23 October 2012

Either Way, Present

The simpler the message, the harder the task.

It's like the time that a student asked the Sage Hillel to state the essence of Judaism:  "What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor."  Seem easy?  Try it sometime.  Especially when you live with someone.

Or how about this gem:  Rabbi Akiva, when asked the same question of Hillel, said, "Love your neighbor as yourself--this is the greatest principle in the Torah."

To live consistently, as Hillel describes, requires a process of introspection rooted in exploring what one  does not like.  It requires exploring, often with great discomfort, the painful contours of fear, pain, and anger with a sensitivity that yields an outward result:  knowing enough about what you don't want and then practicing that sensitivity toward others.  I mean, it's not like you can walk up to someone with a clipboard, survey them, and collate results instantaneously, and make a covenantal pact not to, say, belch after a meal or leave the seat up in the bathroom.  Your knowledge has to be invisible--an absence only known by being present.  It's kind of like magic.

Conversely, to live consistently as Rabbi Akiva demands, one must, in one's presence, show love--especially despite circumstances where hate is better, even more fun, if not satisfying.  It requires being able to see oneself on a time continuum, raging mad in one instant while being compassionately heard, patiently understood, accepted.  It requires an ability to remember that in great moments of self-loathing and disgust, that despite your fallibility, your mortality, your filth--someone, at some point in time, loved you unconditionally.   And it wasn't your mother, or father, or sister, or brother--but your neighbor.  The one not even related to you.  He loved you.  She loved you.  Singularly.  And the beneficence of that love was like a downpayment on a future home, founded somewhere in time, on land sown with the labor of your own relationships.

לך לך מארצך וממולדתך ומבית אביך אל הארץ אשר אראך--"Go forth, God said to Abraham, from your land, from your birthplace, from your father's house, to the land that I will show you."

לך לך--Go to yourself, the Hasidic masters teach:  Look within.  Know yourself, as Hillel challenged, in order to understand your neighbor.  Especially his dislikes.  Make them yours.  And that empathic gesture will buoy human affairs.

מארצך וממולדתך ומבית אביך--But leave all that is known, familiar, and comfortable beyond yourself, in order to risk standing where your neighbor stands.  Love him in his pain, love him in his suffering, love him in his fallible completeness.  Love as you would be loved not where it is familiar and familial but where your neighbor resides.  In his place.

אל הארץ אשר אראך--This is the land that I show you.  A place of empathy.  Decency.  Understanding.

Heard but not seen; seen but not heard.  Either way, present.  "The land that I will show you."


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