Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Parashat Korach: In the Face of Unfairness

Thinking about the loss of Stephen Norwick.

This year, for this community, our very hardest Torah portion arrives during what has turned out to be our very hardest week. The portion and the week both reek of unfairness.

In Parashat Korach, a Levite not of the priestly caste challenges Moses (and, by extension, at least according to the text, God) about why direct access to the divine should be restricted to the priests, or  kohanim. Aren't all the people holy, Korach asks. Moses scolds Korach soundly and sets up a test for him for the following day. And at the moment of the test, the earth opens up, like a mouth, and swallows the challenger, his followers and their families. The remaining protesters are consumed in fire. This, for questioning the order of things.

We moderns - believers in equality and lovers of a just cause - are shocked at this treatment. This is Tiananmen Square - a massacre of those who dare speak out. We can't help but identify with Korach and his followers because we too live in an unfair world. A world where God's law, or Nature's law, stands behind what seem to be some of the most incomprehensible of inequities.

Certainly members of our community felt that way this week at the untimely death of a righteous man: Steve Norwick, a retired professor of Environmental Studies at Sonoma State University, a promoter of getting outdoors, learning your environment, reducing your carbon footprint, taking the bike instead of the car. Steve, on his bike, hit twelve days ago by a car that veered into the bike lane because the driver was drunk or because he had a stroke or - there but for the grace of God goes any of us - because he was momentarily distracted by any of a million thoughts or gadgets.

In any event, something very unfair happened. But of course, what does fair mean? It is in the nature of Nature to be unfair. Life unfolds in this Creation in a way that necessarily pits needs and forces against each other. The Psalm says, "Every living thing declares God's praise." I'd like to believe this to be so, and it is observably so if we conceive of the very desire to live as a song of praise. Because every living thing wants to live. Every mammal and every plant. Every bacteria and virus too. And so life in all its glory unfolds in finite chunks, unevenly distributed. Old age takes one person at 100 and disease takes another at 40. As soon as Creation began Creationing, as soon as the laws of physics and chemistry and biology were set in motion, the stage was set. There would be constant blossoming and constant loss, and to any creature that could separate itself enough from the process to develop a sense of self-awareness (and justice), it would feel horribly unfair.

As Creation's most recent and prolific inventors, we humans have added so many new moving parts to the machinery of Creation. And as any engineer can tell you, the more moving parts, the more things can and will go wrong. We mine and we smelt and we make fire and machines. We dig and dam and hurtle through the air at unnatural speeds. The unfairness of nature becomes magnified, hitting faster and harder and in ever more dramatic ways. Under the right circumstances, even our briefest moments of distraction can now kill.

The unfairness of this world is as old as life itself. One would have to be a fool not to cry out in protest, like Korach, saying, "Are we not all holy? Is God not resident among and within all of us? Don't we deserve better than this?"

No wonder Korach and his people were swallowed up by the earth. Because there is no answer to the cry of "foul" delivered up to God or to the Universe. How can the response of "that's just the way things are" not cause one to sink into a pit of darkness and despair? This is a natural consequence, not an unnatural - or supernatural - one.

The story of Korach, though, has one more twist. After Korach and his people are swallowed by the abyss, the entire Israelite community, now united, speaks up in shock and protest. They are not scared off. They defy authority and resist their fear of the dark and deep and they call out against injustice. And they suffer for it too; a plague takes many of them. But this time Aaron the High Priest defends them against God. There is no storybook ending here. Nonetheless, mostly they survive. They survive to keep going and struggle another day with their lot. That is the meaning of "Israel" itself - those who struggle with God. Sometimes the struggle casts you into a pit, and other times, if you are fearless or reckless or stubborn or lucky enough, you survive.

There is no good answer, no satisfying answer, to the operation of this Universe. With one hand it offers us delights beyond measure - love, beauty, music, dreams, language, poetry, sex, belonging, wondering, discovering. And with its other hand it exacts such terrible payment. Railing against it lands us in a pit of darkness. But those who rail against it anyway are right. We are all holy. We all deserve.

So perhaps the best we can do is to know this Universe. Even when we don't like it. Even when it hurts. To embrace the beauty with whole hearts, even as we maintain our disapproval of life's unfairnesses. As poet Edna St. Vincent Millay says of the ultimate unfairness of death itself:

     Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
     Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
     Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
     I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Let us treasure the memory of a righteous man. Let us appreciate all that grows in our world because he lived. Let us carry on his legacy as we should have been doing anyway. But as for his death, we are not required to approve. And we need not be resigned.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Releasing Our Angels
(Thinking About Steve Norwick)

What do we say, what do we do, when the unthinkable happens? When we imagine "the unthinkable" in the abstract, there is always some actual, specific picture. It is inevitably a thinkable picture that we conjure up, perhaps so that we can plan for it, or so we can steel ourselves against its possibility. Maybe we imagine the unthinkable because it is simply in our human nature to do so, the way one scratches an itch until it hurts, because it feels so much better then when you stop.

But the unthinkable, by definition, never happens in the way it does in our troubled daydreams. It is always plainer, and more physical. It is bigger than we imagined and smaller too. It doesn't come with a swelling soundtrack telling us when it's okay to cry. It happens fast enough to make our heads spin and then its protracted consequences unfold with nauseating sluggishness.

