A few months ago, a group of students asked me why I decided to become a rabbi. Turnabout is fair play – I had just tasked them with penning their own spiritual autobiographies.
I playfully evaded their question. But I’m going to answer it now.
While my desire to become a rabbi was rooted in my sense of spiritual connection to the Holy Blessed One, how I understand Jewish obligation, and my love of teaching, there’s another reason.
It’s not one that I talk about much at all. I’m a little embarrassed by it. And it’s not one that you might think would naturally lead to wanting to become a rabbi.
One of the moments I first started thinking about becoming a rabbi reaches back to my own childhood anxieties.
I was definitely an anxious child – even long before the notion of seeking a diagnosis for an anxiety disorder ever occurred to me or my family. Not just the usual fears or worries, mind you:
I used to be afraid that my heart had stopped beating, and would rush to my parents and ask them to check my pulse.
I wasn’t scared of the dark in a “monsters in my closet” way, but I wasn’t a fan of the night. As a teenager, I would often stay up all night experiencing existential dread, waiting for a glimmer of sunlight before I felt normal.
And I was terrified of dying. Most of us are of course, but I would have moments of crippling panic as I contemplated my own mortality. That anxiety, in particular, took on an interesting flavour.
In 1992, Canadian peacekeepers were dispatched to Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Croatia. Reports back were harrowing: “Canadian troops, because of their peacekeeping status, were not allowed to intervene, and found themselves forced to watch as civilians became victims.”
I distinctly remember riding in the car with my parents, listening to radio news of the death and destruction emerging from Europe, and knowing that there were Canadians like me who were being sent there.
I was terrified of that war, and also that the broader Cold War would escalate; that I would get drafted and be sent off to die.
Heavy things for a nine-year-old to panic about.
But I had a sense – I must have learned it somewhere – that clergy couldn’t get conscripted. So that was my way out – how I wouldn’t get shipped off to war. I would become a rabbi.
This is not why I am a rabbi, today. And I didn’t tell this story on my rabbinical school entrance exam. It surely would have raised some eyebrows.
But there was something about that war on the other side of the world that profoundly distressed me. It wasn’t just the potential loss of my own life.
There was an awareness – that seeped across borders and time zones, absent any internet to speak of, and reached into the mind of an anxious nine-year old – that there are those in the world who act upon an ungodly motivation to utterly destroy the sanctity of human life.
I knew this, as a young child. We all did. Children see more than we enlightened adults remember.
And it was also disturbing – I remember – when in school we had to learn new maps of Europe, with all these new countries: The former Yugoslavia. Macedonia. Croatia. Everything still fit together, but in an awkward new way, it seemed to me.
I recall feeling a mix of sadness and confusion – I couldn’t understand why the world needed new countries and borders. What about the people who lived there? Why did they need a new colour on the map?
Of course, geopolitics evaded me. But… there was a spark of an idea germinating within me: Why do we cut ourselves off from one another? How do we reckon with lives unnecessarily and even ruthlessly lost? Why don’t we recognize the sameness of life within one another?
This gnawed at me then, as it does now.
As a child, the path I stumbled upon to suss out this quandary wasn’t rooted in politics or history. It was spiritual: I’d become a rabbi. That will help me figure this stuff out.
Here’s a secret: Will becoming a rabbi help you solve border conflicts and figure out why people become dictators?
But it will help you explore what our responsibilities are in a world where the unfortunate reality is that some people try to tear us apart from one another?
That’s one of the gifts of all kinds of communities, and particularly of many Jewish communities: We learn how to stitch ourselves back together. Even, and especially against the backdrop of those who would seek to do the opposite.
* * *
Allow me to share another short story from my anxious childhood:
Right around the same time that I was panicking about getting shipped off to war, I would also have parallel moments where I’d imagine wanting to be caught up in some kind a cataclysmic catastrophe: An earthquake. An alien invasion. A plague.
Oh, I and all my loved ones would survive it unscathed. So would all of humanity. Nobody would die. But we’d all go through the shared experience of conflict and emerge on the other side more aware of and grateful for our commonality.
Looking back, I recognize these flights of fantasy as akin to the romanticizing of the good old wars. In our imagination, it’s a jolly good time of camaraderie. In reality, it’s carnage.
