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As all around this country some of us are preparing to stuff ourselves silly in honor of Thanksgiving, while others are heading out into the snowy streets once again, putting themselves in harm’s way to protest in support of the fairly simple idea that a police officer should not be able to gun a person down in the street simply because he is black. Meanwhile, I feel the need to talk a little bit about faith.
People talk about faith as if it means the same thing as belief. When someone tells you something which you have no independent way of verifying, you either believe them or you don’t, or else you choose to suspend belief until such time as more evidence comes along. Who we choose to believe, and for what reasons, is a desperately important question in a time when it is becoming clear that the testimony of any number of eyewitnesses isn’t enough to get a single police officer indicted so long as the they are black. Nevertheless, this question has very little to do with faith, because faith (אמונה) isn’t about belief, it’s about commitment to the truth we’ve witnessed with our own eyes.
Faith isn’t what happens when someone tells you something and you accept it as true without checking first. It’s what happens when you have an experience – a big, important experience – and the value of that experience is so high that you can’t simply let it go, even when you’re told to do just that. Instead you take it and hold on to it, enshrine it in your heart so it will be there with you throughout your life, a little flame of truth to be cherished and nourished with all your being despite the best efforts of the world to blow it out.
To have faith is to remain true – to your convictions, but also, to the authenticity of your own experience. It is no coincidence that in Jewish tradition Satan (or more accurately, the satan) is represented as a prosecuting attourney. For the role of the satan is precisely to challenge that fundamental faith in the importance and validity of our most important experiences. In the bible, as well as numerous Jewish texts, the satan is depicted sometimes as challenging the faith of humans in the goodness and power of G-d, but more often as challenging the faith of G-d in the goodness and worth of humanity, asking both us and G-d the pointed questions that, in our most vulnerable moments, may tempt us to go back on our word and deny the evidence of our own senses. It’s not a term of moral censure, it’s a job description. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t our job to do our best not to listen to what he says.
This is why faith demands the deepest and fullest commitment to our own perceptions, feelings and intuition. The position of faith is to reject the overwhelming flow of received narratives broadcast by the powerful and repeated by the morally lazy, to stand firm in the midst of the flood and say – that’s not how I see it. And that’s why I’m praying on this Thanksgiving day for you who are going out into the streets to defend yourselves and your communities from the authorities who seem determined to dehumanize you, that you be blessed with the faith you need to continue speaking your truth louder than the voices of the people whose job it is to shut you up. And for the rest of us, citizens of a nation that has so often broken faith with its communities of color, may we be willing to listen, and listen hard, to what they are saying.
Once upon a time everything was one, vast body of water, flowing and surging with the wild energy of creation and destruction. Because there was nothing to hold anything apart from the mass, everything that came to be would cease to be as soon as it emerged. Or, because there was nothing separating one thing from another, nothing could be perceived for what it was. This state of matter without form, of being without existence, is called תהו ובהו (tohu va-vohu).
Then something happened –we could call that something “God”– and light became separated from darkness. In the light of this primal separation the waters became separated, one above and one below. Because separation implies difference, the two waters took on different characteristics, hitherto joined together, but now held apart. The great water above retained the character of light and nourishment, while the great water below retained the character of darkness and creation, and in between them the expanse of heaven.
Floating on the waters below is the land. It came into being when the waters below drew back, forming a place where they were *not*, and the land retains this character of negativity — it is watered by the moisture welling up from below, but it can continue to exist only so long as the waters below continue *not* to be where it *is*. At the same time, we and everything else that lives cannot exist without the flow of nourishing rain from the waters above, but if the expanse of heaven were to open up without restraint we would all be flooded into oblivion. Thus, we are all doubly dependent — and doubly threatened — on the waters that bracket our lives, forming and sustaning the space within which we are able to live.
Viewed in a certain way, God is the principle of the harmonious relationship that makes this precarious existence possible. Viewed in another way, God is the One who desires and mandates that this harmony should come into being. Either way, our task in this world is to build a house for God, a site wherein this harmony can be actualized. This site is the Temple. The Temple is built on a mountain — the meeting point between the earth and the heavens — and its foundations sink all the way down into the deepest waters below. Thus, while existing within the space we know and inhabit, it transcends this space, connecting us with what is above and below and knitting all three together into a whole that can only be described as Divine.
