The Broken Starfish

Do good with all your ego. Say, “I need to make this happen.” Say, “I have to see this done.”

Not only is this “I” permissible, it is crucial to getting things done.

So what is forbidden? To believe the “I” belongs to you.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Kosher Ego”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

“If your contribution has been vital there will always be somebody to pick up where you left off, and that will be your claim to immortality.”

-Walter Gropius, German architect

On the surface, the quote from Walter Gropius I posted above sounds great. But then, you have to ask yourself if every single human being who ever lived and who ever will live actually ends up making a vital contribution to something. I mean after all, some of us are pretty ordinary. I mean, I know I contribute something, but can I really consider anything I do as vital?

I guess that depends on who you ask. I certainly haven’t cured cancer or accomplished world peace. I haven’t developed safe nuclear fusion power or even built the better mousetrap. I haven’t done anything that would significantly contribute to improving the world as a whole.

In fact, depending on who you ask, my life has taken away from the well-being world. Certainly being male, religious, and conservative automatically makes me a villain in some people’s eyes. If you value youth, diversity of ethnicity (non-caucasian), and “flexible” sexual orientation (anything but straight), then I’m a failure there as well. In fact, as far as the mainstream western culture is concerned, I’m pretty much a flop.

So I haven’t contributed to the betterment of the world as a whole, nor do I belong to any of the groups or “types” of people who are considered positive contributors in the progressive social and cultural values system.

If my culture were my ultimate judge, I’d be in big trouble right now.

Of course, my life hasn’t been a complete waste of time and resources, but you have to look on a very local scale. My family has depended on me bringing in an income to support them for decades.

Oh, but sometimes I’ve been unemployed, so I failed that one.

My wife and children have depended on me to be a sane, calm, organized, and supportive husband and father for thirty years.

Oh, but sometimes I’ve failed at that, too (more often then I’d care to admit).

Gee, what else?

Sorry, it’s hard to get past those first two, but I’m sure there’s a lot more.

Thankfully, I’m gainfully employed at the moment and manage to do some “side work” writing (no, not blogs, alas), so we aren’t starving. My kids are all grown and whatever contribution I’ve made as a father, for good or for ill, is set in cement. As the saying goes, “you can’t unring a bell.”

So what’s left?

According to Yerachmiel Tilles, you can actually learn how to be in exile, but only if it’s absolutely necessary.

“I live in the city of Pest, near which I own several villages, fields and vineyards. Once a large sum of money was stolen from me, and I did not know who the thief was. We had a maid—an orphan—and since we suspected that this was her doing, we took her along to the local authorities. The police there beat her in order to induce her to confess, but she insisted she had stolen nothing, so they sent her home to us. But the harsh treatment that she had endured left its mark. For some days she languished in bed, and then died.

“Two weeks later the thief was found. I was stricken by terror. I had suspected an innocent person, and through my doing, this orphan had met her death!

According to Christianity, Jesus atoned for everyone’s sins, so there should be no guilt among Christians. The blood has been washed from our hands. We are clean; pure and unsullied, white as driven snow.

For the Jewish man from the city of Pest, it wasn’t so simple. Through an act of injustice, he had caused, however inadvertently, the death of an innocent person, an orphan and a servant. He couldn’t just walk away from that and Rabbi Meir of Premishlan felt the same way.

‘Choose one of these three,’ he said. ‘Either you die, though you will be granted a place in the World to Come; or you will be ill and bedridden for three years, while the suffering you undergo will cleanse you of your sins; or for three years you will wander about as a vagabond, as the law prescribes for an unwitting manslaughterer.’

After initially refusing to choose, the man became ill and was near to death. Apparently Rabbi Meir had made the choice for him. Only by pleading for the Rabbi’s prayers was he spared, along with agreeing to walk away from his home, his family, his wealth, everything, for a span of three years.

“If you are hungry, ask no man for money or for food. But if people offer you something out of compassion, you may accept it.”

I suppose Christianity would consider this a fool’s errand and a misguided attempt to atone for a debt that can never be repaid. You can’t return a life, and even living like a homeless person for three years won’t bring that life back.

But let’s for a moment assume this story isn’t literally true. Let’s take a look at it from the point of view of a parable. What does it teach us?

“But then I heard that in Sanz, not too far from here, there lives a tzaddik known as the Divrei Chaim. In fact, I’m heading in that direction now, in the hope that he will guide me. And that is why I will not accept your donation, thank you, because at the moment I am not setting out on another leg of my trek as an exile; I am on my way to visit Rabbi Chaim of Sanz.”

The innkeeper was so curious to know what the end of the story would be that he set out with his ragged guest and escorted him directly to the rebbe’s house in Sanz. The vagabond did not even manage to put his question to Reb Chaim, when the tzaddik said: “Return to your home, traveling by way of Premishlan. Find the grave of Reb Meir, and tell him that the rebbe of Sanz says that two years of exile are enough for you, for you observed them with true self-sacrifice.”

