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May


The Brain, Buber, and Being


A decade ago neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist wrote a fascinating book, “The Master and the Emissary.” His thesis is that the different hemispheres of our asymmetric and divided brains perceive reality differently, and that increasingly over history, the left – detail oriented, more narrowly focused – has become dominant. Reading his work, I thought of Martin Buber’s “I and Thou”:

“However the history of the individual and that of the human race may diverge in other respects, they agree in this at least: both signify a progressive increase of the It-world.”

Distancing ourselves from others and from the world, seeing a part rather than the whole, calculating in place of relating – these are maladies of our society. They have given us blessings too, as wizards of technology and technique. Increasingly however, as Buber warned almost a century ago, we are losing the connective tissue of relationship that alone is our salvation. Theology and brain science join hands with a plea to reintegrate and see ourselves as part of the world rather than masters of it, and to view others not as resources to be manipulated but human spirits to be embraced.

Not Good Enough?


Torah heroes generally shrink from leadership. Moses pleads with God to send someone else. Isaiah fears that he has ‘unclean lips.’ Jeremiah must be forced by God to be a prophet. In an almost satiric version, Samuel three times thinks God’s voice is really the voice of Eli, the High Priest, calling him in the night.

None of these great figures is falsely modest. Rather they are honest and deeply insightful. Each knows what it means to take on the burden of leadership and recognizes that they cannot do it lightly or thoughtlessly. They feel unequal to the responsibility of carrying God’s word in an often hostile world and to a constantly backsliding people.

Abraham Lincoln declared in 1859 that he did not “think himself fit for the Presidency” and in a letter that same year wrote he was not “a man of great learning, or a very extraordinary one in any respect.” In a world that promotes self-esteem and discourages self-doubt, such attitudes may seem foreign to us. Yet surrounded by people convinced they are good, do we not yearn for one of outstanding merit who believes that he is not good enough?

What Is Holiness?


The Hebrew word for holiness is kadosh, which also means separate. In some sense the realm of the holy is the realm set apart – the Sabbath that is kadosh from the week, or the couple bound in kiddushin, the rites of marriage, sharing a unique intimacy.

Yet holiness cannot be fully separate. For we are told God is kadosh and God is both above all and yet in all; and we too are told to be kadosh, to attain the state of both distance and closeness, separation and embrace. Holiness involves goodness – one cannot be holy without being good – but it is more than goodness.

Holiness touches the realm beyond ourselves and brings it into this world. A mundane action charged with mission, passion and sanctity, becomes holy. When Israel is called a holy nation and a light, it is a reminder both to separate and to bring the fruits of that separation to others. The idea of holiness is awesome, full of mystery and wonder; it exceeds our ability to comprehend. Yet it can be expressed in a simple blessing, an act of extraordinary kindness, a congregation elevated together in prayer. For a moment we experience the presence of God, and call that moment holy.

Jewish Narcissism


We remember Narcissus as a self loving fool who is drowned in a pool of his own reflection. We don’t always recall the fuller myth: that he rejected Eros, who in fury cursed him. The seer Tiresias predicted his fate – Narcissus would die if he came to know himself.

Greek literature teaches the double edged nature of being deeply acquainted with one’s own character. Despite the ancient Delphic admonition to know oneself, self knowledge is not always attractive or easy. Goethe wrote, “Know myself? If I knew myself I would run away.” There are part of ourselves that are not easy to know or, once known, are very hard to admire or to like.

Still, self-knowledge is both encouraged and praised by the masters of Jewish tradition. Teshuva, repentance, requires a recognition of one’s deeds and more deeply, of one’s dispositions and impulses. In the Talmud’s version of the Narcissus story (Nedarim 9b), the handsome man who sees his beautiful reflection pulls back and becomes a Nazir, one who has rededicated himself to God. “If a man knows who he is,” wrote the great Chasidic master Rabbi Simcha Bunim, “he is not frightened of anyone.” Knowing you are in the Divine image, you can face others – and truly face yourself – without fear.

The Right To Be Enchanted


A sharp statement that I believe was made by the children’s writer Joan Aiken: “Anyone who does not read to their children doesn’t deserve to have them.”

She may be overstating the point, but not by much. One of the most beautiful and binding experience one can have with a child is to read to her or to him, especially at bedtime. It is a sacred moment, without phones or screens, just the sound of a voice telling a story.

Bedtime stories, like bedtime prayers, spur the soul. They enrich the child’s imagination and remind them not only of the lives others have lived, but of newly imagined possibilities for their own lives. Lodged deep inside of us, throughout the years the stories we heard return as encouragement and renewal.

