25 November 2010

On Healthy Navels

from Proverbs Three

"Be not wise in thine own eyes, fear the Eternal and depart from evil--it shall be health to thy navel and marrow to thy bones."

Years ago, a synagogue member once said to me about not making much of an effort to control a rebellious kid in Hebrew school, "Rabbi, we don't believe in God; we believe in the Co-Op."  This was back in the 90s, before the Park Slope Food Co-Op had 12 million members and so obviously, this woman was way ahead of her time.  Long gone from the Jewish age of adulthood for her kid, she can still be seen on occasion, pushing her toting cart, brimming with boxes of delicious, organic food.  She certainly looks no worse for the wear and by God, she looks healthy.  It would take a TSA scanner to determine the relative condition of her bone marrow, but one can presume it to be fit.

This, at times, is my quixotic dilemma.  I serve in a broader Brooklyn community that worships something, I'm just not always entirely sure what.  There's the proverbial God of soccer; the preponderance of yoga mats over tallis bags on Saturday mornings; the wondrous messy democracy of a public school PTA; and then, of course, there are the homes and the kitchens, the finer domestic pursuits that serve as the hearth around which families once gathered for the oral transmission of where we come from and where we are going.  Flames burn on Viking stove tops; light is emitted from our screens; but I still have the distinct impression that a cold, heartless darkness is winning.

There is something terribly disturbing about the recent wave of political victories in our country which some on the Left, from a position of relative bourgeois comfort, dismiss as religious fanaticism or right wing fascism.  There is an awful movement afoot, no doubt:  Hatred of the immigrant; hatred of gays; hatred and distrust of the nation's first black President.  But mixed in with these morally reprehensible views is another crisis--of a failing national economy; a struggling public school system; increased levels of social isolation; a greater desensitization to violence, poverty and even war.  Most people from any place on the political spectrum don't seem to genuinely know where we are going, a confusion that only feeds the distrust in the political process.

GK Chesterton, writing at the turn of the last century for the London Daily News, argued that "of all the marks of modernity that seem to mean a kind of decadence, there is none more menacing and dangerous than the exultation of very small and secondary matters of conduct at the expense of very great and primary ones, at the expense of external ties and tragic human morality." 

Our neighborhood is a very comfortable place to be; but around us, it seems, the city and the nation are in a crisis.  I'm not always so sure that it's *we* who get it right while in a greater perimeter there is folly.  It's often as much the case that we live in a cave of our own acceptable aesthetic darkness, hoarding for ourselves what precious Light there is.

"Be not wise in thine own eyes, fear the Eternal and depart from evil--it shall be health to thy navel and marrow to thy bones."

We make a grave mistake in thinking that the attainment of wisdom is a personal commodity--like a broccoli rabe sauteed just so.  In fact we may find that the "external ties" which we find so worn and troubling in our civil society will be repaired more felicitously by our ability to transcend ourselves and our own healthy navels.

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