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The Quest for Oneness

The Quest for Oneness
Yom Kippur 1998 by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

"Breshit bara eloheem et ha-shamayim v'et ha-aretz. In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. The earth was unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep. And a wind from God sweeping over the water. God said, Let there be light; and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness, He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning a first day."

Notice how smoothly Creation flows from the Creator. Effortless -- with no resistance, none of the wrestling with the material of the world as there is when we create. In God's act of creation, there is a unity of thought and action, of intention and result, of Creator and Creation. This compelled the Kabbalists, the Jewish mystical tradition, to erase all dualism, all separation between the world and God and to perceive creation as a process of emanation. In the mystical imagination, the world is born out of God. The world is of God.

This unity is especially evident in the creation of the human being. "Vayomer eloheem, na'aseh adam b'tzalmeynu kee-d'mootaynu. And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them."

We human beings bear the image of God. Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that the reason graven images are forbidden by the Torah is not that God has no image, but because God has but one image: that of every living breathing human being. Therefore, you may not fashion an image of God in any medium other than that of your entire life.

The Bible's second story of creation brings God even closer:

"Va-yeetzar adonai eloheem et ha-adam afar meen ha-adamah. The Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being."

The very breath within you is of God. The last line of the book of Psalms teaches: Kol Han'shama tehallal ya. Every breath sings to God. By Jewish law, the pronunciation of God's holy name, Yud Hay Vav Hay, is secret, never uttered aloud. Really? What's the sound of a Yud? of Hay? of Vav? of Hay? Now listen. [BREATH] God's holy, unpronounceable name is sound of our life breath, for God, in this tradition, is as close as one's breath. In Dvarim Rabbah, Rabbi Yehuda teaches that although the distance from heaven to earth is more than 500 days' journey, whenever a human being breathes a prayer, God is present to hear it.

There is unity in human family. God places the man in the Garden. But He soon realizes that he has made a mistake: Lo tov hey'ot adam levado. It isn't good that man is left alone. Everything in Creation is Tov, is good. The only thing in Creation condemned as lo tov, not good, is human loneliness.

"Va-ya-pel adonai eloheem tardaymah al ha-adam va-yeeshan. So the Lord God cast a deep sleep upon the man, and while he slept, He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that spot. And the Lord God fashioned the rib that He had taken from the man into a woman; and He brought her to the man. Then the man said:
zot ha-paam etzem may-atz-amai oo-basar meeb'saree
This one at last
Is bone of my bones
And flesh of my flesh.
This one shall be called eesha, Woman,
For from eesh, from man, was she taken."

The Bible concludes this account with a remarkable image of human relationship:

"Vayehee shnay-hem aroomeem, The two of them were naked, the man and his wife, yet they felt no shame."

Nothing hidden. Nothing concealed. His inner life and hers shared, revealed to one another, in trust, in love, in wholeness.

A bad Jewish joke: of the spiritual journey of one Mrs. Shapiro: She crossed oceans, climbed mountains, and traversed valleys to stand in the presence of the great Guru. Upon arriving at his remote mountain refuge, she climbed up 1000 stone steps on her knees. She donned a white linen robe, and entered his sacred cave, eyes cast humbly downward. "You may speak only three words to the Master," she was instructed. At last, she entered into the shining presence of the master, who sat mediating upon a lotus leaf. Gathering her courage, she looked up into his eyes, and spoke her three words:
"Sheldon, come home!"

It is a sad fact that when Jews seek spiritual wisdom, they'll go almost anywhere except our own traditions. Look into any cult, any radical new therapy, any twelve-step group, any metaphysical society or meditating community, and you'll find a representation of Jews far beyond our proportion in the population. It is estimated that 30% of the practicing Buddhists and 70% of Buddhist teachers in the United States were born Jewish. Dali Lama is once reported to have confided to a Jewish friend: Your people are so deeply spiritual. Every time I visit an ashram, a meditation center, a Buddhist retreat, there are so many Jews!

