A Remembrance of Something Lost

A Remembrance of Something Lost

Dr. Bill Robinson

Our world is in collapse, our efforts are falling short, and hope seems elusive. 

Fires sweep through the forests of Canada.  Phoenix swelters in 110 degree heat for an entire month.  Oceans off Florida become hot tubs.  Torrential rains flood Chicago.  Tornadoes warnings appear in Baltimore.  And this is only our environmental collapse.

For those that have believed (like myself) that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”, we begin to doubt and that doubt leads to dismay and a loss of faith.  What if history (or God) is not on our side?  What if history is not the meandering march of progress, but a piling up of destruction and debris? As the Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote during the rise of Hitler in 1940, the year he killed himself for loss of hope:

This is how one pictures the angel of history.  His face is turned toward the past.  Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling up wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.  The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.  But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them.  The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress.

Benjamin confronts us with an uncomfortable truth.  But, it is not the only truth.  Recent human “progress” (for example) has reduced poverty and increased literacy across the planet.  Both justice and destruction are the fruits of history. 

But this leads me to the tentative conclusion that there is no pre-determined course of history; the future is neither set by God nor given by cultural or material forces.  Along with post-Holocaust theologians proclaiming the disappearance or impotence of God, it may be that any hope for the future must come with us.  As Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg offers, we are now in charge of the Covenant.  If we want the world to be a better place, we need to weather the storm of progress and clean up the mess.

We live today, as some are saying, in the Anthropocene, recognizing the inordinate impact that humans have had on the world.  If history has led us to the edge of catastrophe, it is because of our own actions. We have chosen to master the world; to reform it in our own image, rather than be stewards of it.  We now face a choice before us: To accept our responsibility for our actions and change our ways or perish.  The uncomfortable irony is that which is most needed for us to repair this broken world has been lost to us – the notion of ourselves as a project.

According to Jewish thought, we are beings created b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God), meaning that we are all unique, equal, and of infinite value.  It also means that we have the Divine capacity for amazing levels of compassion, creativity, courage and so on.  We are not born fully-realized but with potential, and it’s our responsibility to develop it over the course of our life.

But, how many hours in the course of our days are we working on ourselves?  I am not saying that our days are spent in unworthy pursuits; though some days may feel wasted.  We all strive to make the world a better place, but what if we can only do that through changing our selves first?  Through making ourselves into more (i.e., ) compassionate, creative and courageous selves?

If this world has been brought to the brink by our past ways of thinking and being, we need to change our ways.  As Einstein said “We can’t solve problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  We need to first think differently, so we can then act differently.  This world will not be repaired through some technological fix.  It is this belief in technological progress that, while providing certain benefits, has created many of the problems we are experiencing.   We will only repair the world (tikkun ha’olam) if we first repair ourselves (tikkun ha’nefesh).

But, how do we change and in a virtuous direction?  How might we rise up (na’aleh) to the existential challenge before us?  I suggest through first recognizing that we have fallen, we have failed, over and over again.  Thus, the need to rise.  But, before we pick ourselves up, we need to pause and consider.  As the author and activist Rebecca Solnit writes in Hope in the Dark, it’s the reflective pause that makes all the difference.  If we just respond in the ways we have always responded, we will continue down the same paths that Benjamin reveals to us, missing the opportunity to notice an alternate history and future.

This principle is understood deeply in Judaism.  During the month of Elul and through the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe), we are asked to contemplate our sins, where we have failed/fallen in living up to our best selves.  But, what is my best, most virtuous self?  What are my responsibilities in this world – those that are shared and that which is uniquely my own?  This time of the year, we are asked to pause before we rise up repentant, returned, and renewed.

If we do not pause and simply return to our old ways of thinking and doing, then we have not engaged in proper teshuvah (repentance, though literally re-turn). Trying the same thing again and expecting a different result is a definition of insanity.  The pause to reflect allows us the opportunity to open ourselves to new possibilities.  Actually, it is only through falling that we can change.  Those who are continually successful have the most difficulty learning new ways.  As the Torah commentator Aviva Zornberg writes only in falling/failing can we “soften and open our hearts, minds, bodies and souls enough to apprehend other possibilities.”  This is her drash on the Talmudic phrase “One does not understand the words of Torah until one has stumbled over them.” B. Gittin 43a

Yet, this is not so easy.  It’s like pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps!  In order to break from the past, from the way we see the world to see it anew, and thus to act anew, we need something to grab onto.  We need to recover a second way of being that we have lost – a sense of being at-one with the world, of being at-home in the world.  Regaining this is essential to shattering our false sense of individualism and our destructive drive for mastery (instead of service). 

But, how does one regain this connection?  One approach is spend more time in the “natural” world, to farm or simply go out in a garden and observe.  Here we not only discover beauty, but we rediscover our place in the world, and it changes us.  The poet Mary Oliver captures this beautifully in her poem The Swan.

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air –
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music – like the rain pelting the trees – like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds –
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

Yet, this is only half the story.  We can regain the experience of beauty, but we ignore the ugly destruction we have brought into the world.  So, how do we become at-home or at-one with a world in collapse, without falling into despair?  I suggest we can do this by seeing the world as it could and should be – to walk the world in the light of redemption.  To offer two partial, yet moving, images from the prophet Isaiah – “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” “share your bread with the hungry… take the wretched into your home.”  Visions of redemption shine a light on the good in the world and shadows are formed where the world is in need of repair.  We thus understand ourselves as on a journey in which the emergence of good intermingles with the work of repair still to do.  As Solnit notes, “What’s missing … is the ability to recognize a situation in which you have not yet arrived, in which case you may have cause to both celebrate and fight, in which the world is always being made [repaired] and never finished.”

So, in the moment after falling, before we rise again, we must pause to perceive the world in a different light – one that shatters our comfortable ways of seeing, fostering a dis-comfort that leads us to seek out a world both old and new.   Only then can we begin to act differently, to grow into more virtuous selves in action.  Only in pausing does the failing becomes a break and the rising becomes a remembering of something lost – the promise of and longing for a world redeemed.

Yet, how is a redeemed world, that has never been, lost?  Why do we long for it?  I believe it is because we have all tasted redemption in our life, through either observing acts of random kindness or observing Shabbat.  For Shabbat offers us a taste of the world to come.

There is also a Talmudic quote (Shabbat 118b) that goes “If all Jews were to observe two Shabbats properly, the final redemption would occur.” The more traditional way of understanding this is that all(!) we need to do is get every single Jew to observe the Shabbat twice and redemption reigns.  But, what is Shabbat observance?  In part, it is the absence of creative work – the 39 melachot that were involved in the building of the Tabernacle.  Often with Jewish practices, that which is forbidden during a certain time, is implicitly commanded the rest of the time.  Thus, what if we understood this to mean that if only all Jews (and those who are Jewish-adjacent) worked together for six days to recreate the world, it would be repaired?  Does this begin to restore hope? 

So, how do we begin?  Most of us have heard of the Butterfly Effect, that a butterfly flapping its wings can impact the weather on the other side of the globe.  A single act of rising – after the pause – can inspire others and change the world.  Be the butterfly! 

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