This is a guest post for Rosh Hashana, which came to me as an email from a good friend. Reprinted with his permission, and with several references to his wife Ruthie. And, oh yes, with his explanation of the headline on the post: “So what did you expect from a disciple of the Kotzker Rebbe, warmth and sunlight and hugs?”
As some of you know, I spent a decent amount of time this summer driving around the Southwestern US, taking pictures for what will hopefully become a photo book of ghost towns. It all started as an excuse to drive around the desert and get mighty lost, which in some ways is the point of this message, but we’ll get to that in a moment. So one day, having come from about ten days in Death Valley, I was looking for a certain ghost town about 2 hours away. To find this particular place, you have to drive to a town near a dry lake called Lake Owen and from there one finds a road going up to a mountain top, I think it’s about 11,000 feet high, and that’s where the ghost town is. Only I couldn’t find the $#@!! road for the life of me. So I spent about an hour in the town by the dry lake (Keeler) which is itself almost completely deserted and a very charming place to photograph. Didn’t see a soul. After a while I spotted a very elderly woman and figured what the heck, I have nothing to lose. So I rolled down my window and asked if she knew how to get to the ghost town. “Oh no”, she replies, “You can’t go up there yourself. Mike owns the land now and he really doesn’t like people mucking about up there. Let me call him and he’ll have to interview you.” After 20 minutes, a white guy arrives in an old jacked-up pickup truck, wearing spurs and a cowboy hat. Maybe in his late 50’s. Asks me what I want up there, so I told him I am just a guy who likes taking pictures of old ghost towns, and heard his was a good one. He looks me over and decides I am OK, so tells me that he is going up there to work on one of the buildings and I can follow him up.
40 minutes and one awesome narrow jeep trail later, we get to the town. Except it’s 11,000 feet up, so it’s cold, and I just came from Death Valley, where it was 122 degrees. Before I continue, a quick note: I do not advertise who I am on these trips. One never knows who you will run into, and some of them are not paragons of tolerance. So I was wearing a bandana on my head and when he asked where I am from I just told the guy that I am from New Jersey. Anyway, without thinking about it, I reached into my jeep and grabbed the only jacket I had brought, which happened to be my green fleece Border Guard jacket. It has one very small Hebrew logo on it, that’s all. Very inconspicuous. So I go into an open building and there’s Mike, sitting on a chair in his cowboy hat and spurs with a nice 12-gauge shotgun on his lap, there at the top of the mountain with nobody else around for God knows how many miles, and he looks at the Hebrew logo on the jacket and says “That looks military. Israel?” Ouch!!! As you might imagine, I was a bit concerned, since he’s the one with the shotgun and there’s not much I can do about it if he wants to hassle me. So he asks me again where I am from… this time I told him that I am from New Jersey but now live in Jerusalem, Israel, and serve in an anti-terrorist unit of the Israel Border Guard. Then he asks me what else I do. I tell him about the Interfaith Encounter Association and what I do with Jews, Moslems, Christians, and Druse to build intercultural understanding and friendship. By this time I am kind of nervously glancing at his finger to see if it’s getting anywhere near the trigger. I mean, you can never tell about these old white guys in areas like that.
Then he looks at me quizzically for a few seconds then says “So, you must be Jewish, right?” I answer “Yup.” (Gulp.) Then he says “Are you a Rabbi?” I tell him yes, and figure well, I’ve had a good long life, what the heck. So then the surprise comes – he tells me that he himself is a Vietnam veteran, a religious Christian with a great interest both in Israel and in interfaith work, and we proceed to spend the next three hours talking about it all, after which he promises to send all my contact information to a foundation that he’s connected with (a very important one, in fact) in the hopes that they’ll fund us. All because I slipped and wore that jacket!
Now, this is a cute story, and maybe IEA will get some well-deserved funding from it, but that’s not why I tell it to you. I tell it because, as you are of course aware, I had allowed my pre-existing views, and a bit of paranoia, to color my interpretation of events to such an extent that I ended up being dead wrong.
For the same money I got paid to write all this, I could send you all a nice Hallmark Card greeting wishing you a good and sweet year, and that would of course be mighty nice of me, but so what? What would it change? And the point of Rosh haShanah, to me, is that we all get stuck in modes of being and thinking and acting, and tend to fear whatever challenges our comfort. Whether spiritual, or intellectual, or ethical. We pre-judge others, we respond with anger instead of introspection to things which ought to challenge us to grow and transcend ourselves, and we condemn ourselves to living in the same old box, year after year. There is a wonderful line from one of Arthur Miller’s plays – I think it was “Death of a Salesman” – where a man is yelling at his son and says “You should listen to my 50 years of experience!” And the son just looks at him and says “Dad, you don’t have 50 years of experience – you have one year of experience that you’ve repeated 50 times.” In a way, that’s not so bad. There are worse things: I think that many of us, inevitably, get stuck in ruts that we simply reinforce each year, becoming progressively more spiritually shriveled and ossified as we age, instead of growing in wisdom and openness. (I can just hear Ruthie laughing and saying that you can believe this is true, coming from a guy who is still wearing the same kind of glasses he had in 1973!)
One last quick vignette: Death Valley is kind of a haven for bikers. It’s a bit of a challenge, straddling 1200 cc’s of hot engine while sucking borax dust and avoiding rattlers on an endless highway in 128-degree weather. So you find characters that are pretty gnarly. I met this old grizzled guy on a 1950’s Harley, green teeth, braids in his beard, leather pants, the whole nine yards. Wearing chains and some kind of T-shirt. Then after a few minutes of conversation Greenteeth turns his back on me to get on the bike. Know what the shirt said? “You don’t stop exploring because you get old. You get old because you stop exploring.”