And should they come to Judaism, there is a thirst for the esoteric. "I want to learn the Kabballah!" a searcher tells me, "I want to find the spiritual secrets of my people!"

The truth is that the Jewish tradition does contain spiritual secrets...secrets to happiness, secrets to fulfillment...the secret meaning of life. Where are these secrets be found?

They're not locked in esoteric works of mystical Kabballah. Nor are they shrouded in obscure gematria or codes concealed in the Torah. You needn't play your "Fiddler on the Roof" records backwards.

If they're hidden anywhere, the secrets of Jewish spirituality are hidden in plain sight. They are found in the common books of Jewish tradition: in the Torah, the Siddur, the Hagaddah. If you know how to read them.

Genesis conveys the deepest secrets of the Jewish tradition. But if you read literally, if you read Genesis as history, as an account of real events of some distant past, then you're going to find it disappointing. Any five year-old can point out its omissions -- Where are the dinosaurs? Instead, read it as myth -- your story, right now, your life, your fate. Not an account of what was, but a vision of what is. Not a charming fairy tale about people long, long ago. But an interpretation of what we are, and what we can become.

Here is the secret: Latent, beneath the world of our experiences, there lies an essential oneness of God and humanity, of humanity and nature, of the human family. We are one. You know this. Because the very first Hebrew word you ever learned was Shalom. Which we use as "peace," or "hello," or "good-bye." Shalom comes from the root Shalem, which means "whole." This vision of the possibility of Wholeness, oneness, unity is the great spiritual secret of Judaism.
But we don't know that wholeness. The world we inhabit is filled with conflict, tension, brokenness, and pain. What separates us from that vision?

Listen to the story: In the center of the Garden stand two forbidden trees: the tree of Knowledge and the tree of Life. Tempted by the serpent, the woman takes the fruit of the tree of Knowledge and eats, and she gives it to her husband, and he eats.

"V'tee-pah-kach-na ay-nay shnayhem v'yay-doo. Then the eyes of both of them were open and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed together fig leaves and made themselves clothing. They heard the sound of the Lord God moving about in the garden at the breezy time of the day; and the man and his wife hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden."

Was it really the fruit of the forbidden tree that changes things? Or perhaps was it simply her initiative in reaching for it? Suddenly, she discovers her own desires, her own wants and needs, and her own power in the world. She discovers the most elemental, monosyllabic reality: ME. In asserting ME, in asserting separateness, independence, autonomy we discover that each of us possesses a private, inner life, closed and concealed from the other, and we are embarrassed, and we hide from one another and from God. And we've been hiding ever since.

God punishes. She will bear and separate from her children in pain. He will toil and suffer to squeeze a living, to squeeze dignity, from the earth. Nature will frighten and intimidate them. Enmity between nature and humanity. Tension between man and woman. Separation from God. Loneliness returns to the world as the price of autonomy. But these are not so much punishments as they are the signs that disunity is now cemented into human experience. We are banished from the garden, from the place of unity, of wholeness to live in a world of conflict, of struggle, of brokenness, of hiding.

If God really didn't want human beings in the Garden, why didn't He destroy the Garden? He doesn't even seal up its entrance. Instead He places an angel with a turning sword at the garden gate. Now consider this image for a moment. The Garden is not sealed up. So that every time you and I walk down Eden Avenue, we can look toward the gate of the Garden. And with each revolution of the angel's turning sword, we can glimpse the Garden, and the Tree of Life that stands at its center. We can glimpse wholeness, unity, peace, we just can't get there.

The angel's sword is also flaming. And if we look down Eden Avenue, through the gates of the Garden, and we superimpose the images of the sword's flames onto the Tree of Life, what will it look like? Like the Tree is aflame, but never burns down. Where do we know that image from?

And when Moses takes his people from Egypt, and receives the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, he is told to fashion a menorah, a candelabrum of seven branches, decorated with flowers and leaves. In other words, a tree that burns without burning up. That menorah becomes the eternal symbol of the Jewish people. Because our people's eternal task is Tikkun -- repairing the separation: to bring the world to the Garden's wholeness.

