes in. Funny how those are our Jewish times, too.

Ah, the language of the birds — more likely that we got it from them, than they from us! Or something even more primal about that timing.

When I was little I had a book called ‘Adam’s First Day’ — and it goes from dawn and the coming light, to the names of all the beings of the world, and then the earth darkens, and Adam begins to cry, and cries himself to sleep thinking that is all there is, and darkness comes. And on the last page, the dawn has come again — and he receives a second day.

I’ve never gotten that tale out of my head. And I’ve never found the book again, no matter how I tried. But it reminds me of the singing of your birds…

Of course they had it first! I assume that the times of day are, as you put beautifully put it, primal.

R. Marc Gellman wrote a modern midrash very much like ‘Adam’s First Day,’ about how Adam thought there would be only one year, so at the end of the year he gathered together with all the animals and talked about what a great year it had been, and made up quarrels, and apologized as necessary, and then went to sleep… and then received a second year… I wish I could find your book. It sounds even more powerful.

I’m still clueless about most birds, but even imaging the sound of a loon sending its laugh echoing across a lake grabs at my gut with as much power as a whiff of an old friend’s remembered scent wafting by on someone else’s wake.

Deb, I remember listening to hawks circle overhead with you on campus, and I remember listening to various birdsongs while wandering barefoot through the arboretum, but I still can barely tell any of my birds apart. I know the turkeys that wander through our neighborhood, and the chickens, and I can reliably pick out blue jays and little brown jobs and little black jobs.

And the frogs? What is it they do when they sing all evening and into the night?

Around here those frogs are Spring Peepers — we haven’t quite gotten them yet, come to think of it. When they start to chip you *know* it’s Spring. But if you mean frogs croaking all night, I don’t know about that.

Remember “the major-second bird”? That’s the song of a black-capped chickadee, and I remember reading long ago that whoever starts on a higher note, wins.

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