Well, he was probably into ghost towns too. But let’s expand the shirt’s message a little. One of the most wonderful lessons I have learned in life is that a sidetrack, or getting lost, is often as valuable, or even more so, than wherever it is we think we wanted to be going. One never knows what the universe has in store for you around the next bend, and life’s teachings most definitely don’t always come only from the sources we expect – but of course we have to be able to perceive them.
And maybe the more we think we know what we know, the more we seek safety and security instead of exploring – the more we die inside. There is an awesome chassidic teaching that is the diametric opposite of what we would expect. It asks the question, how is the soul of a Tzaddik, a righteous person, different from the soul of anyone else? I think maybe if you asked a Zen master this question he would say something about the soul of an enlightened person being characterized by equanimity, peace, elimination of all desire. Stuff like that. But that’s not the Chassidic answer. The Chassidic answer is that a Tzaddik has not one, not two, but three souls within him, and these three souls are in constant strife with each other, and that if there should be peace within the soul of a Tzaddik for one moment, the world would cease to exist.
Let’s try to think for a moment about what it might mean for us.
Heschel wrote that the trouble with religion in our time (and I might add, religious leadership) is that it is ready to offer comfort, but has no courage to challenge. We avoid inner strife and seek the safety of comfort in a thousand different ways. We read the newspaper every day, interpreting events to fit our pre-conceived notions, refusing to re-evaluate the evidence that maybe we were wrong about (insert the subject of your choice here.) We make facile decisions about who can teach us, and end up trusting religious leaders who sometimes are intellectually timid or ethically stunted. We allow ourselves knee-jerk defenses of our own (and our country’s) righteousness in every detail instead of facing our own rationalizations and imperfections, and maybe even worse, we work overtime to reinforce our confidence in the unmitigated evil of all those on the enemy side.
The Sages ask, in Pirkei Avot, “Who is Wise?” And they answer: One who learns from all people. This is so simple, and we all know it, but how often do we take it seriously? And can we grow in any way that matters if we can’t let down our defenses and allow our ways of thinking and our old conclusions to be challenged? For Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kuk, who in my opinion was one of the greatest visionaries that the Jewish people, or any people, have ever produced, God gave the nation of Israel a revelation of truth that no one else has. And yet. We are limited, finite, imperfect beings, who tend to be unable to conceive of things in their totality. So each vision, even that of Torah, is necessarily partial, framed as it is by the necessity of being expressed in human language. But each particular vision – that of our own nation/religion and also others – is a reflection and manifestation of the One, and as such carries with it a measure of Divine truth. There is a German foundation that gives out an award every year for organizations that work to teach the “complementarity” of religions – I don’t know if that is really a word in English, but the idea is one that Rav Kuk would have heartily supported.
Do we really hear the truth no matter who says it, as Maimonides enjoined? Do we see it as a mitzvah (commandment) to let down our guard, to allow that we may be wrong about some things? Or do we create environments where conformity is seen as being the same thing as piety and fear of questions is the same thing as faith? And if so, what does that really say about what we feel, deep down inside, about the strength and validity and truth of our own commitments and beliefs?
Paul Tillich, an eminent and extremely profound Protestant theologian who is very frequently cited by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, writes that ultimately there is no faith without an intrinsic “in spite of” – without an honest awareness of and fruitful confrontation with alternatives. This teaching is strongly echoed by Rabbi Soloveitchik himself when he writes that “It is easier to sell religion to the non-believer if you praise your merchandise as a transcendental “drug” or “opiate” conducive to the eradication of pain and misery….The religious experience, however, is beyond granting man an hedonic status or spiritual complacency. To the contrary, the religious experience is fraught with pitfalls and continual challenge…. Religion enriches life, gives it depth and multi-dimensional visions, but does not grant man the comfort and complacency that nearly always spell superficiality and shallow-mindedness.” Or at least it shouldn’t. But all too often, we put up intellectual walls instead of tearing them down, and take easy refuge in black-and white thinking.
The world is desperately – desperately – in need of religious leaders and believers who have the guts to be boundary-crossers, to face that which is different and see in it what we all share, thus moving from demonization and fear to knowledge, friendship, and respect. If some Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land can do this – and they can and do – then anyone can.
“Who is a true hero?” Our sages ask in Pirkei Avot. And the answer they give is “He who makes an enemy into a friend.” This is not always possible. It takes two to tango, surely.. But does that excuse us from trying?
And I think that this is exactly what God has in mind for us. It is an extremely difficult, even painful, process. Yet if religions are going to help bring the world to a better place instead of retarding progress by hiding behind all the pre-existing barriers then it is of critical importance that we force ourselves, and drag our leaders with us, if necessary. After all, as Heschel said, “we carry the gold of God in our souls to forge the gate of the Kingdom” – if we aren’t even trying to think about the big issues, to change the world, then what is it all for? But it has to start with a new and very brave way of thinking and relating and reacting.
I would be selling all of you short if I wished for you only the warm fuzzy stuff. In the coming year, I wish for all of us not only happiness but challenge, and struggle, and vision, and yes, even pain. It’s the only way to grow, and there ain’t no shortcuts. And we haven’t got a minute to waste.