I was invited once to speak to a college course on World Religions. The instructor asked me introduce Judaism -- speak for a few minutes and then answer questions. What do you say about Judaism in a few minutes? I described Judaism as a civilization -- a faith, a culture, with a sense of peoplehood, and a way of life. I spoke about the evolving character of Judaism over history and the variety of expressions of Jewish identity. At this point the instructor signaled that it was time for questions. They were intelligent questions:
.. I went to an Orthodox service, why are men and women separated from one another?
.. Why don't Jews believe in Christ?
.. Do you accept converts to Judaism?
And then a young man in the back of the class raised his hand and asked me:
..Christianity teaches that God sent His son to bring humankind out of sin and into salvation. That's the Gospel, the good news, the message of Christianity. What is the essential message of Judaism? What is it's core teaching?

This question has bothered me for a long time. It isn't an easy question. Faithful Jews, committed Jews, learned Jews, we can fluently recite the restrictions of Kashrut, the story of Purim, the blessings on the Hanuka menorah, the customs of the Sabbath table. By heart, we can recount the four letters on the dreidel, the four questions of the Seder, and the four species in a Lulav. But asked the message of Judaism, its core teaching, we stammer.

Franz Kafka tells the tale of a messenger sent from the battlefield to the palace. Running with all his might, dodging enemy fire, hurdling obstacles, he arrives finally in the palace only to discover that he has forgotten the message.

This last decade has seen a revolution in the American Jewish community. Where once the community's priorities emphasized defense: defending the State of Israel and defending ourselves from anti-Semitism, the emphasis is now focused on our communal continuity, our survival as a community. Millions of dollars, from community federations and from private foundations, are being poured into new Jewish schools, initiatives to bring teens to Israel, and new programs of adult Jewish learning.

Wouldn't it be ironic that at this moment, as the organized community is finally poised to dedicate its vast resources to Jewish continuity and Jewish education, we forgot our message, our purpose as a people? No matter how many millions we are prepared to invest, we will not survive until we are able to cogently answer the question, Why survive? For what purpose survive? What message have we been sent to deliver?

At the Seder, the child asks us: What is the meaning of all this? And whether it is asked in the voice of the wise or the wicked, the simple or the silent, the Seder cannot continue, and redemption cannot be ours, until we can offer an answer.

Abraham Joshua Heschel addressing the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations, in 1965 spoke in his most prophetic voice:
"There are two words I should like to strike from our vocabulary: 'surveys' and 'survival'."
"Our community is in spiritual distress, and our organizations are too concerned with digits. Our disease is loss of character and commitment, and the cure cannot be derived from charts and diagrams."
"The significance of Judaism does not lie in its being conducive to the mere survival but rather in its being a source of spiritual wealth, and source of meaning relevant to all peoples. Survival, mere continuation of being is a condition man has in common with animals. Characteristic of humanity is concern for what to do with survival. To be or not to be is not the question. How to be and how not to be is the question."

This isn't only an issue of communal politics. It is intensely personal. I want my children to be Jewish. I want them to own the treasures of Judaism: Challah and wine and candles, the warmth of Tradition, the chill of Kol Nidre, the silent pain of Yom Hashoah and the joyful dance of Simhat Torah. But there is something more.

Asked what they want their children to get out of Jewish education most parents will tell you: "Let them feel good about being Jewish." But there is something more. More than warm emotions. I want my children and your children to know how Judaism sees the world, how Judaism answers the problems of existence. More than good feelings. I want our children to hear and to own the message at the core of Jewish life.

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Ehad. Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Why One? Rabbi Schulweis pointed this out last year: It doesn't say what I might have expected it to say: it doesn't say Adonai Gibor, the Lord is Powerful, or All Knowing, or All Good. But One. Because God is in Oneness, in wholeness. Va'ahavta et adonai elohecha, b'chal levavcha u'vchal nafshecha, uv'chal meodech. "You will pursue oneness, with all your heart, with all your life and with all your strength". Everywhere you look in Judaism, this message is conveyed in the language of ritual, in the language of ethics, and in the rhythms of life.

