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Maurice Sendak is my spiritual leader, too

Last year at this time, Benjamin Rosenbaum wrote that Maurice Sendak is my spiritual leader. Well, not YHB's. His. Well, mine too, as I'll get to in a minute. Mr. Rosenbaum took as his text Pierre: A Cautionary Tale, and explained the concept of teshuvah, turning back to the Divine, which happens to Pierre in the belly of the beast. Since then, though, I have been thinking about a different book, and a different aspect of Yom Kippur and teshuvah.

There is a metaphor, much used in the tradition and occasionally discussed here in this Tohu Bohu, of everybody having two parts to their nature—the nefesh elokit, or the Divine spirit, and the nefesh behamit, or animal spirit. Your Humble Blogger does have problems with this (not least because of the implication that the actual beasts are utterly without Divine nature), but it can be a useful metaphor, so long as we remember that it is a metaphor, rather than a literal description of the universe.

And what better way to remind us of the metaphor than a picture book?

Do you have a copy of Where the Wild Things Are? Get hold of it. Look at it closely, because there's a lot of detail here. If you don't have one in your house, you can go to your local public library, or to your local bookstore. They will have it. And I'd like to get us all on the same page before somebody makes some sort of dreadful movie from it. OK?

So. Where does it start? It starts when Max puts on a wolf suit. When Max leaves his better nature and adopts an animal nature. Instead of self-control and kindness, Max covers himself with rage, instant gratification and impulse. It's all good fun, of course, but I wouldn't tell that to the dog he is chasing with a fork. His Mother enrages him further, when She fails to encourage him in his behavior. She calls him wild thing, which I'm going to go ahead and translate as nefesh behamit; he is doing what his animal nature tells him, rather than tempering that instinct with the Divine. How does he react? As a nefesh behamit. He says, “I'll eat you up!” This is the nature of the nefesh behamit. It devours what stands in its way. It does not think; it eats. It does not communicate; it threatens.

Of course, it threatens beyond its means. Max can't eat his Mother all up. And, in fact, by wanting to eat everything, instead he gets nothing. The Mother does not respond well to threats.

Ah, but Max does not take off his wolf suit, and he is not chastened. Well, if he is a nefesh behamit, then he is happy (says he to himself, says he) being apart from the Presence. He will make himself a new world, without any Presence at all. He will devote himself to being a wild thing.

And he goes to the place where the wild things are.

I don't know if you have ever gone to the place where the wild things are. Most people, I think, or at least many people I have known, have decided somewhere along the line that it's all about the animal nature. That there isn't any better nature, or that if there is, it isn't really them. Have decided to live in their wolf suits, and make mischief with the rest of the wild things. And the thing about wild things, is that they do have terrible roars, and terrible teeth, and terrible eyes, terrible claws, and yet they are quite easily tamed, if they think you are wilder then them. And if you are the wildest thing of all, then you get to be king of all the wild things, and they will dance with you, and carry you on their shoulders, and swing with you.

But they don't know when to stop.

How could they? How could a nefesh behamit know when to stop? Stopping is not in the animal nature. Self restraint is what they rejected when they put on their wolf suits.

Max discovers, after three double pages of glorious rumpus, that it is time to stop. I don't think at that point he knows why. He knows he is missing something. When the rumpus ends, he doesn't yet know that it is his Mother. But (and this is interesting) he sends the rest of the wild things off to bed without their suppers, trying (unconsciously, I think) to mimic his Mother. And that is the pivotal moment.

Max, the king of all wild things, is suddenly lonely, and wants … what? Not more rumpus, wilder things, more instant gratification. No. He wants to be where Someone loves him best of all. And then the smells of home come to him. At the right moment, when he is receptive, it is comfort and love and familiarity, habit even, that bring him to teshuvah, to return.

The rest of the wild things react just as wild things do react: they want to eat him up, to devour him. True, they call that love, and there is certainly passion in it. But it's nefesh behamit love, if it is love, and it's still eating someone up. And Max, in his teshuvah can simply say no, and step into his private boat, and sail back.

Return, or teshuvah, is what we will be looking to do this month as we head into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And as I try to say good-bye to my own wild things, and sail back in my own private boat, I will keep in mind the end of the book. I know a lot of people interpret the end of the book as a surrender, that they would like to see Max stay as king of all wild things. Not me. I want to push back the hood of my metaphorical wolf suit (although, beautifully, Max is still half inside it, even at the very end, as we all are), and come into the night of my very own room, and find my supper waiting for me.

That's the real miracle of Max's story. After all the rumpus, after rejecting his nefesh elokit and giving in to his appetites, even after being sent to bed without any supper, there is always teshuvah. His supper was waiting for him.

And it was still hot.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


That's awesome. For some reason it makes me tear up and sniffle, but I love it. Well done!!

This was beautifully written, V. I've always loved the book, for much the same reasons (and as I think about it, it's always that turning back moment in a narrative that makes me weep) but I hadn't got the words. Thankyou.

Thank you, V.

I vaguely knew Where the Wild Things Are before J was born, but didn't really know it until I started reading it to J. You perfectly capture why I tend to choke up on "and it was still hot."

This is a perfect d'var, the sort that makes me pause and reflect and feel that I've learned or relearned something profoundly important. Thank you for writing it.

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