Noah is the biblical hero who builds an ark, saves the animal kingdom and helps rebuild the world after a great flood. In spite of his heroism, he is not without fault.
Consider his seeming lack of concern with anyone outside of his own family. Why did he not ask God to consider saving others or warm them of the upcoming flood?
Noah may be the first exemplar of a trend I’ve noticed more and more. It is a faith concerned primarily with oneself.
When God Becomes Ourselves
Alan Lurie calls it “narcissistic spirituality.” Today it happens when religious practice becomes an exercise in self-indulgence.
He gives the personal example of a time he walked into a synagogue and passed a man deep in meditation. Eyes closed, the man breathed in and out, soaking in the Rabbi’s call to “become the Sabbath peace.”
Lurie accidently stepped on his toe. The man opened his eyes and snarled, “Hey, watch it, buddy.”
Does that strike you as a gesture of peace? When we religion becomes focused on the self, it loses its connection with God. We begin to ask what God can do for us, rather than what we can do for the world.
Ask Not What God Can Do for You
Authentic faith begins when we ask not what God can do for us, but how we can do God’s work here on earth. We find that faith when we look for God not only in ourselves, but in the deeds and needs of others.
Consider this beautiful story told by the Nobel Prize winning author Jorge Luis Borges. Entitled The Approach to Al-Matussim, it is a fantasy written in the 1930s.
The narrator has become an outcast among the lower classes of India. In his dealings with the poor, he begins to see traces of kindnesses and tenderness that seem out of place. They are light intruding into the darkness.
He imagines that they must be a reflection of someone else–of a perfect person–from whom “this clarity, this brightness, emanates.” He calls that person al-matusim. He becomes a detective, searching for this mysterious presence by following its reflections in others.
How Do We Find God?
That is how we, too, can find God. We discover God’s presence not in ourselves, but in the hands of hearts of others. We experience God in the faces of those who visit us when we are ill; who comfort us when we have experienced a tragic; who challenge us when we are complacent; who love us when we find it hard to love ourselves.
“God does not live in one place,” a great Rabbi taught. “God dwells wherever we let Him in.”
A classic Jewish joke… When two Jews gather together, expect at least three opinions. Our tradition embraces debate and discussion. Argument becomes a vehicle to truth.
As we enter the final presidential debate, perhaps the following lessons from Jewish tradition can enrich the discussion. Here a few to consider:
1. Respect the other’s point of view, even if you vehemently disagree with it: Two early rabbis–Hillel and Shammai–disagreed on almost everything. Yet, when a ruling was made, the other assented. The losing position was recorded, in case changing circumstances demanded a new approach.
Later Jewish sages described the disagreements between Hillel and Shammai as “arguments for the sake of heaven.” They were not about scoring points. They were about finding what is true and enduring.
2. Use civil language: The media thrives on conflict. The sharper the words, the bigger the headlines. Society, on the other hand, thrives on relationships. The closer our bonds, the stronger we are.
Politics today is weakening those bonds. Anger has become a political weapon. Our harsh words perpetuate it. We see it on the Right and the Left. Each can use a refresher with the Book of Proverbs, which says brilliantly, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
3. Stop the Spin: Newt Minow, one of the creators of the Presidential Debate Commission, advised viewers to turn off their televisions immediately after the debate and decide for themselves who spoke more persuasively. I couldn’t agree more.
Jewish tradition teaches that parties to a contract need to understand clearly its terms and conditions. The importance of our decisions demand we understand what they mean and why they make them. The same is true in politics.
The spin may be entertaining, but it is not enlightening. We are smarter than the spinners, and the future rests in our hands.
A great children’s song starts with the words, “I have two eyes to see with, two hands to wave with, and two ears to hear with.”
I have one objection. In my experience, we may hear sounds with our ears. But we hear people with our hearts.
Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher of the twentieth century, illustrates this truth in a story he told about himself.
Listening For The Unspoken
Buber was a young university professor, in the midst of his studies, when a young student knocked on his office door. The student looked troubled. He asked Buber if he could speak with him for a few minutes.
Buber grudgingly agreed, with a clear signal of impatience. He nodded as the student talked, though it was clear his mind was on other things. When the student finished speaking, Buber shared some thoughts and reflections, and then got up and wished the student well.
That evening Buber realized something. He had not been fully present with the student. He listened with his ears but not his heart. Later he learned that the student had taken his own life.
Are you there?
We often fail to be fully present. How often do we talk with our friends and family and listen only for what we want to hear? How many times are we seeming to listen to someone when we are really thinking about where we are going for dinner later? How many of us have talked on the phone and read e-mail at the same time?
To listen attentively is to be truly present, and it can be a struggle. It often depends more on one’s heart rather than one’s ears.
A Burning Bush
The Jewish sages teach this truth in a story about the burning bush. This was the bush covered in flames but not consumed by the fire. Many people, the sages said, walk by that bush. And the God’s voice spoke out continuously from it.
It was only Moses, however, who had the heart to stop and hear it. As one rabbi put, “the miracle was not that God called out to Moses from a burning bush. The miracle was that Moses heard Him.” So may we.
A friend once taught me a powerful saying: “The Perfect is the enemy of the good.” This pithy piece of wisdoms speaks to those of us who worry about everything. When everything has to be perfect, we dwell on each detail and never get anything done.
In preparing of the upcoming Jewish holiday of Sukkot, I realized this saying also contains a deeper pearl of wisdom. Sukkot is a holiday in which we build a temporary outdoor dwelling place called a succah, and eat and celebrate and welcome guests into it for seven days. Jewish tradition has and extensive set of instructions detailing the way in which a succah is to be constructed.
Yet, the laws for building a succah have an unusual caveat. An imperfect succah is still a “kosher” succah. Even if the walls are not the right length, or the door is not in the proper place, we can still use the succah in the same way we would use a perfectly constructed succah. (Personally, I am grateful for this exception, because my handyman and building construction skills leave much to be desired!)
Peace Needs Flexibility
This kind of exception is rare in Jewish law. Usually, an item used in Jewish ritual needs to be perfect. A Torah scroll, for example, is meticulously written and rewritten until every letter precisely formed. The number of tassels on a Jewish prayer shawl is non-negotiable. A sukkah, however, even without any of the necessary decorations, can still be used for ritual purposes.
This flexibility is the reason the Jewish sages consistently refer to the “Sukkat Shalom, the Dwelling Place of Peace.” Peace demands flexibility. Is any relationship always perfect for both partners? Is any business deal absolutely perfect for both parties?
Perfection is not only the enemy of the good. If we insist on perfection, we will always focus on what’s wrong rather than what’s right. As Rabbi Avraham Kook, one of the great mystics of the twentieth century put it, “peace can never exist when we insist on perfection.”