2016-06-30
In my second year as rabbi-in-residence at the University of Oxford, a Hassidic couple with 10 children came to stay with us for the Jewish festival of Sukkot. As we sat down to a festive meal with students, a twenty-something woman at our table looked quizzically at the numerous young children who surrounded their mother. "Are all these yours?" she asked incredulously. And when the mother replied that indeed they were, the student responded, "Don't you think that that's a bit too many?" The mother's eyes reddened, and she left the table. I followed her into our kitchen and apologized for the students' hurtful remarks. "That's OK," she said. "I get that all the time. But my rebbe told me never to be embarrassed for having a lot of children."

It was this story that came back to me last month when my family and I were guests of Michael Jackson at his Neverland Valley ranch in California. I know what you're thinking. Is this the most blatant display of name-dropping ever, or should we be waiting for a punch line? Neither is the case. Michael and I met a year and a half ago through Uri Geller, a mutual friend, who saw a commonality in Michael's and my own concern for the well-being of the human soul. He seemed to think we could learn from each other. I was skeptical. I had already tried to learn to moonwalk in the '80s, and it was not a pretty picture. Our friend insisted that I could gain more than better dance moves from a meeting with Michael.

So we arranged to get together at Michael's New York home. From the moment we sat down together, I was struck by his amazing sensitivity to the pain of all living things. For instance, when we discussed the fact that deer hunting was a common sport in the United Kingdom, Michael's eyes welled up. "I just don't understand that," he said. "How could someone shoot something that helpless and innocent?" I had to check my first response of cynicism to such a reaction. My usual answer of "Well, that's the food chain--survival of the fittest!" would have been a slap in the face to this man who, unlike so many of us, lives his life guided by a loving heart rather than a cold intellect. Later, he cried again when he spoke of how many parents couldn't care less about missing suppertime with their children. (I tried to wipe the guilty look off my face.) When his 2-year-old son Prince came into the room, Michael spoke to him with respect as well as affection, patiently answering his questions. It was clear that the little boy was the delight of his father's life.

We continued to spend time together, speaking not only of spiritual matters but also of all the things that friends talk about: art, music, books, childhood, and family. Michael attended synagogue with me in New York, and the experience was moving for both of us. The congregation welcomed him with open arms. Michael accepted shyly, and to this day still speaks of the overwhelming sense of acceptance he felt in that small, yet lively synagogue.

Michael is not afraid of showing his feelings. On Thanksgiving, he invited our family to attend a showing of "Toy Story 2" at a local theater. After a highly covert series of James Bond-esque maneuvers to get us into the theater unseen and undisturbed (I could reveal the secrets, but then I would have to shoot you), we sat with heaping buckets of popcorn and biggie cokes. At first, I was just there as a father taking his kids to a children's movie. I was there for them. But Michael was behind me laughing heartily at the animated characters, and I chuckled to think that no one else in the theatre realized who was emitting this carefree, joyous laugh. Gradually my own chuckle became a guffaw, for Michael's laughter was contagious. Soon, I was really enjoying the film. It struck me for the first time in recent memory that I did not need to see people getting shot, dismembered, or naked in order to be amused. For a brief few moments, I was released from a dark world that we adults have created and call "entertainment."

Months later, my family had its first invitation to visit the Neverland Ranch. We arrived stocked with sunscreen and llama feed. The children were thrilled to be welcomed into this wonderland. I was excited to spend more time conversing with Michael. There, in the children's paradise Jackson created--a kind of Disneyland meets the San Diego Zoo--I witnessed an extraordinary human being whose compassion for and devotion to children, especially those in need, knows no limits. By the time I departed after a week's stay, I had closely observed someone for whom children are always a blessing, never a burden. I learned to be significantly more attuned to the needs of my own and others' children. Our mutual friend was right. I had a lot to learn from Michael.

A steady stream of kids pours into Neverland Ranch, children fighting leukemia and other cancers. They stay for days with their families as Michael's guests, cavorting on rides and playing with the animals. Busloads of kids from inner cities also arrive, for a day of enjoyment and attention from Michael, who escorts them onto the rides. One 10-year-old, ashamed at first to take off his hat because of chemotherapy-induced baldness, later removed it after Michael spent the day giving him the confidence to do so.

My own 8-year-old daughter experienced Michael's empathy when she got momentarily lost in the cavernous halls of Neverland's video room. She started to cry, and Michael ran over to her and knelt down at her level. "Oh, I know how you feel," he said. "I remember that happening to me when I was a little boy." She was instantly comforted. I contrasted this to what would have been my natural response, to invalidate her fear and get her to toughen up.

I love talking with Michael. I love his stories, his idealism, and his innovative ideas. But all talk and no action can prove pretty empty. So I have decided that we must go beyond the talk. I am now preparing to join Michael at the University of Oxford in England, where we will deliver a joint lecture emphasizing the need to re-prioritize children in society and life. Believe it or not, this will be Michael's first-ever public lecture. The speech will serve to announce the establishment of a new foundation, "Time for Kids," for children coordinated by Michael and me.

"Time for Kids" stresses the importance of children, family life, and community, and aims to unite leaders from the business, entertainment, sports, science, political, and literary worlds in taking action on child welfare issues. We are also beginning work on a book focusing on the lessons that we adults may learn from the incorruptibility and openness that is inherent in children and which we hope will be available by the middle of next year. It has been thrilling to work with Michael on these projects. It has rejuvenated my spirit and reminded me just how inspiring meaningful work can be.

Of course, I know that Michael has infuriated and mystified many. People presume his guilt after an allegation of child molestation, although he has never been charged with any wrongdoing. His silence reads to the public as stealth, his genius is often interpreted as eccentricity. I have watched outrageous rumors grow from a tabloid seed to a televised expose, and if I didn't know the immense pain that each of these stories inflict upon Michael, I would have to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Days after having watched a television report on Michael's supposed near-paralyzing obsession with germs, he and I sat on the floor with our kids having dinner, playing Native Americans at a "pow-wow" in the teepee village Michael put together with his son. We ate off the floor. Germ neurosis? I don't think so. Michael is simply not what the media reports. I see something different: a man who loves a child's innocence and is himself innocent; a man who loves a child's playfulness and is himself playful.

What does the world hold against Michael Jackson? Perhaps it's his extreme emphasis on the need for adults to learn from children. Indeed, our society has a tendency to use the word "adult" as a synonym for mature and responsible. What is forgotten is that the word can also connote cynical, untrusting, and scheming. As we grow older, the pain of the world around us forces us increasingly to harden our hearts. What Michael's devotion to children is saying is that while we must grow up on the outside, we should forever retain the child at our core. By contrast, many adults don external garments to compensate for internal deficiencies and to conceal their vulnerability.

I am at a loss to explain Michael's special sensitivity to children, with which I was once so poorly endowed. But I recall an old Jewish mystical tradition that says that not all humans were expelled from the Garden together with Adam and Eve. There are still some individuals who remain in Paradise and beckon us all to reenter. Could it be that Michael moon-walked back into Eden?