Why we do this is something that mental health professionals study: how shared experiences of trauma or disasters can engender a sense of shared humanity and connection. How they might create conditions to build more empathy.
Did I know this as a child? Not psychologically. But I intuited it, as I think we all can.
We know that each and every human being on the face of the earth is ultimately the same.
We know this.
We are fashioned in the image of our Creator, in the tzelem Elohim, as our tradition teaches. And that therefore we are infinitely valuable.
There is no way to assess the value of a human soul. You are worth more than any number you could possibly conceive of.
I am not looking for a kumbaya message to share in a troubling time.
I’m sharing what is “perhaps the most fundamental principle in Judaism” (R’ Avi Weiss). What is the “core of the entire tradition” (R’ Yitz Greenberg).
What both of the stories of my anxious childhood share are a longing for proof of this – for a visceral experience of our sameness in a world where we far too often cloud this reality with all kinds of borders.
I was petrified of the war in the Balkans because it attacked that idea. And I imagined wanting a shared peak experience because it incontrovertibly proves it.
Well… here we are. 2020. National trauma and shared international disaster. My childhood fear and my childhood “wish,” both brought to life three decades later.
How’s that for a cosmic coincidence?
There are a lot of people who want to go back to the way it was in the “before times:” Walks outside without masks on. Limitless shopping in malls. Unfettered policing. The lightness of not needing to confront the structures of hate in which we’re woven.
But the “before times” were a time when we were so bereft of ourselves and each other.
We still are. And you can feel us slipping back.
But it’s now harder to escape the reality that is still confronting us in our face: That we are walking, living, breathing, photocopies of the Divine.
I want to share with you that this is it – this is the core of living the Jewish life; the spiritual life. And if it’s true, then to ask the only question that matters:
If you really, really believe this, then how do you turn it into reality, and not let it just be a slogan?
Yes, we should plaster it on our lawn signs and our protest banners and above our sanctuary bimas.
But then what?
Words have power. We listen. We learn. And then we need to make the words real.
What are we doing to see the image of the Divine in our elders who are trapped behind the walls and windows of plague-ridden homes?
What are we doing to see the image of the Divine in the most vulnerable who don’t even have walls and windows with which to protect themselves?
What are we doing to see the image of the Divine in Indigenous Peoples, and Black People, and People of Colour, and all those whose continued marginalization and subjugation to all forms of violence shows again and again that this truth is not yet reflected by the machinations of power?
And what are we doing to see the imagine of the Divine in ourselves?
Do you believe that you are holy?
These are the questions that should keep us up at night. That should plague our bodies with anxiety the likes of which I couldn’t even imagine as a child. That should surprise us when we don’t see ourselves and others acting upon them.
Because these are the questions that grapple with the core of what it means to be Jewish. They are the questions that God demands us to answer. The questions that, were we to stop asking them, were we to stop being surprised by them, we would cease to be human, as Abraham Joshua Heschel once implored:
I am surprised every morning that I see the sunshine again,” he proclaimed. “When I see an act of evil, I am not accommodated. I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere; I’m still surprised… We must learn how to be surprised, not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.”
This is why we have to show up.
And it’s also why I became a rabbi – because I wanted to figure out how to navigate the journey between the grandeur and awesomeness of the universe, and the holy importance of human-to-human relationships.
When we gather in the morning for prayer and mindfulness, it’s to attune ourselves to a world where we can be surprised and delighted that the sun shines again and that the soul-breath within us returns.
When we come together in the evening for learning and discussion, it’s to draw upon the deep wellspring of Jewish tradition to remind ourselves of these soul-questions, and these incontrovertible facts. So that we can build lives and a shared world upon them.
When we come together, we build a community where we can share our anxieties and our longing, worrisome questions – the questions that push us toward truth.
Because we should worry about them. They should keep us up at night.
There is much to worry about. There is much to keep us up at night. Much to keep us in a state of radical surprise.
May you always be surprised.
Thank you for these thoughts. We often misinterpret aweful as awful. This a great reminder to not leave out the “e”. Joel
It is not your obligation to finish the job, but neither are you free to desist from it
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?But if I am for myself alone, what am I? And, if not now, When?
Thanks! Don’t leave out the “e” – such a beautiful reminder.