Out of Balance

In her book Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Naomi Remen recalls the healing work she did with a Holocaust survivor, whose response to the enormity of the spiritual pain he lived with was to close off feelings toward people and to be “cautious with this heart.” Dr. Remen relates that he joined her on retreat after he was diagnosed with cancer. Initially he was belligerent to strangers, but through inner stillness exercises and introspection he had a transformational experience. One day, while meditating, he sensed a deep pinkish light emanating from his chest. He felt enclosed by a beautiful rose. Troubled by the experience, he took a walk on the beach and began a silent dialogue with G-d. He asked the Creator whether it is all right to love strangers. G-d’s answer jolted him: “You make strangers, I don’t.” In that instant, the Holocaust survivor’s feelings of interpersonal distance began to melt. Strangers were no longer strangers. It was all right to love a stranger.

-Rabbi Laibl Wolf
“Tif’eret: Growing a Wise Heart” (pp 154-156)
Practical Kabbalah: A Guide to Jewish Wisdom for Everyday Life

I’ve been feeling off balance lately. Most of it has to do with how I choose to react to what I see, hear, and read about in the world around me, both in real life, and via the Internet. I’m not encouraged by what I see, but if you’ve been reading my “meditations” for the past week or so, you already know that. I found I needed to write this “extra meditation” to try and re-establish a bit of balance and to reduce my desire to wad up the whole world of religion like a piece of tissue paper contaminated with dripping bile, and toss it in the nearest toilet.

For Christians, this is a time of year (ideally) when they re-attach to the true meaning of loving and giving, by expressing the will of God with their lives in the community around them. If God was willing to send His “only begotten son” to suffer and die for us so that we could be reconciled to the Father, then why shouldn’t a Christian “pass it on”, so to speak, and offer grace, kindness, and mercy to the next fellow, regardless of who they happen to be? After all, Jesus died for us while we were still enemies of God (Romans 5;10). Must we only show goodness to those people who look, act, and believe like we do? Why even “tax collectors” and “pagans” do that (Matthew 5:42-48). Nevertheless, the religious community, or some portions of it, confirm the belief in the secular world that we are all bigoted haters and want to force the whole world to be exactly like we are.

“The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me, God.”

That’s part of the oath people used to take when swearing to tell the truth in court. They don’t make you say it anymore because someone was offended with God and we wouldn’t want to God to offend someone, would we (this is sarcasm)?

On the other hand, we shouldn’t go out of our way to be so dedicated to what we think of as “truth” that we automatically condemn, revile, disdain, and hate those people who apparently (perhaps by putting up a Christmas tree) don’t have “the truth”. After all, they must be evil and wrong and we have to stop them by telling them how lousy their cherished faith is, don’t we (that’s more sarcasm)?

OK, I’m still out of balance. Quickly, someone toss me one of those poles used by tightrope walkers, or better yet, another story from Rabbi Laibl’s book (pg 147):

Once upon a time a king had two close friends who rebelled against his kingdom. The king seemed to have no choice but to execute the law – the death penalty. But he could not bring himself to kill his friends. Instead, he erected a tightrope over the courtyard at a precarious height. Each prisoner was allowed to walk across the tightrope to freedom. The chances were slim, yet miraculously the first prisoner succeeded. The second prisoner called out to his friend for advice, and the freed man obliged. He called back, “Whenever I felt myself beginning to list to one side I didn’t wait until my weight was there but immediately compensated.

This Hassidic tale invokes many portions of the Bible, including how God sent His Son so that we might all have a chance to conquer the death penalty by “walking the straight and narrow”. Notice though, that in order to navigate the rope, you couldn’t be an extremist. If you went too far to the left or to the right, you would be killed. In fact, when you even thought you were starting to slip to one side, to survive, you had to immediately shift your weight in the opposite direction.

Also, notice that the freed man went out of his way to help his friend rather than taking his salvation and running away. Notice that even though the king (God) had every right to execute the rebels, because they were his friends and he had compassion, he tempered his justice with mercy. Justice was not thrown away, but he gave the rebels a chance, probably more of one than they deserved. Justice was balanced with mercy and grace.

We don’t do balance (or mercy and grace) very well in religion and yet, it’s all over our history. Moses Maimonidies (Rambam), as quoted in Rabbi Laibl’s book (pg 146) “counseled his disciples to take the middle path.” I know I talked on this exact same topic last week, but plenty of people still aren’t getting it (especially the majority who don’t read my blog, though they may not agree with me, even if they chose to read these “meditations”). It is one thing to say that you disagree with someone based on your convictions and your understanding of the Bible, but it’s another to condemn them and to believe God will destroy them. Some compare a Christian who celebrates Christmas to a husband to cheats on his wife (and there are plenty of marital metaphors in the Bible), but that metaphor breaks down at some point. A husband and wife are both human; both equals, while God is not human and we can not aspire to ever be His equal. A husband may come close to really understanding everything his wife is about, but we have absolutely no clue exactly what God is all about.

