OUR MORAL RESPONSIBILITY
I promised that today we would explore the parameters of our moral responsibility. That's probably a ridiculously enormous task but I'll take the plunge and see where we go with it.
Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, "Few are guilty but all are responsible."
On this somber day of taking moral responsibility we have a grace period to reflect on how we're doing. What is actually our responsibility to make right and what is beyond our ability to fix? Are we deploying ourselves well in life? Where do we surrender and learn to accept? Where do we act? How to live a life that is worthwhile and feels good? It seems to be a lifelong task to figure out the parameters of our responsibility. There probably is not a single person in this room who has figured this out once and for all and is done with the quest.
The Jewish people had an experience of peak moral development when we identified with Moses at Mt. Sinai. Picture that awesome encounter: the mountain and thunder and lightening and the mass of six hundred thousand families and friends gathered. Moses is going up the mountain to receive Torah and he basically says, "God, you're demanding so much of me, let me just see you."
But to be separate from God and be in face-to-face encounter couldn't work. That would have been too intense. It literally would have blown Moses's mind to be a separate small being encountering the Source of All, God, face to face. So instead, midrash tells us, Moses stood behind God and looked at the world through God's eyes. Moses was at such a high level that he could see human beings from a God - perspective.
Of course these sacred Jewish myths anthropomorphize God, make it sound like God has a human body, but really this is just a way to communicate important values. In this case, one message is that at Sinai, at the highest moment of Jewish inspiration, we learned that a human being can see the world from a God-perspective, we can see the whole and all its intricate parts and interdependence and cause and effect and underlying unity.
Okay, great. At elevated moments of life, maybe we feel that astounding connectedness, and openness and accountability. But on ordinary days, we still have to grapple with questions about our own response-ability.
Let's take both sides of that word: response and ability. You look at the world and some place in need of healing in the world calls forth the desire in you to respond. Then you look within and find a talent or an interest or a yearning to make a difference. You have a response and you have an ability. The match between the world's need and your gifts is response-ability.
As the theologian Frederick Beuchner said, " Where your greatest joy and the world's greatest need meet, there God is found." I don't even think you need to have "greatest" joy and "greatest" need. There are many ordinary daily matchings of need and gifts that define our daily responsibilities. It's good to notice all the ways that we do make those matches of need and ability: the cat is hungry, you feed it; children in Philadelphia can't read, you join a library project. Without even thinking about it, you are probably standing on a foundation of millions of intuitive matchings of need and gift.
Another part of the revelation at Sinai was that each person standing there, according to midrash, heard a different piece of the Torah. One person heard the letter bet, another the letter koof. Only when all people worked together did they have the whole revelation because each person had a piece of the truth.
Similarly, each of us has our own blend of ability, talent, and interest. Your response-ability is unique to you. It will involve an individual match between you and your world. The right answer for you won't look like the right answer for everyone else. In functioning in a day to day way, inter-dependently giving and receiving, needing and meeting need, you intuitively knew about that Sinai truth.
But then there are places that are more confusing. How does one find the match between need and ability on complex, major problems? Where does your responsibility begin and end? It would be nice if there were a Google algorithm that could figure out the answers. Honestly, if there were, there would be no relational discord, no unjust inequalities, no feelings of helplessness and inadequacy.
But we don't have a formula to plug our questions into. We have to use our own messy minds and our own complicated realities to figure out how to live ethically. Judaism endorses the lifelong quest for wisdom which is why learning is so deeply embedded in our tradition: learning from those who came before, learning from those who can guide you now, learning about your self.
One piece of learning might be relevant to us today. When the holy Temple in Jerusalem was being besieged by Romans in the first century AD, the Jews responded in a number of ways. Today you could say that planet Earth is a burning Temple and maybe we can learn from our ancestors back then.
T he group called the Essenes simply withdrew into monastic solitude. They left the cares of the world, left human relationship (they were celibate) and eventually died out.
The Sadducees identified with the Romans who were burning the Temple. They were the gentry and they just didn't want to change their way of life.
The Zealots, as you know, retreated to Masada and fought to the death. In four years they had been obliterated, mostly through suicidal martyrdom.
We are heirs to the fourth group, the Pharisees. The Pharisees faced the reality of the situation and acted creatively. Their leader, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, desperately wanted to get his people out of the burning Temple but there were guards and flames and chaos. His group came up with a terrific idea. They put their leader, Yochanan ben Zakkai into a coffin and begged the Roman guards to let them through the burning gates to bury their leaders. The Romans obliged. Yochanan ben Zakkai and the Pharisee followers moved to Yavneh, a little town in the north of Israel where they started an academy and invented new ways to be Jewish.
Now when there was no longer a central place of worship, no more priests, no more animal sacrifice, Rabbis and synagogues and learning would transform the religion. Generation by generation, this idea of a synagogue community that can wrestle with moral issues, has been handed down unto this day. We are heirs of the Pharisees who transformed their world.
Today we need to take up the mantle of our ancestors who acted to save life by re-imagining their way of life.
Recently I've been reading Jewish and Buddhist and psycho-therapeutic literature on wisdom and as far as I can see all these traditions agree that wisdom is knowing something about the world, knowing something about your self and making good decisions about where those two meet. We do need to educate ourselves about the needs of the world; we do need to discover our own selves.
Part of our moral responsibility is to do this learning, to educate ourselves about world issues and inner resources. To know our world and know our selves.The Rabbis believed in learning because they trusted that learning would lead to action. In this New Year is there one world issue you'd like to learn more about? Is there one part of your self you'd like to discover or develop?
For instance, many of us in POWER are studying the Philadelphia public school system in all its complexity and intractability. We're looking for possible entry points where we could make a difference. To know your self better would you like to do some therapy this year? or join a yoga class? or start journaling? It is upon each one of us to take on learning both within and beyond our own self.
Maybe through God's eyes it is easy to see how to live an ethical life but in our own lives we struggle, we try this, we change to that, we get discouraged, we have a partial and short sighted view of what is important. James Hillman, the Jungian master comments, "This is why we need a long old age: to ravel out the snarls and set things straight."
But I don't think we get off the hook just because it's hard. Waking up to the blessings in life also awakens our awareness of what needs repair. We are called again and again to stay awake, to give ourselves fully to the demand that we be part of the solution, that we leave this earth better off than it was before we lived a life. No one is exempt from this mandate.
Just because it's very hard to know how to address big, complex problems, doesn't mean we get to give up. Global climate change is personally relevant to each of us. World hunger is personally relevant to each of us. Healthcare is personally relevant to each of us. We can't each take on every single issue. But it is upon us not to walk away from engagement with the world. Instead of turning our backs on this moral challenge, we get to support each other and challenge each other and stand with each other as together we forge a community that is a force for good in the world.
"Remember, " Heschel writes, " that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power. Never forget that you can still do your share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and frustrations and disappointments."
"Few are guilty but all are responsible." Let us step up to our responsibility in this New Year, growing in wisdom, in compassion and in engagement with healing the hurts of the world.