So long as the Temple is kept whole and free of defilement, the waters of heaven nourish us and the waters below the earth sustain us without overrunning their respective boundaries. If this divine channel is allowed to fall into disrepair, however, the balance is upset and we find ourselves at the mercy of a world whose forces we can neither predict or control.
This is one version of how the biblical authors imagined the world, but it can also be a way to think about ourselves and our relationship to the mysterious forces that shape our souls and give us the energy we need to be happy, healthy, spiritually awake human beings. Just like my ancient ancestors, I find myself standing on a ground that is really just a thin boundary separating everything I call “me” from what lies beyond. This “beyond” goes both ways. Internally, it is the complex muddle of emotions, dreams, spiritual insights and unconcious mental states that underly and inform my conscious self without being fully “of” it. Externally, it is the world in which I am bound up in a network of relationships that define my identity in ways I can influence but not necessarily control. Somewhere in between these two beyonds is where I have to build my Temple, working to establish a point of balance where I can be nourished and sustained without being utterly overwhelmed. This is the fundamental task of spiritual life.
There once was a person – let’s call hir Someone – who lived all by hirself in a big, old house a long way from anywhere. Someone didn’t get out a lot, and nobody ever came to visit hir, but Someone didn’t mind much, and on the whole zie was reasonably content with hir solitary existence.
Then one day out of the blue a letter arrived in the mail. This was something of a surprise in itself because Someone never got any mail. Zie had kind of assumed, because zie lived way out in the middle of nowhere, with no towns or even neighbors close by, that the postal service simply didn’t deliver all the way out here. Certainly Someone couldn’t think of anyone who might want to write to hir.
The letter was unsigned and had no return address, and when Someone opened and read it zie discovered that it consisted of only three words –
I am coming.
Receiving this letter left Someone understandably confused and a little nervous. In all the time zie had been living in the house zie had never had a single visitor, and zie couldn’t imagine who might want to visit hir now. What is more, the letter’s terse language left Someone without any idea as to the purpose of the visit or what the visitor’s attitude toward hir might be. Did they know Someone? It seemed unlikely, as Someone didn’t know many people. Were they coming to visit Someone, or just the house where zie lived? Were they coming for a short visit, or did they intend to stay longer? On what basis did they presume the liberty to come and visit without consulting Someone’s opinion on the matter?
All of these questions and more occupied Someone’s mind over the next several days, but the more Someone pondered them, the more mystifying they became. As zie considered this strange turn of events, however, it began to occur to hir that that house in which zie lived, adequate enough for hir own solitary needs, was woefully unprepared for receiving guests of any kind.
And so, partly out of nervousness at what the mysterious visitor might do or say should they arrive to find that adequate preparations had not been made for their stay, and partly out of embarrassment at the rather shabby condition of hir home, Someone began to tidy up and make the house ready for the visitor’s arrival. Zie opened up a spare room that hadn’t been used for ages and cleaned off the layer of dust that had been allowed to settle over everything. Zie got out the extra linens and made sure they were freshly washed. Zie picked up all the half-read books lying strewn all over the living room and put them back on their shelves.
And in the midst of all these preparations, as Someone was hanging the freshly laundered sheets out to dry in the lawn, zie happened to glance in the direction of the road and found to hir surprise that the flag on the mailbox was up – another letter had arrived!
This second letter was as mysteriously devoid of identifying features as the first and when Someone removed it from the envelope zie found that it contained a message more or less similar to the first. This one read –
I love you.
I am coming.
This letter threw Someone into even greater depths of confusion than the first one had. If it was improbable that zie might have forgotten some prior acquaintance who might wish to visit hir, that zie should be unable to recall someone who loved hir seemed beyond belief. At the same time, Someone was relieved to discover that the visitor’s feelings toward hir were evidently positive and they did not appear to mean hir any harm.
Nevertheless, when Someone looked around at the work zie had done to prepare for the visitor, zie was suddenly dissatisfied. Certainly there was a room now prepared for the visitor, and the living area was tidy, but it now occurred to Someone how shabby the exterior of the house had grown over the time zie’d lived there. It had never really occurred to hir to think what a visitor might think, because no visitor ever came. But now there was a visitor coming, one who apparently had deep feelings for Someone, even if zie could not remember them. It seemed a shame somehow to think of them arriving and finding the place in such a shambles.