Maybe all this was just an attempt on the now deceased Rabbi’s part to assuage the guilt of this wealthy merchant and maybe it worked. On the other hand, what did he learn about being helpless, weak, poor, homeless, and defenseless? Maybe his wandering didn’t atone for a thing, but it could have taught him a much greater sense of mercy and justice. After this experience, will he ever carelessly be cruel to someone who is in his power again?

Who knows? I hope not.

I once heard it said that, “If there are self-made purgatories, then we all have to live in them. Mine can be no worse than someone else’s.” If the Rebbe of Premishlan did not provide for this man’s “penitence,” the merchant surely would have created one of his own. In fact, the illness he suffered soon after the servant’s death may have been of his own (unconscious) doing. It’s funny what guilt and shame will do to you…and what you’ll do to yourself.

That takes care of the merchant from Pest. But what about other failures? Where do I go from here?

Do I accept the gift of Jesus Christ and blow off all of the disappointments I have committed in my lifetime as well as the consequences they created (some of which continue to wield power today), or do I, in my own way, “wander in exile?”

Here’s one possible answer, according to Rabbi Freeman:

In every hardship, search for the spark of good and cling to it. The greater the hardship, the more wondrous the good it bears.

If you cannot find that spark, rejoice that wonder beyond your comprehension has befallen you.

Once you have unveiled and liberated the spark of good, it will rise to overcome its guise of darkness. It may perhaps even transform the darkness fully to light.

I once heard a story about a starfish. Supposedly, if you cut off the arm of a starfish, it will eventually grow back. There was a man who was very cruel. He lived by the seashore and everyday, as he went about his business, he passed an area near the beach with shallow pools of water. In one of those pools, there lived a starfish.

The starfish was very beautiful, illuminating its environment with subtle reds and oranges. The cruel man did not like beauty and hurt the starfish by using a knife he carried with him to cut off one of the starfish’s arms.

By the by the arm grew back, just as it was before. This made the cruel man angry and he cut off the same arm again.

And it grew back.

And he cut it off.

And it grew back.

And this happened over and over again. Eventually, the man noticed something. Each time the arm grew back, it was a little different, a little shorter, a little more twisted and withered. The more he cut it off and the more it grew back, the more deformed and hideous the arm became.

Finally, the man didn’t need to cut the arm off the starfish anymore. It was now as injured and crippled as he was.

Rabbi Freeman says that even in the darkest circumstances, there is some spark of divine goodness. Even if you cannot find the spark, that too is a miracle, for you have a wonderful mystery laid at your feet.

But if I cannot find the spark, then it cannot “rise to overcome its guise of darkness.”

I cannot wander the world for three years as a beggar and it wouldn’t do any good if I could. Assuming God has indeed forgiven me and that the life of the Messiah has atoned for my wrong deeds, then in God’s eyes I may appear clean, but what do you do when your soul, like the arm of the starfish, is malformed and crippled?

Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Where the spirit does not work with the hand there is no art.” My hands work reasonably well, but what about the “twisted” spirit? There is no art. The sparks remain dark. But in spite of everything I’ve just said, I still can’t stop trying. It’s not like I’m even refusing to give up. I wish I could. I wish I could lay down and rest. But I just can’t.

I just read something Michoel Ogince said:

Imagine: How would the world look if we could see the Divine sparks that animate every physical creation?

Those sparks are supposed to be there (if you are willing to accept a bit of Kabbalah for a moment) in all things, including people. They’re just hidden in the mundane, waiting to be set free and to return to their divine source, that eternal flame; waiting to return to God.

If Walter Gropius is right, everyone who has made a vital contribution to something will have someone to come after them and to pick up the work when their time is done. If not, then whatever you did ends with you.

If the various motivational writers, speakers, and bloggers are right, everything everyone does at some point or another is significant and that on some level, all people are worthy, whether they believe so or not. The trick then, is actually learning to believe it, not so much about other people, but about yourself.

I once wrote something, probably inspired by Rabbi Freeman or another Chabad Rabbi, that said if you treat someone as if they are the person they are supposed to be, as if they have already done great things, as if they are already close to God and have peace and kindness in their hearts, and you keep at it long enough, eventually they will become that person. I suppose it’s the starfish story in reverse. You can injure someone long enough until they become distorted and their spirit mirrors their long torture, or you can treat someone with kindness, mercy, respect, and even honor long enough, and their injuries will heal, if not in body, then certainly in spirit.

But for all the wonderful storytelling, parables, and tales of the Chasidim, how does that ever cross over from the realm of fantasy and mystical wishful thinking into a real and practical life?

That’s my secret…I’m always angry.

Bruce Banner (played by Mark Ruffalo)
The Avengers (2012)

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