Mishpatim: Shoveling the Snow
Who’s Digging Out of What?
A Snow Shoveling Meditation
As I was digging out of the snow this sparkling New York morning – yes, shoveling is one of the Divine gifts I have been endowed with – I felt troubled by something.
With every pile of snow I scooped up and dumped on the side, a gnawing feeling grew inside of me.
What was bothering me? I was, after all, cleaning up the snowy mess that blanketed the Northeast last evening. Along with so many good neighbors, we were doing our civic and moral duty to clear a path through the mountains of snow – 19 inches fell over New York this time around – to allow people to walk the streets unencumbered.
And while we were being responsible citizens, the city had launched its army of plows and salters combing through arteries to clear the roads for traffic. This time they got it right – unlike the blizzard a few weeks ago, when streets remained unplowed for days, to the chagrin of New Yorkers, calling for the Mayor’s head.
So what could possibly be disturbing me as I joined my compatriots across town waging war against the onslaught of this latest snowstorm – breaking records for snowfall accumulation in this region?!
And a war it is, indeed. Just read the venerable New York Times’ screaming description of this snowfall, lines describing the snow as if it was a terrorist attack (I added the bold for emphasis):
“A two-stage winter storm struck, paused, gathered its breath and delivered a crippling blow to the Northeast early Thursday, dumping more than a foot of snow, closing airports and schools, stranding commuters and shattering January records.
“Nineteen inches of heavy, wet snow fell on Central Park, tied for the highest total in the region and only an inch less than the 20 inches that paralyzed the city a month ago…
“Around Washington, where downed power lines left swaths of the region in darkness, the precipitation began as rain on Wednesday, then froze. Commutes on the roadways took as long as 12 hours as drivers slipped and got stuck… Plows had to battle traffic to get the salt down.
“After hours in traffic, people began abandoning cars, and some actually slept in them, according to reports…
“New York City schools and offices were closed. Bus service was knocked out in most of the region through the morning rush as hobbled train systems struggled to absorb the overload, though bus service was slowly restored as the morning wore on. At the airports, delays and cancellations were the order of the morning…
“The storm created a fresh sense of snow fatigue in a region that has been unusually battered. Yet in New York City, where the slow municipal response to the Dec. 26 blizzard became a black eye for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and transit officials, things were not as dire as they could have been…
“Even before the storm started walloping the region overnight, the National Weather Service had estimated that more than 37 inches of snow — almost double the winter average — had fallen in Central Park this winter. The overnight storms broke January snowfall records for Central Park, Newark, LaGuardia Airport, Bridgeport and Islip, the Weather Service said Thursday morning.”
And then – as I stood armed with my shovel attacking the snow, pondering on this war we were all waging against the enemy called snow – I realized why I was so disconcerted.
Snow is a blessing from heaven. Indeed, the mystics explain that snow is rooted in the loftiest supernal heights – an expression of Divine compassion (tiferet). And even higher: Atik Yomin – the highest level of them all. As in the verse in Daniel (7:9): “and atik yomin – the Ancient Days sat [on the throne] and his garments were as white as snow.”
In 1904 a snow fell on the small city of Lubavitch, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe at the time, the Rebbe Rashab (yes, the one renowned for his classics Samach Vav and Ayin Beis), wrote an entry on the topic of snow – exploring its profound cosmic roots and its psycho-spiritual significance.
Based on these and other writings here is a short version of the spiritual meaning of snow, summarized from a series of my classes during the great blizzard of 1996. (Please email us, if you’d like to receive the full, unedited, transcript of these classes.)
And here I am – one of a multitude of self-righteous shovelers – sweeping away these heavenly white angels, as if they were monsters from outer space. Here we are declaring war on the snow attacking our comfort zones.
Snow is divine tiferet and atik yomin incarnate, snow benefits both the body and the soul (Zohar III 157a) – and here we are shoveling it away making a path for us to walk through, annoyed at this nuisance, anticipating its melting away…
As I scoop up another shovel of snow, I pause. I stare at the snowflakes, so vulnerable, so gentle, so tender. And I think: Why are we so convinced that we are where it’s at and the snow is an intruder, disturbing our lives, thus compelling us to shovel and cart it away. Perhaps it’s the other way around: Snow is where it’s at and we are the intruders…
Here we are – armed to the hilt, with shovels of all shapes and forms, ice picks, snow blowers and whatever else we can concoct – sweeping away and discarding these white messages from heaven.
Yes, I understand, I understand that we need to get to work, we need to be able to walk the streets without the danger of slipping, we have many important matters to deal with, etc. etc. etc. Yet, perhaps just perhaps the snow is not falling as a result of some meteorological disturbance, but is a message from above to place life in perspective.
