Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Judaism: A Wandering People No More

We have always been wandering. From deserts to overpopulated cities, we, the Jewish people, have taken comfort in being nomadic in our journeys. Today, what should be considered mere recollections of our Biblical past now exaggeratedly defines our present and future: we have and will always wander the earth.

Somehow, this unsettles me.

Perhaps our motivation to constantly pack and repack our lives is rooted in our desire to find the “greener grass” in the world. Abraham’s first descendants were obligated to seek destinations with the freshest water and pastures in Canaan. Moses’ spies scouted new lands that seemed the most appealing and convenient to conquer. Settlers in Israel strive to build temporary homes for themselves in order to maintain the tiny triangle of Israel in the heart of the Middle East. Since the Biblical days of our faith, we have been encouraged to never settle for compromise. While our time in places may be ephemeral, our unremitting goal of finding the greatest potentials for success is eternal.

Perhaps we do not believe in the concept of a permanent home. Maybe our nomadic state of mind is derived from the faith we place in the “Olam Haba” or the world to come. There are many traditional Jews in the world who fervently believe that our final zip code will never be confirmed in this lifetime. When an American tourist visited Hofetz Chaim, a Polish rabbi, he came across a home less than humble with nothing other than books, a table and bench. “Rabbi, where is your furniture?” the American asked.

“Where is yours?” the rabbi responded nonchalantly.

The tourist, now confused, answered. “But I am only passing through.”

“So am I,” said Hofetz Chaim. “So am I.”

There are Jews in this world who see their every action as a contribution toward the next life that they will enter post death. There are Jews who detach from their homes and can flexibly move from place to place simply as a channel to prepare for a new world that has yet to arrive.

Despite the various reasons for which we have refrained from plant ourselves in any one location, our constant wandering has created a negative image for the rest of the world. Our lack of commitment to any one home implies that we would rather escape than involve ourselves with the issues that surround us. It implies that we are always running away from something rather than toward anything. For hundreds of years, we have resorted to being mere temporary citizens of the world, allowing our Judaism to keep us detached from any one place like the dilapidated luggage we carry. Today, in order to preserve Judaism in an ever-evolving world, our mindsets must change. We must confront the inexorable reality: we are no longer simply passing through.
In a world stricken with unjust poverty, turmoil, and strife, there is truly no time to wander in hopes of ignoring the present and finding a more convenient future. There is no current opportunity for a “next world” that will somehow expunge the pain from this one. Given the active presence of anti-Semitism and ignorance in some parts of the world, there is truly no way that we can continue to fickly appear and disappear into people’s lives. In a world where the presence of Judaism often competes with evolution and change, we cannot afford to wander away and be forgotten.

How can we, as a global Jewish community, eradicate this intergenerational impulse to wander? How can we ensure that our faith and its people will be fully present and permanent rather than nomadic and destructible?

Perhaps the underlying challenge is that we, to this day, are homeless. Our lack of home leaves us wandering in uncertainty, searching for places to secure our present and plant our future. Our ancestors sought new lands for more than the clean water and pastures; they were searching for an empty place to transform into a sacred space. Our first pioneers in Israel did not suffer through typhus and malaria for the tiny destination on the map, but rather for its potential of serving as a home for Jews who need it. Even today, Jews in suburban areas cluster together, aspiring to create the comfort of a home within an area where the pursuit of Judaism requires real effort. We, Jews, throughout our past and present, wander away from the potential of building a home for one another.

The solution, while seemingly simple, requires us to rely on our broader Jewish community. We must learn to create homes for ourselves. Rather than wandering elsewhere, we must strive to create dwelling places in our any given zip code. It is famously said [and sung] “V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham” or “and they shall make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them” which describes the sanctuary that we will create in which God will dwell. Through these words comes with the realization that the idea of home is not given to us but rather created and strengthened by us. Dwelling places are not already built for us with their quirks and charm but rather with the open opportunity for us to fill them.

