A navel-gazing, rabble-rousing Rabbi

Tonight I want to explore a theme I introduced in the September bulletin: namely, the connection between contemplation and action. You may recall that I wrote there about a coincidence of rabbis who seem to gravitate to both activities. I’ve noticed that among the growing cadre of rabbis who are involve in faith-based community organizing of the sort we do through Border Interfaith, many just happen to be participants or alumni of a program run by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. This program brings rabbis together twice a year for a week of silence, yoga, meditation, prayer and study, supported by weekly chevruta study and ongoing contemplative work in the interim. I was talking about this with a colleague, Rabbi David Stern of Dallas, during one of the conversational meals on our largely silent retreat. My question, asked tongue firmly in cheek, is, ”Why do the same rabbis go in for “navel gazing” and “rabble rousing?”

(Let me be clear: I use the term “navel gazing” and rabble rousing” with a sense of irony, so when you hear me say “navel gazer” or “rabble rouser,” please supply the necessary quotation marks, sparing me the indignity of having to make “air quotes” throughout the sermon.)

As I think about the tension between “navel gazers” and “rabble rousers,” my mind is drawn to the tension between two ways of seeing reality. One way of thinking about the world, and about God, is through the lens of “self” and “other.”  I am me, and God is Someone or Something Else. I am me, and you are someone else. I am me, and all of this is everything else. In this way of seeing, we are separate beings, acting on one another for good or for ill.

This way of looking at the world is useful, even indispensible. We could not make our way through a single day, or even a single hour, of public life without sorting our experiences, categorizing them, evaluating them. We rightly feel closer to some people than others, because they are our family, or our friends. We rightly defend ourselves against those who have taken on the role of our “enemies.” How lucky we are to be able to make distinctions, and blessed is the One who grants us that ability: Baruch hanoten lasechvi vinah l’havchin bein yom uvein lailah.

But this is not the only way to see the world. Mystics, whatever their particular religious tradition, have another outlook, no less real or true. In their way of seeing, there is just the One. This way of seeing recognizes no borders, no “self” and “other,” no “me” and “everything else,” no “God” and “not God.” In this way of seeing, all division melts away, we cease to be separate beings and are recognized as parts of a greater whole. In the Jewish mystical tradition, that greater whole is called Ein Sof, the Infinite, Endless One.

The Ba’al Shem Tov, a Jewish mystic of the eighteenth century who began the religious revival movement known as Hasidism, offered his students this parable to help them understand the mystical take on reality:

A great king sought to test his beloved son, to see if he would truly seek him out. He created the optical illusion of a beautiful palace. All who came to see the king, it was announced, would have to come through that palace. One person came to see the king and got only to the outer courtyards. There he came upon a barrel of silver coins, glistening in the sunlight. They were so beautiful that he turned aside to gaze upon them and touch them. He is there still, playing with his silver coins. Another was stronger, and he traversed the outer courtyards until he came to the chambers within. But there he found vessels of pure gold so lovely that he could not take his eyes from them. He is there to this day, staring at the gold. One by one the visitors were turned aside by the beauties of the palace. But then the king’s true son came along. He saw immediately that the palace was an illusion, that there was nothing but the king himself.

As Arthur Green interprets the parable in his book Eh’yeh,

God and universe are related not primarily as Creator and creature, which sounds as though they are separate from one another, but as deep structure and surface. God lies within or behind the façade of all that is. In order to discover God – or the real meaning or the essential Oneness of Being – we need to turn inward, to look more deeply at ourselves and the world around us. Scratch the surface of reality and you will discover God.

So which is the “right” way to see the world? Are we separate beings, or is it all One? “Yes,” and “Yes.” Yes, we act in the world as separate beings, at a surface level. And “yes,” at a deeper structural level we are indeed all One. That one truth is “deeper” than the other does not make it “truer” than the other, in my opinion at least. I have the need for both ways of seeing. “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven:  a time to rouse the rabble, and a time to gaze at the navel.”

To understand just how muddled the lines between “navel gazing” and “rabble rousing” really are, see if you can fill in the blank and identify the speaker:

The _____________ is that unique person to whom the common good is the greatest personal value. He is that person who genuinely and completely believes in mankind. The _____________ is so completely identified with mankind that he personally shares the pain, the injustices, and the sufferings of all his fellow men.

It’s a description of the righteous person, right? Maybe from Chaim Potok’s book The Chosen, as Professor David Malter explains to his son why Danny Saunders is being raised in silence? Or maybe it’s some Buddhist teacher offering a working definition of the bodhisattva? Perhaps it’s a Christian mystic reflecting on what is sometimes called “Christ-Consciousness?”

Actually, the words come a 1946 book, Reveille for Radicals, and they are the controversial community organizer Saul Alinsky’s definition of what it means to be a “radical.” Having nothing whatsoever to do with “right” or “left,” the radical is simply the one who is “so completely identified” with all humanity that she “shares the pain, the injustices, and the sufferings” of her fellow women and men.

Or, consider Tom Joad. Saying goodbye to Ma near the end of John Steinbeck’s great novel, The Grapes of Wrath, Tom hints at his growing understanding of the Castle of Illusion by describing the effect Preacher Casey has had upon him: “Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an’ he foun’ he didn’t have no soul that was his’n. Says he foun’ he jus’ got a little piece of a great big soul. Says a wilderness ain’t no good, ’cause his little piece of a soul wasn’t no good ’less it was with the rest, an’ was whole.” Tom Joad, it seems, is a mystic!

