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by Lawrence Bush
“Our rabbis taught: When Adam, on the day of his creation, saw the setting of the sun he said! ‘Alas, it is because I have sinned that the world around me is becoming dark; the universe will now become again void and without form — this then is the death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!’ So he sat up all night fasting and weeping and Eve was weeping opposite him. When, however, dawn broke, he said: ‘This is the way of the world!’ He then arose and offered up a bullock...” —Avodah Zarah 8a
WHEN DUSK COMES and the world outside my window becomes a silhouette, and I know that it’s time to stop being safely absorbed in my work and to join the what-shall-we-do here-and-now, I usually have to pass through a zone of dread. I may drown out the feeling with news on the radio, or sidle away from it with a glass of wine — but there’s still a tug at my guts when I stop earning my right to exist, stop working my way into other people’s consciousness. It’s as though I’m uncertain that it’s okay for me simply to be. As though I need permission to take the next breath. As though the sun were setting because of something I neglected to do.
I suppose were I to say a brokhe, a blessing, at each sunset, each moment of transition, each threshold of pleasure, it might help quell the anxiety. But it’s not my way. Instead, I asked my wife, a couple of birthdays ago, to try to get me a “take-a-ticket” machine, the kind they used to have at appetizing counters: You take a ticket, you know your turn will come, and you can enjoy standing on line. She couldn’t find one, though she tried, so the lovely woman instead manufactured one herself, a cardboard box with a slit for the tickets. It doesn’t have the neat spring action of the old machines, but it dispenses tickets, and it says “Permission Granted” on its side.
I keep my Permission Box near our front door, and I will get myself a ticket if I’m actually going to take a whole afternoon or even a whole day off from work. Having the ticket in my wallet pacifies me, and gives me faith that I’m entitled to do what I’m about to do. Just thinking about taking a ticket is usually sufficient. It’s like saying a brokhe, and it’s a lot easier than sacrificing a bullock.
I HAVE NO FAITH — yet I have many, many blessings. I am very healthy, at 63, and don’t even yet suspect what my mortal disease will someday be. I live with a woman who is cheerful and smart and graceful, truly a wonderful soul. I live in the green countryside, with birds that come to my window and creatures that cross my lawn. I make a living doing what I like, work that is creative and constructive and hurts no one. I have everything I need — without having too much.
One would think, after experiencing so many sunrises, that I’d know by now that sunset is not a scary thing.
Why am I faithless? Partly the condition seems genetic: My mother was a nervous wreck, her mother was a farbrenter (on fire) leftist — that is, a nervous wreck with someone to blame for it — and my father liked to punish life for its disappointments by staying aloof from it all, usually with a book in front of his face. There’s nurture as well as nature at work: My folks were often fiercely at war with each other, and there was keen uncertainty in the household about parental moods...
Partly it’s simple vanity: as though the whole world were watching, as though my actions and choices were really, really crucial.
Is it a Jewish thing, too, this existential anxiety? Surely we’ve been trained and bred in the ways of fear, becoming “a people who can’t sleep themselves, and won’t let anybody else sleep,” as Isaac Bashevis Singer described us. It’s altogether ironic, then — and the joke is on me — that I mostly reject the tools that Judaism itself offers for processing anxiety and finding emunah, faith: those brokhes, those many daily rituals, those prayers, those Sabbath injunctions against work...
Instead, I take my ticket.
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.