So it has been this week for all of us in the Ner Shalom community, the Sonoma State community, the biking community and the Norwick family. We are still trying to wrap our brains around the reality of what happened to Steve last Friday. It was real, more horrible and more matter-of-fact than anything our wandering minds could have come up with in our unguarded hours.

The actual moment of the accident is no longer important; the road, the bike, the driver, the drift into the shoulder. At five days out, these details are long gone. Yet our minds return to that moment again and again and again in disbelief and anger and despair. We re-conjure the horror of it because we don't know what else to do. Steve remains unconscious and cannot be visited. The family is well tended at the moment. So we, Steve's many friends and relatives and colleagues and students and former students have constituted a sort of community of people who are simply waiting, when our instincts tell us to act.

The thoughts of some turn to the driver and his behavior - not stopping, continuing with his workday, etc. - and then race quickly to a place of pressing, persistent anger. "Justice," our minds cry, without really knowing what justice is in this case. For who among us has not been behind the wheel of a car that has drifted into another lane? Or done some other stupid or absent-minded thing that was more dangerous than we knew. And while we all fear being hit by a vehicle, the dread of hitting a living person is even more terrifying. At least it is for me.

Did the driver have a stroke? Is his seeming mental impairment a charade? Could he have been drunk? These are things we don't know, at least not yet. The answers to these questions will not make anything better, and may just compound the sense of senseless tragedy we're already facing.

So "justice," we cry, because there is nothing else to do. Stephen remains in a coma. There is no smiling Steve to receive and acknowledge our wishes for healing. We pray for his healing, but also fear that we might be saying goodbye and that our goodbye will not be the full, open-hearted mutual leavetaking we all hope for in our relationships.

Yes, an unthinkable thing has happened for which there is no course of action and no consolation that is even remotely satisfying.

So we go about our lives and do the things we do. Work, eat, study. So I studied this week, which I do regularly with a partner in Boston. We've been reading the teachings of the early Chassidic master, Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk. Elimelech seemed to have made a project of looking at Torah not as story but as a source of encrypted insights. For him the words, not the plot, were the vehicles that carried messages about what mattered most to him: tzidkut, being a tzaddik, being a righteous person, an enlightened person, a fair person in this world. And so when considering the opening words of this week's Torah portion, Shlach Lecha, which go:

שלח לך אנשים ויתרו את ארץ כנען
Shlach lekha anashim v'yaturu et eretz K'na'an... 

"Send out people and they will journey the land of Canaan," Elimelech exhibited no interest in the story of Moses and the scouts he was told to send into the Promised Land. Instead he wondered what those specific words meant as a teaching about tzidkut - about living a righteous life.

Rebbe Elimelech knew very well that in Torah, angels are often referred to as anashim, "people." (With our modern eye we might instead say that there are people who act in ways that cause us to ascribe them the title "angel.") For example, the angels who visit Abraham and Sarah to announce the conception and birth of Isaac are never called "angels" (malakhim) in the text; they are merely called "people" (anashim). This gives rise to a free-floating suspicion in reading Torah that any "person" or "people" mentioned as such could be angels in disguise or somehow divinely directed.

So Elimelech explores what it might mean to "send out angels." There is teaching in Judaism that every mitzvah you engage in - that is, every commandment or perhaps every act of justice or kindness - creates an angel. Is this meant literally or metaphorically? In the mystical mind that distinction is not a clear one; we exist in physical and metaphysical worlds all at once. But whether this belief is literal doesn't really matter; the result is the same.

Our deeds have effect. They transform the world around us in perceptible or imperceptible ways. Our acts of kindness, our acts of compassion release ripples of consequence.

Rebbe Elimelech goes further. He says angels are born not just of our righteous acts, but of our words themselves. Or at least our words when we are acting with true tzidkut, with great righteousness. He says:

אנשים הם הדיבורים של הצדיקים אשר נבראו מלאכים מכל דבור
Anashim hem hadiburim shel hatzadikim asher nivre'u malakhim mikol dibur...

"People are the words of the tzaddikim (the righteous); from each word angels are created." He goes on to parse the rest of the sentence from Torah - the bit about the "people" being sent to journey the land of Canaan - to suggest that our words-turned-angels go out and do work, that they travel on and do something to the terrain itself. He suggests they subdue some of its harshness, taking advantage of a linguistic similarity between "Canaan" (kna'an) and "subduing" (hakhni'an).

Our right action and right speech, as the Buddhists would term them, give birth to angels. And those angels journey the land, changing things. There's no mystery to this. We know it in our lives. We see the effects of our fair and kind actions versus those of our angry actions. This is why I love that Stephen's family, instead of asking the community to demand justice (in the revenge-y sense of the word), they have asked people to engage in just acts. In a recent post, Steve's daughter Sara said:

If you are thinking of my father today, you could do something Steve-like: pick up a piece of garbage, bring cloth bags to the grocery store, leave the car at home, read a poem, go on a hike, have a teaching moment, refill your reusable water bottle or, of course, put on your helmet and go for a ride.

There is so much at this moment that we don't know. So much we fear and so much we yearn for. So much that still has to play out. But in Steve's honor, let us follow both Sara's and Rebbe Elimelech's advice. Let us make angels of litter-clearing and angels of resource renewal and angels of diminished carbon footprint and angels of teaching moments and, yes, angels of the swift freedom of the bicycle. In Steve's name, let us unleash all our healing angels upon the world.