It is only when we choose to stop seeing our world for what it should be rather than for what is actually is will we be able to create a home. When we accept our current zip codes instead of wandering in an endless cycle, we will be able to create the sanctuary where God will feel inspired to enter. In the words of Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, God can be found wherever we let God in.” God will dwell among us, grounded Jewish citizens of the world, once we are willing to call the four walls surrounding us a home. When we decide to park our moving trucks, take off our shoes, and place a welcome mat by the doors of our sanctuary. When we can look around us and ensure that every Jew--Biblical and modern, young and old, inside and outside of Israel, religious and passive—can feel welcome in the sanctuaries we create at all corners of the earth. And when that day finally comes, our days of wandering will be mere memory.

Holiness in All Things

Today, any headline bolded across the cover of any newspaper can remind us that we live in a world that is far from complacent. Any rally where parents and children alike still need to voice their hatred against gun violence reminds us that we are still far from achieving peace. Any prison that convicts and detains the falsely accused reminds us that this world is far from just. Any state with laws denying couples the right to marry one another reminds us that we are far from reaching love. And yet, despite these events that represent bigotry and senseless hatred in the most raw and hurtful forms, there is holiness.

Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov [Besht], the founder and pursuer of Chassidism, emphasized that there is a spark of holiness dwelling within each and every person. During his time, the same conflicts we encounter today were disguised beneath different names, yet somehow this rebbe fervently viewed each person as internally holding an aspect of the Divine, one that we must cherish.

On one Yom Kippur morning, an illiterate shepherd child entered The Baal Shem Tov’s shul. Enamored by the spirit inside the sanctuary filled with devout Jews, the young boy wanted nothing more than to connect to God alongside them but could not connect to the prayer language from outside his own farm. Having been surrounded by only animals, the boy desperately cried out the only words he knew: “cock-a-doodle-do!” The Baal Shem Tov embraced this shepherd, claiming that his presence and intention opened the gates of heaven. The Besht overlooked the boy’s unusual jargon and instead reached for the spark of holiness dwelling inside of him. The Baal Shem Tov recognized the holiness that outshone their differences.

In this world of over seven billion people, The Baal Shem Tov can find seven billion sparks of holiness, each illuminating a world of injustice and strife. Sometimes, that holiness can be discovered in the midst of unspeakable terror. In 1941, Michael Stolowicki was a three-year old orphan whose mother died from the harsh conditions that accompanied the refugees escaping the Holocaust. Rather than being left to join the millions of victims in the concentration camps, Michael was saved by his non-Jewish nanny. Gertruda Babilinska protected this young Jewish boy as her own child, risking her life to feed him and cure his illnesses. Outside their tiny window in Vilna, Jews were rounded up and killed instantly. Babilinska lived off of meek rations of bread and her spark of holiness, raising a Jewish child in the shadow of death.

According to the Baal Shem Tov, a person’s spark of holiness can be multiplied, divided, and shared. The shepherd boy in Eastern Europe inspired an entire congregation with his commitment to personal prayer. Michael Stolowicki grew to pursue the same compassion for others as his nanny offered to him. One person’s spark of holiness has the opportunity to illuminate the entire world.

Unfortunately, it still takes great tragedy to recognize the simple holiness in a person. It takes a holocaust to meet Gertruda Babilinska, a widespread vote against marriage to meet an LGBT activist, and, perhaps worst of all, a school shooting to meet a pure-hearted parent. While it is not in our control to prevent these painful events from existing in life, it must be our obligation to recognize and kindle the spark of holiness that dwells in each person—before an act of suffering exposes it for us.

In an ever-evolving religion, the essence of our Judaism remains eternal: we must find, embrace, and pursue holiness. Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR states “it is about praying, singing, crying, and working with all our hearts to bring holiness into our world. It is about seeing every person, in every generation, as a potential agent of transformation.” You, me, and all things in between are agents of transformation, planters of a world far higher and holier than what we see today.

From our rebbes, nannies, activists, and parents of all ages, we see that every person can be an asset to creating a world of holiness. However, it is what we choose to do with the sparks within us that determines how we will impact this world. We can discover holiness within arm’s reach—but it is where your hands will then go that takes the sparks to new heights.