Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5776 – Judea Reform Congregation, Durham NC…
On her 1974 double live album, Miles of Aisles, Joni Mitchell introduces the singing of “Circle Game” with an observation about the nature of the performing arts. In her oh-so-groovy Laurel Canyon-inflected patter, she says to her audience,
that’s one thing that’s always, like uh, been a difference between, like, the performing arts, and being a painter, you know. Like a painter does a painting, and he paints it, and that’s it, you know. He has the joy of creating it, it hangs on some wall, and somebody buys it, and maybe somebody buys it again, or maybe nobody buys it and it sits up in a loft somewhere until he dies. But he’s never, you know, nobody ever, y’know nobody ever said to Van Gogh, ‘Paint a Starry Night again, man!’ You know? He painted it. That was it.
Joni’s point was that people do call out to hear “Circle Game,” again and again. And in listening to it, and singing along, it remains new and fresh, each performance its own work of art.
I’ve often wondered if the sermon, as an art form, is more like a painting, or a song. Rabbis pour themselves into High Holiday sermons. Are these efforts best thought of as “one-and-dones,” if not hung on a wall then hung on a synagogue web site or a blog, frozen in time? Or can we sing them again and again?
This comes to mind now because, next to “are you getting settled?” and “do your kids like their schools?” the question I’ve been asked most this summer is, “Now that you’ve moved, do you get to recycle your sermons?” The answer is: please, let’s call it “upcycling.” It’s been suggested that Rabbis really only have a few sermons in them anyway, and we spend our lives finding different ways to share our own personal Torah.
I want to share my own deepest personal Torah with you tonight, letting you know a bit about what makes your new Rabbi tick. It’s a message I’ve spent the better part of twenty years learning and teaching, and yes, I will be upcycling passages from an earlier d’var torah, treating them as songs to sing again rather than paintings destined to hang on the wall — with my deepest apologies to my kids, my wife, my mom, who’ve heard it before, and whichever member of the search committee was tasked with reading every post on my blog.
In a nutshell, what makes your new Rabbi tick is an awareness that, in the words of our prayer book, “inner and outer worlds are one as You are One.” That is to say, in my experience there is a deep-level intersection between the inner world of prayer and contemplation and the outer world of activism — what I sometimes call, tongue firmly in cheek, my “navel gazing” and “rabble rousing” sides. While any given moment might find me engaged in one arena or the other, I refuse to let go of the deep connection between the two. Indeed, when I unwittingly forget the connection, I find that my prayer life and my activism both suffer.
The terminology of “navel gazers” and “rabble rousers” lifts up the tension between two ways of seeing reality, and two ways of understanding divinity. 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 indispensable. 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.
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.”
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.
A story: In mid-March of 2011 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. 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 while I was in the midst of it all, 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: an oncologist friend tells 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?
My navel-gazing wonder at the interconnectedness of all beings is inextricably linked to my rabble-rousing 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 to be fully aware is to recognize that there is no “other” in the transcendent unity that some call God.
May this season give us new insight into all the ways in which “inner and outer worlds are one,” 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.