There I was, early this morning, sitting third car back from the intersection waiting for the red light to change. We were on the secondary street, in the snow, at that time of day when traffic light intervals tend to generously favor the primary streets. So it was not unusual for the light to be long. And so it was. Very long. Long enough for daydreams to come and go. Long enough for me to start wondering, if I were the first car in line, would I make a move? Long enough for several cars behind me to swing out and run the light.
But just as the third or fourth car broke through, the cross street light changed to yellow, and soon we had our green. So, it wasn’t broken after all. Just delayed. Not even delayed - for it was in sync with its own computerized schedule, just out of sync with ours. It just disappointed our anticipated timetable. So we judged it, all of us impatiently; some of us wrongly.
All of which made me wonder, how do we know when other parts of our lives are no longer working? How can we distinguish between our impatience, our unreasonably hurried timetable responding to life’s unpredictable unfolding, and life’s true brokenness?
Who is responsible, after all, for setting the timing of life’s signals? Who has the right to demand that life unfold in prescribed intervals, acceptable to them? How do we learn to match our rhythm with those around us? How do families, neighbors, nations negotiate their differing paces, urgencies, insecurities?
It is somewhat irresistible to insist that all signals follow a standard, established, timed sequence. It is irresistible to hope that we know for certain when a relationship is done; when our job has run its course; when we should seek another path, another way, another lover. But life doesn’t work that way.
So we come back to our initial question: how do we know when something is broken? How do we know that it’s time to move, that we’ve waited too long, or moved too soon? And what happens if we are wrong?
The bottom line is, we cannot always know. Sometimes those around us are the first to see the truth. We can listen to them. But then again, they may be the ones who cannot wait out the green.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter if the light is working or not. It may still be taking way too long for us, and we must, for our own sake if not also for that of others, move on.
Then there are other times when we can manage the uncertainty. For the good thing about people, as opposed to traffic lights, is that people can talk, and we can speak with them. And maybe, just maybe, an answer will emerge. But even if not, a bit of adventure, a bit of breaking out of line and challenging the status quo is sometimes just what we, and society, needs. Lord knows, our economy and response to the environment need something radically new.
So, there is mystery in wholeness that appears broken. But then again, there is occasional need to indulge our impatience.
May this coming year bring you insights into these mysteries, guidance in your response to life’s signals, and true satisfaction in your life’s work.
One of the most deeply compassionate and engaging texts about the place of God, the Temple and community in the lives of the Jewish people is found in a little known rabbinic source, almost 2000 years old.
The text speaks about how a visitor is to approach the Temple mount. As with all sacred places, there is an etiquette of expectation guiding how we are to behave there. Such expectations are not meant to constrain us, but rather to prepare us. We do not go to such places to simply pass through as observers, voyeurs, bound by the braces of our everyday world. We go to be transported, to see what lies beyond the quotidian, to see what anchors and prods give meaning to life, and to feel how we can connect to them. We go so that we will learn both who we are, and who we can ultimately, and most fully, become.
Let other texts speak about the laws of sacrifices, who brings what, and how the Temple should be cleaned.
This text speaks to the heart of the visitor:
“These are the ones who, when visiting the Temple in Jerusalem, enter by circling around counter-clockwise (everyone else enters clockwise):
A mourner, an outcast, one whose loved one is ill and one who lost something.
[In meeting someone walking towards them, those walking clockwise inquire:] What is it that causes you to walk that way?
If they answer: I am a mourner, the inquirer responds: May the One who dwells in this house comfort you.
If they answer: I am an outcast, the inquirer responds: May the One who dwells in this house turn their hearts so they may take you back.
To the one whose loved one is sick, they respond: May the One who dwells in this house be merciful to your loved one.
To the one who has lost something, they respond: May the One who dwells in this house cause the one who found it to return it to you.”
(Massekhet Semahot 6:11)
I am captured, transported, each time I read this. For each time I wonder, “Which direction am I walking in now? Which of the visitors have I become today?”
Somedays, I am the unremarkable one, moving routinely, perhaps even hurriedly, clockwise through the affairs of my day. But in meeting someone approaching from the other way, I remember that I am blessed, and tasked with asking the question and offering the words of comfort. Other days, I am the one seeking comfort, waiting for someone to notice and offer their kindness and blessing to me, grateful that there is a place to go to with my sorrow. This is not a static text. I must choose who I am every time.