And so Someone began to fix up the exterior of the house. They rehung the shutters that had been blown down in a storm, replaced the missing shingles on the roof, weeded the garden and even gave the door a fresh coat of paint.
In the midst of all this fixing and weeding and painting, Someone happened to glance again in the direction of the road and lo and behold, once again the flag was up on the mailbox – another letter!
This one was as indistinct as the first two had been, but this one read –
I miss you.
I love you.
I am coming.
Someone read this new letter with a sense of anxious trepidation in hir heart. Evidently the visitor who was soon to arrive felt a great connection to Someone, but as much as zie wracked hir brains zie could not think of a single person who might feel this way about hir. Only now did this fact strike hir as rather sad. Zie had never really realized how lonely it was living by hirself, with no one to talk to or share hir day with. Now though, Someone felt that there was nothing zie wanted more, and so zie resolved that when the visitor arrived, even if they didn’t recognize each other, even if it was all a mistake, zie would as the visitor – beg them, if need be – to stay a little while and keep hir company.
But where was the visitor? Three letters had now arrived to announce their coming, and yet there had been no sign of them. Someone began to get nervous. Perhaps it really had all been a mistake and no one was coming. Maybe the letters had been delivered to the wrong house entirely. Or maybe the visitor had suddenly realized they had been writing to the wrong person. Perhaps they had been expecting Someone to write back, to acknowledge their coming, and when no reply had been forthcoming they had decided they were unwelcome and not to come after all.
This last though – that some response had been expected and that by failing to give it Someone had caused the visitor to rethink their plans – distressed Someone greatly. Zie took to wandering through the house, thinking hard about what zie might do to signal to hir mysterious correspondent that that they were welcome and indeed eagerly awaited in Someone’s home.
It was a big, rambling house, most of which Someone didn’t even use on a regular basis, and lost in thought Someone wandered into a passage that zie hardly ever visited. Suddenly, zie was startled to to notice that at the end of the hallway was a door zie’d never noticed before. Ordinarily, that end of the passageway was shrouded in darkness, even in the daytime, and so it was not surprising that in hir infrequent trips to this part zie’d missed the door. And yet now there was a thin line of yellow light visible through the crack beneath the door. What is more, Someone could hear the sound of footsteps coming from the other side – there was a person in the room beyond!
Feeling as if zie was dreaming, Someone walked slowly to the door and turned the handle. The footsteps on the other side paused in their pacing, as if listening expectantly. Steadying hir nerve, Someone opened the door.
Inside was a cozy little room with a small bed, next to which was a night table with a lamp, from which was coming the warm, yellow light that Someone had seen under the door. There was an old armchair and a shelf containing some books and various odds and ends. In one corner was a writing desk on which were strewn several sheets of paper identical to that on which the letters had been written, and standing in the middle room was a person Someone knew instantly must be the mysterious visitor zie had been so anxiously awaiting.
“When did you get here?” Someone asked, beside hirself in astonishment.
“I’ve been here all along,” the visitor replied. “I built this house as a matter of fact. For a long time I lived here all by myself, and the loneliness was almost too much to bear. When you arrived it seemed like the the answer to my prayers, but I found suddenly that I was to nervous to face tou. And so I hid in here, and I’ve been hiding ever since, watching you from afar, taking pleasure from your company, even if you didn’t realize I was there. After a while though it didn’t seem right that I should be able to take comfort from you when you weren’t even aware of my existence. So I had the idea of writing you a letter and presenting myself as a visitor. At the same time, I was still a little afraid you wouldn’t want to see me, so I’ve been trying to work up the courage to show my face.
Someone couldn’t believe it – all that time they had been sharing the house with the visitor without even knowing it! Filled with sudden joy, Someone held out hir hand to the visitor.
“I’ve been working so hard to make everything ready for your visit,” zie said. “I was worried you were never going to come. Come with me and I’ll show you.” And the visitor, smiling, took Someone’s hand and together they left the room.