In the end, even if God chooses to condemn others and even if we were “right”, should we have treated those others negatively and with such extremist attitudes and even pride, or should we have balanced our approach to them as God did for us, tempering justice with mercy? Many religious people want to dump the justice onto others but covet the mercy all for themselves, not passing it along. Doing this, are we really God’s children?

9 thoughts on “Out of Balance”

  1. When I get out there in the blogosphere, I get really discouraged. Never by your blog posts, James, but by some of the unkind things said to one another “because it is true”. Well, yes, what ever “it” is may indeed be “true” (or maybe not)…but gee whiz, can we be nicer? (Do I sound like a kindgergarten teacher? This is where the real hebraic thinkers come out and say I’m being “too sensitive”…my western culture has made me lose my tolerance to a good argument. Bleh.) And must we engage in these kinds of conversations that are heavy on justice and light on mercy with strangers? Really? I sometimes wonder about the wisdom of all sorts of information being flung here and there for anyone to come along and take a look at it. Some will be able to handle it…and some won’t…and sometimes, those that used to be able to handle it, find themselves growing weary and wanting to quit. Because of God? Nope. Because of people. Last week’s parasha referenced Jacob’s struggle “with man and God” and yet, he prevailed. Ay carumba–to be able to prevail and not give up in this messy community of faith that we sometimes find ourselves in. 😛
    We are not alone James…we just can’t be. (repeat)
    I’ve got to believe that there are lots of people out there that sing the “Amen!” chorus when they read your blog…they just don’t pipe up.

  2. I don’t know James, I just found your blog but you seem really balanced to me. I don’t know if anyone can get more balanced that what you wrote. Maybe it’s not important that everyone “get it” but what is important is that your heart WANTS us to get it. Maybe the imbalance you feel is with us and not in you. Your helping that lady seems really Christ like to me! I just want you to know, I heard you! I get what you are saying and it’s important we let the Ruach soften our hearts. Love will cover a multitude of sins. Shalom Brother! 🙂

  3. Thank you both for your comments and encouragement. I assure you that I’m all too human and in my blog, I pretty much wear my heart on my sleeve. I hate to put it this way, but there are some people that use their religion to be a kind of “bully” to others and I’m not a fan of bullies. Could you imagine what would have happened if God treated us the way we sometimes treat each other?

    I probably mentioned this before, but part of the reason I write is sort of “therapeutic”. It’s a way for me to sort out all of the thoughts, feelings, and experiences that happen to me in my journey of faith. You are right imaseeker2003 (do you have a shorter name?). As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13, if I “do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”

  4. Well, keep on this that heart on the sleeve thing, I love it. If this is therapy, give me some of that! I think I have been at least close to being a bully in the past “making points” and we need brothers like you to make us think about what we are doing. Personally, I didn’t always see it in myself and never intended to do harm…..so keep speaking up, I take it to heart what you have said. Shalom (my name is Steven)

  5. You write really well. I wish I did. I was on a blog for two weeks that was only “Kabalah” no scripture out of the Bible. . I was trying to share scripture and post videos. It’s interesting how you are actually incorporating the two and it doesn’t sound heretical. That’s what I was trying to do. It wasn’t a believer’s blog.I was just trying to be witness. I’ve been a little out of balance lately. I hate lies and I just want people to know the truth. I’m not as hung up on the holidays as I was 10 years ago.

    It’s so Jewish to say: “On the other hand”. Isn’t that what Teyve was saying in Fiddler on the Roof? I like this post.

  6. @Steven: Thanks. Nice to meet you. 🙂

    @Kittii: I’m very familiar with Fiddler on the Roof. It’s one of my favorite movies. I’ve seen the stage production several times, including once in San Francisco.

    Kabbalah is one of those things that must be read with a tad bit of caution if you’re not familiar with mystic traditions. It can certainly “go too far”, particularly if studied by someone who has little or no background in Bible and Torah study (such as the various celebrities we see in the news who say they study Kabbalah). On the other hand, many of the principles in Rabbi Wolf’s book are also commonly seen in other religious and even secular traditions. The book includes a number of meditations that are common to other spiritual practices and found in secular counseling techniques.

    Many non-Jews don’t realize that some of the most beautiful prayers in the Jewish siddur (prayer book) come from Kabbalistic writings. Also, many of the Chassidic Tales that are associated with Kabbalah illustrate moral and ethical practices that connect back to our identity as people who worship God. However, I choose to decide which portions to take to heart and which ones to look at from a distance. At its core, Rabbi Wolf’s book reads very much like many “self-help” books you’ll find in any bookstore. Strip away the Kabbalistic language and imagery and there’d be virtually no difference at all. Rabbi Wolf emphasizes the helpful aspects of developing the spirit, not the much heavier concepts of people entering transitory states of connecting to and visiting higher spiritual and Heavenly realms.

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