It is easy enough to know if I am a mourner – thankfully, I rarely am. It is harder to know if I have a loved one who is sick. How far in my circle of warmth need someone stand to be called my “loved one?” And do I really have to love the ones close to me that I seek prayers for? Is this a legal category: parents, spouses, siblings, children, etc? Or is this a matter of choice and feeling? Perhaps both?
As for outcast, we hardly know what the word means today, with boundaries and voluntary communities being as pliable as they are. Excommunication has little resonance for us. But what if outcast also means a child who is estranged from a parent; a friend who is shunned by a friend; siblings who no longer speak to one another? There are far too many of us who suffer such alienation to imagine that this category is obsolete.
Where can we not find ourselves in this text? From the moment it opens itself to us, we tumble in – body and soul.
But then, in the midst of such loss and imagining and comforting and healing, we read what seems to be almost petty, and jarring: “To the one who has lost something, they respond: May the One who dwells in this house cause the one who found it to return it to you.”
If we lost something? How can that compare to death, illness, exile? Do we really want to gather the full spiritual energies of our sacred community, and invoke the compassion of the Heavens, simply because someone lost their keys? Their earring? Their sock? Yet it hardly seems possible that coarse materialism could have seeped into this tender, tearing text. How, then, can we understand it? Perhaps in two ways.
Imagine living in a society in which our material possessions are so spare, so few, so cherished, that losing one is cause for a pilgrimage to the Temple. And imagine how distinct, how personal, and how recognizable our possessions have to be for this soft blessing of return to even have a chance of being fulfilled.
So perhaps, rather than demonstrating a misplaced obsession with possessions, this call indicates just the opposite: that households were generally spare; that possessions carried greater value and import; and that objects often bore the identifiable imprint of their owners, either through craftsmanship or use. And that in a way perhaps even greater than we can know, people’s possessions were an extension of and keeper of their owner’s identity. To lose a piece of their belongings was akin to losing a piece of their sense of self. It is so even today; perhaps it was even more so in an era of fewer, and thus more precious, belongings.
But perhaps there is even a more profound purpose for this part of the text. Perhaps it is reminding us, ever so gently, that loss is not always material. We can suffer loss of affection, loss of faith (in ourselves, a loved one, God), loss of a job, loss of home, loss of confidence. Placing this unnamed loss among the other three penetrating, fundamental losses, calls forth an awareness of the inevitable shadow that trails us. Life brings loss. Perhaps it is we who experience loss today; it will be the other who suffers tomorrow. There is not a one of us, on an almost daily basis, who can avoid bumping into or experiencing the sad sense of loss. And so there is not one of us who should refrain from offering blessings of return and wholeness on a daily basis, and seek our share of blessings in return.
“Loss is what we begin with…” writes Robert Pogue Harrison in his poetic book Forest: the shadow of civilization. “We may define the loss mythologically, as a fall from the garden of Eden, and Eden, in turn, we may identify with this or that dream of lost plenitude. One way or another, longing is the loss of life, and loss the life of longing….” (p. 231)
Despite all our blessings and moments of celebration, we live in a world of constant loss. There is no way to fight it. We live, therefore, also in constant need of the comforting presence of each other. We have no Temple today, and no one is approaching us from the other direction, demanding that we notice their hidden pain. But all the more reason we should attend well to the possibility of someone’s loss as we wend our way through the chores of our day. We needn’t make a big deal of this. The midrash itself tells us that in our daily rounds, at work, at home, at the gym, we are to ask one simple question, and, if appropriate, offer one single-sentence response. Anything less would be cold. But anything more may potentially be too much.
May the One who dwells among us, and in whose house we all live, bring you the comfort that you seek.
(written in the inaugural light of my wood burning stove, 12/29/09)
“There is too often deliberate rage and vengefulness at work in the assault on nature and its species, as if one would project onto the natural world the intolerable anxieties of finitude which hold humanity hostage to death.” (from Forests: the shadow of civilization by Robert Pogue Harrison)
Forests , published almost 20 years ago, is a little-known, complex, poetic treatise that deserves a much broader audience. It offers a look at the deep emotional relationship humans have with forests, and by extension, the wilds of nature.