Author Philip Pullman said, “Thou shalt not’ might reach the head but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart.” Each child should hear those magic words and to be carried off into the realm of stories. Fairy tales and fantasies, heroism and daring – these are the very stuff of enchantment. And every child has a right to be enchanted.

April


Argue, But Listen


We live in a time of mutual incomprehension. People do not argue with one another as much as serially lecture each other. We listen to anticipate an answer, not to comprehend. Victory has become more urgent than understanding.

Passover reminds us of the practice of genuine discussion. We ask questions, we posit different types of people, recount and try to learn from a story we think we already know. We eat strange foods in part because changing routine is a powerful way of looking anew at the world. We recall our history to teach us that however differently we may think about things today, we all share commonalities in the past.

Judaism is a tradition of powerful convictions; not everything is up for grabs. If you believe nothing, you are not pluralistic but empty. Yet in the midst of believing, Judaism does not ask us to shut our minds to other views and shifting perspectives. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah learns something new in old age and we retell his insights in the Haggadah – the model of a sage who never stopped listening, never stopped learning. May his acuity and openness be a model for us all.

Argue, But Listen


We live in a time of mutual incomprehension. People do not argue with one another as much as serially lecture each other. We listen to anticipate an answer, not to comprehend. Victory has become more urgent than understanding.

Passover reminds us of the practice of genuine discussion. We ask questions, we posit different types of people, recount and try to learn from a story we think we already know. We eat strange foods in part because changing routine is a powerful way of looking anew at the world. We recall our history to teach us that however differently we may think about things today, we all share commonalities in the past.

Judaism is a tradition of powerful convictions; not everything is up for grabs. If you believe nothing, you are not pluralistic but empty. Yet in the midst of believing, Judaism does not ask us to shut our minds to other views and shifting perspectives. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah learns something new in old age and we retell his insights in the Haggadah – the model of a sage who never stopped listening, never stopped learning. May his acuity and openness be a model for us all.

When The Messiah Comes


Elijah is the prophet who will announce the coming of the Messiah in Jewish teaching. In the bible Elijah does not die – he is carried off to heaven in a chariot – and so the tradition expected his return. We anticipate Elijah’s arrival most eagerly at certain times: at the end of Shabbat, the end of Yom Kippur, at a brit milah and at the Passover Seder. Although there are specific reasons for each of the four times, there is also a general reason.

All four times are also times when families traditionally gather together.

We often hear that the time of the Messiah will be epochal, even cataclysmic. Some prophets speak of the order of nature being overturned. The prophet Malachi, whom we read on Passover, has a more humble and poignant image: Malachi 4:6: “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and awesome day of the LORD. God will turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the hearts of children to their parents.”

If you are gathered with family around the table on Passover, in a spirit of love and peace, you have a foretaste of the Messianic days.

Invisible Work


While traveling in Southeast Asia I learned that certain cultures refer to housework as “invisible work” because if it is done you cannot see it. Only if it is undone do you realize it is needed.

Entropy operates in our daily lives. Left alone, my house will get dirty. As we all know, it never seems to get spontaneously clean. The job of maintaining our environment takes a lot of work. At no time do we realize this more vividly than at Passover.

Passover is the decathlon of cleaning. It is hard to believe all the crevices and nooks that crumbs have crept into over the year. It is like a mass migration of chometz, carried out stealthily, to places no normal dustmop can reach.

Passover cleaning should also increase our appreciation for those who do our ‘invisible work.’ People who clean our homes and streets, who maintain our buildings, who must constantly toil so that our world remains manageable. As Passover approaches, thank the sanitation worker, the gardener, and the housekeeper. Without their help, the lack of work would be visible indeed.

Who Is God?


When you were two years old could you imagine what it was to be an adult? Not only could you not imagine it, but you didn’t understand what it was that you could not imagine. In the Jewish tradition, the distance between Divine and human is far greater than between a two year old and an adult.
 
What do we mean when we speak of God? We speak of something far beyond anything we know or ever can know. Invoking God requires submission of the intellect, humility before an infinite whose garment hem the greatest spirits barely brush. As one Jewish philosopher wrote, to describe God one would have to be God.
 
We have stories and laws to wrap with a web of words realities we can never comprehend. Advocates make intellectual arguments on all sides ‘for’ and ‘against’ God, as though the human mind were equipped for metaphysical certainties. Yet we stand before the mysteries of the universe as that small child, enchanted and bewildered, trusting in that which we cannot understand and seeking to live in harmony with the wonder beyond comprehension.