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Good Letters

Everything I know fits inside my body, but where does my body end?

Is it as deep and wide as the lake in which I swim? Is it as thin as an electric guitar’s high E string? The lead guitarist solos; my body bends, ascends, and descends with the notes. He’s playing a Gibson SG, or is he playing me?

Body of knowledge: when the masseuse applies pressure, is my body included in the body of knowledge she has mastered?

Everything I know goes with me wherever I go. When I climb stairs, everything I know places a foot on one step after another.

When I disappear into an iPad, everything I know seems so small. Everything I know: it isn’t enough, is it, to prevent or stop a war?

Given everything I know, I’m afraid of myself and afraid of you. I find it hard to sleep because of everything I know.

Everything I know: first breath, last breath. First breath was. Last breath will be.

“The Lord God formed adam (man) from the dust of adamah (earth). He blew into his nostrils nishmat chayyim (the breath of life), and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).

Num (n)-shin (sh)-mem (m): “to breathe.” In the Torah, neshamah means “breath.” Later, beginning in the rabbinic period, neshamah takes on an additional meaning: “soul.”

Everything I know in this life, this world, with this body, this heart, this mind depends on this breath, and this one, and this one, and…

Everything, I know, is beyond me. Only some things are within reach.

I can grasp the can of Le Croix beside me, and I can grasp the value of entering a state of deep concentration. As one becomes deeply concentrated, the gap between the one who directs his or her attention to an object of concentration and the object of concentration itself narrows and narrows until, at last, if only for a moment, it’s gone: the self and, say, the candle flame.

I’ve heard that one can achieve such a state of concentration that one can have the experience of no self, no flame. Though I haven’t reached that state myself, that’s what I’ve heard. And what I’ve heard is part of everything I know.

Everything, I know, is inside the Torah. That’s where I look to find myself: called, broken, defeated, wandering, settled, redeemed. Torah: turn it and turn it, the fathers teach, for everything is inside it. The source of everything I know: I wander from it, I return to it.

Everything I know: will there be a test? Is this the test, this rising up and lying down, this standing still and walking by the way until I reach the end of the way? Is there an end of the way? I don’t know. And if there is, I don’t know how far it is from here.

Body of knowledge, or is mine a body of white ignorance? Now that I know that it is white, I’m acquiring a new body of knowledge. In this country, that’s my responsibility.

With word and deed, the president wounds and divides us. A few paragraphs ago, I, too, divided it up: body, heart, mind. But everything, I know, is one. Or so I’ve been taught: There is nothing but God, the Ba’al Shem Tov.

If I know one thing thoroughly and deeply, shouldn’t that be enough? Must I always feel inadequate and ashamed of my knowledge of everything I don’t know?

In the end, it all comes down to this. The only thing I know: I love you.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Richard Chess

Richard Chess is the author of four books of poetry, Love Nailed to the Doorpost (University of Tampa Press 2017), Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple, all from University of Tampa Press. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies. He is also the Chair of UNC Asheville’s English Department. You can find more information at
Photo used with permission from Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash.

1 Comment

  1. Lois Bernard on November 9, 2017 at 8:52 am


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