Harrison believes that we can understand ourselves better if we look at the way we look at forests. A forest, he argues, is like a mirror. When we look into them we see “a strange reflection of the order to which they remain external.”
That is, while forests and woods, by definition, lie beyond the bounds of civilization, their presence out-there evokes, demands, a response to what we believe, and do, in-here. The forest - by persistently remaining outside, mysterious, even dangerous - demands explanation. For a settlement to sit somewhat comfortably beside the wildness of the woods, we need to capture and control, to whatever extent possible, the fear that rises from living so close to the wild unknown. Civilization, in this attempt to contain the wild and fearsome, creates a narrative and symbol of forest, even as it holds it at arm’s length. The forest becomes, as the subtitle of the book says, “the shadow of civilization”, the darkness that civilization casts out beyond itself, because of itself, but that it dares not call part of itself.
Harrison’s point, quoted above, is compelling, and challenging. What if it is not just greed that compels our gluttonous taking of the earth’s precious resources; what if it is not just arrogance that encourages us to create thousand-fold waste for the sake an ounce of usable natural treasure (think of the destruction of whole mountains for the comparative pittance of coal we retrieve); what if it is not just ignorance that allows us to continue to consume beyond the point of replenishment?
What if our harsh behavior toward the resources of the wild is based on something even deeper - our dread of personal extinction?
Then truly religion in general, and Judaism in particular, may play a powerful role in crafting responses. For we offer not a view of darkness and emptiness at the end, but a vision of eternal renewal and hope, for humanity if not for ourselves.
The eternal light that shines above the aron, the ark, in the synagogue is not just about the constancy of the daily sacrifices that were offered in the Temple. Not just about the constancy of God’s presence in the midst of the Jewish people. It is also about the enduring promise of life. If, in the iconography of the human imagination, the forest’s darkness equals death, the lamp’s light equals life.
Perhaps this message of hope, this vision of a vibrant future that is ours to enjoy if we do not mess it up, this impulse of possibilities can restrain us from trashing the world out of our despair, and an overwhelming sense of impending, irretrievable, loss.
Stewardship is the term so many of us use to speak of our relationship with nature. Stewardship allows us to see the world as a precious object gifted to humanity by God and bequeathed to us by our ancestors over the generations. For the time we are here, it is our turn to be the world’s earthly guardians. It is our job to protect it, tend to it and care for it. It is our job, when our time is done, to hand a healthy world on to the next generation.
I have always been troubled by this view. For two reasons:
(1) Stewardship leaves undefined the ways in which we are to use the resources of this world, which we must do in order to both survive and thrive. The most common view of stewardship seems to me to be one of conservation and protection. That is, the steward is to make sure that the object guarded is returned exactly as it was received.
But that of course is not how we can be with the world. We rely on the stuff of the world for our every physical and some spiritual needs. Proper guidance on how to use the stuff must be built into the core of this narrative, or else we can go astray. As we have.
Judaism offers some welcome nuances to assist this narrative. There is, for example, in Jewish law the concept of the shomer, the one who is given an object to keep and protect while the owner is away. The shomer, in return for his kindness, has the right to use and benefit from that object, as long as the object is not depleted or unreasonably degraded in the process.
With this construct, we can imagine, then, that the earth is God’s possession, given to humankind, with us as shomer. We can then use the earth and its resources as a shomer uses a valuable deposit left in his care. Or, if we are not theologically inclined, we can imagine the earth as the common possession of all humanity, for all time, deposited with us momentarily, which we are bidden to hand on, well-used and well-preserved. shomer,. Or even more, we can see it as the common inheritance of all creatures for all time, whose protection and good use are temporarily put in our hands.
I can see how these can be compelling visions, motivating us to live gently and well on this earth, in covenant with God, all humankind and all creation. Not bad.
But I still am uncomfortable, because…
(2) ... Regardless of how we nuance stewardship, it reverses the true order of things. Nature is not an object placed in the realm of humanity. Rather, humanity is creature placed in the realm of nature. That is, we are guests in this world, and nature is our host. More precisely, from a religious point of view, God is the ultimate host, but nature is God’s surrogate. It is through nature that God speaks to humankind, and it is through nature that we experience God. That is why miracles are so prominent in the revelation stories. God is not an idea, or concept, or even feeling that can be immediately, rationally and intellectually perceived. God is first experienced as response to the wonder and awe of physical realm that surrounds us. Nature is the sacred currency, the sacred medium, through which God communicates with us.