It reminds me of the memorable words of one sports superstar. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks the baseball season was – shockingly! – suspended for a few days. Simply unheard of in the United States. (Pundits pointed out at the time that even during World War II the games went on…). One interviewer asked this baseball slugger when he thinks we will get back to real life, and play ball again.
Listen to his incredulous reply: “You think that baseball is real life?! Baseball is just a game – with absolutely no consequences. Who wins or loses does not change the world in any way. It certainly doesn’t have life and death consequences. Real life is 9/11 – where people actually died! 9/11 cut down these people’s lives, changing the future forever; permanently altering the trajectory of the lives of all their surviving families! It’s time to free ourselves of our delusions and get our priorities in place.”
But we all have our games, and while playing them we think that they – and us – are the center of the universe. Suddenly a snowstorm dumps its white magic on us and disrupts our lives. We see this intrusion as an alien invasion, and we do everything in our power to wage war against the enemy falling from the sky, uninvited.
My shovel hits a particular obstinate clump of snow and ice, and I aggressively go on the attack to dislodge this… this… this annoying interloper. But then my thoughts go back to the mystics’ take on this white heavenly traveler, who some feel originates not from earth but heaven (Midrash Bereishis Rabba 12:11).
How trapped are we in our perceived reality? Why can’t we step back from our routines and just take in the white flakes silently blanketing our toxic universe like a pure and clean blanket warmly embracing a child.
White snow. To appreciate the gift just imagine if the falling flakes were black…
And I wonder how many other blessings in our lives we are ignoring or even discarding as if they are rubbish?!…
As I lift yet another bundle of the powdery snow, I see from a distance the weaving paths that have been cleared amidst the heaping snow hills all around. We really don’t have room for this divine snow in our lives. And I remember what a young girl once asked her pregnant mother: “Mommy. How do you make room inside yourself for another person?” Gulp. Men have problems making room outside of themselves for anyone else but themselves. A woman has room for another life inside herself. And not just room; she carries a child inside her belly, inside her very being. The growing fetus becomes part of and impacts her entire life, 24/7!
And here we have a problem with the heavenly snow crowding us out. We must remove it from our presence. We need our room…
What can I say? Snow shoveling offers us many lessons. Especially if you have a fertile imagination.
[Obviously, we are all concerned about the hazards that the snow can pose for some, especially travelers caught in the storm. These words here are not meant to deny the fact that we need to protect ourselves from any severe weather.]
Time will come when we will shovel away the snow. And it will ultimately melt. But perhaps we can just leave these glistening crystals alone for a while, allow them to fulfill their mission from above, and allow us the time needed to absorb that message.
But no. We are too busy. We must go on with our lives. Not to mention the fact that as the day and night wear on the snow will harden and freeze and be much harder to shovel later. Yes, that is a problem. So we head out at dawn to carve out our trails amidst the “atik yomin” snow coverings…
I have finally finished cleaned the snow-covered steps. Now comes the street. But before I continue, I look at the piles of snow that I have dumped on top of the clean mounds. With each shovelful, I think, am I throwing away another pile of tiferet or atik yomin?!…
Some people wait all their lives for a revelation. Leonard Cohen’s Waiting for the Miracle resonates for many of us. ” I waited half my life away…” Let alone a revelation and miracle coming from the cosmic pinnacles of “atik.” Indeed, the Arizal says that the Messianic revolution will be a revelation from the inner dimension of “atik yomim.”
And here we are flippantly shoveling away, clearing the snow from our paths and boulevards, ensuring that not one speck of these white sparks clutter our journeys…
Here we are suffering from “snow fatigue”…
Ironically, we actually call it “digging out of the snow.” Hmm. Digging ourselves out of… atik yomim… Digging ourselves out of blessings from above… Sounds delightful. And once we dig ourselves out where do we exactly end up?
Mind you, with all these sublime ruminations, I did not, as I well should have, stop shoveling. I too am guilty of our collective insanity and blindness to what truly matters in life.
But, at least I’m not in denial, or so I convince myself (there you go: I had to soothe myself in some way). At least I know I am one of the abusers of the world… (you know the joke? Forget it).
Indeed, a neighbor’s young child offered to help me shovel the snow. I told him to go inside and have a nice warm drink. It’s bad enough that we adults are defiling the white glory. No need to get innocent children involved in our pollution. He will grow up and have his day – or hopefully he will be wiser…
But here is my final confession:
Instead of taking pride in the clear paths I have just sculpted between the surrounding snow mountains, I look at the last few snowflakes that I had just so rudely shoved to the side. I pick up a flake on my finger. But it melts before I know it, as if saying: “No, you cannot own me…”
I look closer and stare at the vulnerable and gentle snowflake – and wonder what message it has brought to me this fine morning.
I stare at the tender flake and shed a tear. “I am so sorry for hurting you…
“Come again tomorrow, please. I shall not shovel you away. I promise.”