From the Washington Post earlier this week: “On July 23, 2012, the sun unleashed two massive clouds of plasma that barely missed a catastrophic encounter with the Earth’s atmosphere. …Had this event occurred a week earlier when the point of eruption was Earth-facing, a potentially disastrous outcome would have unfolded.”
There but for the grace of God, right?
There is so much that is out of our control, all the time. And take that on any level: from the small stuff that seems big when it is happenings – like getting stuck in traffic jams when we have someplace to be to the big stuff that is actually immensely significant – like life-altering events that we’ve done nothing to invite. For a species that thinks itself so powerful, perhaps we’ve missed something along the way.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. As some of you know, I am a participant in a 2 year fellowship of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality. In addition to intensive study year round, the fellowship includes four 5 day retreats, one from which I just returned late last night. The retreats are silent, meaning that the only sounds participants intone for the majority of the time are words and melodies of prayer during worship time. We spend significant time in contemplative meditation, Torah study, and embodied practice. Most of my time during this last retreat was spent contemplating this issue: in this world where so much doesn’t make sense, where so much seems beyond our will, what is within our grasp to hold on to? What are the atmospheric conditions of our lives that we can actually control?
The Chasidic masters of Jewish tradition answer that question: The only thing that any one person can actually control is the climate of their own heart. Is my heart warm and open today? Or is it cold and closed? That is it. And that, they say, is truly a matter we can direct. The condition of our heart is the seat of our dominion. And who and what we let into our hearts is ultimately the only measurable that matters.
I confess I am with you this Shabbat with an aching heart. The pain of our world, both near and far, is something that I feel most deeply. And with each divide, each blinded us versus them, each skewed news report stewing in its own sanctimoniousness, each hateful remark, each tunnel and bullet and bomb, the walls of self-justification amass higher and higher, obscuring the light from entering our hearts. And I swear to you I can feel the cosmos cracking.
I do not want to speak with you tonight about right and wrong. About justification. About what is fair or not. About any of the things that speak to those parts of us that stimulate our egos. If there is a time and place for those things, it is certainly not in this moment. I don’t want to speak with you about Israel or Hamas, about politics and media, about Europe and anti-Semitism, about a shot down airplane carrying the world’s best hope for a cure for AIDS now lost along with hundreds of other souls, about families that have no home or food, children alone on a border in Texas or shot down in Chicago’s streets. About people who sit with us together tonight here in this sanctuary who feel more alone than we could ever know. I want to talk about how our hearts respond when we encounter any of these and more.
This Shabbat puts us smack dab in the middle of the three week time period called Bein Ha Meitzarim that carries our people from day we memorialize the walls of Jerusalem being breached to Tisha B-Av - the day we remember the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem. Of note is that, although there is certainly historical detail about the events leading up to the Temple’s destruction and our people’s subsequent exile, our tradition frames our memory of the events differently. When explaining why the Temple was destroyed, instead of citing reasons like the enemy army’s strength, the Talmud instead teaches that the Temple was destroyed on account of moral failures, the most well-known narrative rooting the cause of the destruction to something called Sinat Chinam – translated most often as baseless hatred, but if taken literally, it is the condition of hating graciousness – the denial of benevolence, the abnegation of mercy, the rejection of compassion. What, according to Jewish tradition, led to the destruction of the place where we felt most connected to the Divine? The condition of closed-heartedness.
What leads to the destructions of our deepest connections to ourselves, each other, our world, to the Divine? In our day as well, the condition of closed heartedness.
We cannot control the disasters that loom in the universe or the wars that rage on battlefields and in other’s souls. The only question for us is what is the climate of our heart? Is it heat or ice? Vulnerable or locked up tight?
I wonder what it would be like if we could go through our days entirely open-hearted? I wonder if our hearts could sense the echoes of isolation, fear, and despair that our ears cannot perceive? I wonder if we could find a way to hold each other with increased sensitivity and compassion? I wonder if we could heal the brokenness in each other’s hearts with our own hearts? And if we did so, what sort of Seat of Holiness, what sort of Mikdash we might build together again? Shabbat Shalom