God is the ultimate host, while nature is the earthly host. And we are nature’s guest.
That alone confers upon us a clear sense of roles and propriety.
(1) As guests, we don’t own anything here (this is a status we share with stewards). We are welcomed into this world, and given full access to all parts of the “house”. But we cannot confuse access with ownership, or power with entitlement. We did not create this world; we are visiting it. The owner has opened its doors wide to us. We are its explorers, not its exploiters.
(2) As guests, we must be respectful of boundaries. It is not right for us to go rifling through nature’s storage closets, upending dressers, dumping huge mounds of
debris and refuse on the floor. It is not right for us to start dismantling the floorboards and the furniture, the picture-frames and doorposts, particularly for some immediate, short-term desire. Some things, especially those that compromise the integrity of the house, are beyond our rights.
(3) As guests, we should use only what is renewable. There were guests here before us, and there will be guests here after us. Just as we only have access to those things the previous guests were gracious enough to leave behind, so we must be gracious and leave the full measure of what we find to those yet to come. It is not our role to diminish their earthly options.
(4) As guests, while we are not permitted to diminish the home of our host, we can enhance it. It is proper for a guest, in some sort of grateful remuneration, to bring a gift to the host. Why else would a host invite a guest if not for some benefit in return? There are so many possibilities for gifts. We can bring the stories we tell about the ways of creation and the awesomeness of nature (think of the last chapters of Job or Psalm 104). We can uncover the secrets of antibiotics, bioluminescence, photosynthesis, how the gecko walks on ceilings. We can deepen our appreciation of the miracle of life through better understanding it. And through bio-mimicry, using the secrets that 4 billion years of evolution has revealed, we can create a richer, safer, healthier world.
(5) As guests, we should pick up after ourselves. Those who come after us should find the place as hospitable as we did, if not more so. That does not mean we have to be invisible. Quite the contrary. We can, and should, leave our mark. Exhibiting evidence of our stay is most appropriate, as long as that evidence offers wisdom, benefits and blessings, and not harm.
These are some of the rules if we see nature as host. There is one more, harsher, rule, that the Torah reminds us of. The host has the right to throw out an unruly guest. The Bible tells us again and again that if the people Israel live heavily and unjustly in the land of Israel, they will be thrown out, spit out. This image startles. But it is the image we need to keep in mind as we trash the world around us today. For scientists remind us that even if we humans were to drive ourselves into extinction, the earth would ultimately survive.
How would our behavior change if we truly mined this vision of humankind as guest? It is worth pondering, for both parties. For, we might rightly ask, not only how living well as guest enriches our lives, but also, how lonely is the host without the company of a grateful and wise guest?
It is the first night of Hanukkah, that desperately needed time of renewal which bolsters our spirits when things appear to be at their darkest.
It is also the first week of the Copenhagen conclave on which we set our all-too shaky hopes that the world will turn from its self-destructive ways and commit to pursuing life lived in harmony and justice within the renewing capacity of earth.
This weekend, around the world, people will hold candlelight vigils to call out this message (organized by http://www.350.org). Adding our lights, and our voices, to this effort is easy for us to do, for our Hanukkah candles will already be blazing in our windows.
Please dedicate the lighting of your candles both to the incomparable story of the intrepid Maccabees and all who fight for freedom and justice, and to the healing of our over-burdened natural world.
The fight for justice and the fight for sustainability are, after all, intertwined. Naturalists tell us that every species alive today occupies a distinct niche within their ecosystem. There is, for better or worse, no absolute redundancy in nature. If one species has evolved to thrive in one niche, no other species will do so. Each species is unique unto itself. When it is lost, a hole is made in the universe.
As it is in nature, so it is with us. We too each fashion ourselves in response to the place we inhabit in our stretch of the world. The world makes us even as we make the world. It is the unique combination of the various pieces of our personal world that forms who we become. Each people, each culture, each individual, is irreplaceable. It is in such a niche that we develop the gifts and talents that define us, which no one else has in the same abundance and combination. When one person, one people, one culture is lost, a hole is made in the universe.
It is only when we come together, then, in nature and society, joining piece to piece, that we can begin to grasp the vision of this grand puzzle we call life.