But that mystical truth does not lead Tom to escape the vigilante man in a monastery or an ashram. No, it sends him back to the picket lines. Knowing where the path might lead his particular piece of the one big soul, he nevertheless reassures Ma Joad:

I’ll be everywhere, wherever you can look. Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there…I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready and where people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build. I’ll be there, too.

To the words of Saul and Tom, let me add a story from my own experience.

In mid-March I received a phone call from a woman at Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth. Lisa works with the bone marrow matching program, and she was calling to let me know that I was a probable match for a young boy suffering from leukemia. As Lisa put it, “you’re on the target; now we need to see if you’re a bull’s-eye.” Would I consent to some further testing of the sample I’d given some years ago? Of course.

I was really shaken as I hung up the phone. I took some time to sit with the feelings that were stirred up by the possibility – however remote it might still be – that I was going to be able to fulfill the mitzvah of saving a life! I called Alanna. I talked to some friends. I read the information that was sent to me outlining the procedure and the risks. I filled out the consent form to continue the process.

And then, I waited. For almost two months, I waited to hear back from Lisa. When I did, it was to tell me that I was now closer to the “bull’s’-eye.” Next step: some further tests. Blood was drawn and tested, and I turned out to be the one. Incredible. And, please know that I’m aware that this may sound a little narcissistic, and of course I wish the kid didn’t have leukemia in the first place, but I was poised to be a part of saving a human life.

The last communication from Lisa came in early July, informing me that the next call, if it came, would be to come to Fort Worth right away…but that the patient was no longer in a position, health-wise, to accept a transplant. I was crushed. Again, at the risk of sounding a bit self-centered I will admit that I was partially crushed at not having the chance to be an anonymous hero. But mostly, I was crushed that a little kid had missed his window of opportunity for a transplant. Would he get better anyway? Would he survive? I may never know, and unless the call comes, I will always wonder.

Reflecting on this experience, I find much food for thought of both the navel-gazing and rabble-rousing varieties.

The navel-gazing part of me, which had the opportunity to sit with these experiences for many silent hours on retreat in July, continues to marvel at the way in which we are all so deeply connected. A little boy’s body goes off the rails (for reasons unknown) and starts producing leukocytes like crazy. Meanwhile, the femur of some guy in El Paso is making his medicine. How odd, yet how very right. We are, after all, just parts of one big soul, and my “little piece of a soul wasn’t no good ’less it was with the rest, an’ was whole.” Given the interconnectedness of all things in that greater whole, how could it not be the case that my femur has his medicine, even as someone else’s femur has mine?

The practical implications are staggering. There’s a genre of Jewish folktale in which the protagonist is rewarded for showing kindness to a poor person who is really Elijah the Prophet in disguise. The point of these tales is that we should treat everyone as if he or she could be the key to the redemption of the world. Out of my experience with the marrow registry, I humbly suggest a much more self-interested version of the story; now when I feel my patience being tested by someone, I try to imagine that the person is my donor match. Am I still prepared to write off their opinion as unimportant? Do I continue to care less about them because they are outside my circle of family or friends, of likes or dislikes? Can I really dismiss them so easily? They don’t have to be Elijah the Prophet, ready to save the world; they’ve got the magic femur that may one day save me.

So much for the navel gazing. Is there rabble rousing to do around bone marrow? There sure is. Since this experience, I’ve learned that there’s a great disparity in registration between Caucasians and ethnic minorities. My match had a much better chance of receiving a transplant because he was, by accident of birth, white. The marrow registry needs funds to do outreach and education in minority communities, and it needs sponsoring organizations to hold drives in those same communities. What can I do…what can we do…to help?

And what can I do…what can we do…to make it so that a kid in need of a bone marrow transplant doesn’t watch the clock run out while weeks and months pass between each stage of the matching process? I don’t know all the circumstances, but I can’t help but feel that some of the very things our nation is debating these days – waste in the system, defensive medicine, inefficiencies and bureaucracies (both public and private) – all had something to do with this process taking so long.

One more implication: my friend Dr. Byron Chesbro (who deserves credit as medical advisor to this sermon) tell me that the cutting edge of research now focuses on making it easier to perform transplants further out from that proverbial bull’s-eye.  And so I ask, What can I do to be sure that such research gets the funding it needs, so that every parent will someday be a suitable match for his or her own child?

So my wonder at the interconnectedness of all beings is inextricably linked to my righteous indignation and even my anger at the injustices inherent in the situation. I cannot separate the wonder from the anger, nor do I want to. Properly understood and practiced, I find that a well cared-for interior life is the engine that leads me to work, passionately and tirelessly, for our community. In the same way, the relationships I’ve formed with others through my involvement in the pursuit of social justice are constant reminders of the commonality of our human condition and our radical equality before God.  Both animate me. What can I say? I’m a navel-gazing, rabble-rousing rabbi.

We are all, at some level, navel-gazing, rabble-rousing beings. Some of us lean more in one direction than the other, and we probably find one way of being speaks more clearly to us than the other at different moments in our lives. To be fully human is to seek out the welfare of the other (remember the lesson from last week, “it is not good for humans to live and work alone”); to be fully aware is to recognize that there is no “other” in the transcendent unity that is God.

May this day of contemplation and fasting give us new insight into both ways of seeing, and may we enter each day that follows grounded in the deep unity of all being, reaching ever outward in the search for justice for all beings.


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