Consider Shabbat. All week I live a life fragmented and alienated. I adopt my various persona, I break myself into roles: employee, supervisor, consumer, citizen, property-owner, taxpayer, son, father, husband. To succeed in the world of commerce I suppress important parts of myself. I am the nahash, the serpent in the garden: concealed, shrewd, deceptive. But on Shabbat, I let go of the struggle to wrestle a living out of society and out of nature. On Shabbat, I can be open, trusting, giving once again. Shabbat comes each week to make me one. One with myself. One with my family. One with nature. One with my community. One with God. This is why Shabbat in Jewish tradition is Maein Olam ha-Ba -- a foretaste of the world to come -- a weekly furlough back to the Garden, back to the world of wholeness.

Consider Kashrut. Keeping Kosher is the answer to a existential paradox: I revere life and I seek oneness with nature. But to survive I have to eat and to eat I must objectify nature, I must violate nature. Kashrut is a compromise -- a way to survive, consuming nature's gifts, without losing reverence for life. We limit the animals that we are allowed to eat. And we attach edicts so that the animals we do eat are killed in the most painless way possible. They don't suffer. And most importantly, we establish a strict division between all that is life-giving, represented by milk, and all that is life-taking, represented by meat.

Because eating is our most basic relationship to nature, this goes well beyond your pots and pans. The purpose of Kashrut is to diminish the fleishig in you: your violence, your aggression, your bloodthirst, your eagerness to conquer and dominate and destroy nature. Diminish the fleishig and enhance the milchig -- the nurturing, the life-affirming. This is ultimately an environmental ethic -- our response to the commandment to protect and tend the Garden, our wholeness with nature.

Consider Jewish ethics. Upstairs, in the synagogue foyer, your will find two magnificent stained-glass windows. One contains the words of the Shema Yisrael. And the other, the commandment from Leviticus, V'ahavta Le'reacha K'mocha. "You will love your neighbor as yourself." They are the same teaching. For if God is found in oneness, then the ultimate teaching of Jewish ethics is oneness with the other.

Why does the Bible attack idolatry so furiously? Was it such a big problem, such a monumental sin, that people chose to worship rocks and trees and Golden Calves? It may be foolish, but why is it so evil?

At the heart of idolatry is a denial that wholeness is possible, that the world contains the possibility of oneness. Idolatry focuses on separation; dividing the world into isolated centers of power. The prophets were adamant about idolatry because they understood that it is so natural, so easy, so comfortable to think in binary terms -- us and them, our people and those people, the children of light and the children of darkness, the good guys and the bad guys, the saved and the damned, the righteous and the sinner. They understood that when we are afraid, when we lose control over our world, when life is too much the handle, we divide the world and we invent an Other: Define the Other. Castigate the Other. And then we annihilate the Other. It can be the blacks, or the Hispanics, or Asians, or the poor, or the gays, or immigrants, or the Arabs. And it is the story our history, from Pharaoh to the Holocaust. And so the Bible commands:

"You shall not oppress the Other for you know the heart of the Other having yourselves been Other in the land of Egypt."

We are one with the poor, the oppressed, the pariah, the sick, the homeless, the helpless, the hungry. His suffering is my suffering. His plight is my plight. His destiny is my destiny.

The prophets railed against idolatry because in accepting the premise that this is a world of separation and fragmentation, I accept the brokenness as final and I give up. I resign in despair. I surrender to what is and cease to dream of what might be. I retreat in my privatism, behind the armed guards and iron gates of my neighborhood, and I shut my eyes and close my ears to the pain of the world. AIDS is not my problem. Racism is not my problem. The failure of education is not my problem. Hunger and poverty, despair and desolation are not my problems. The prophets saw that in idolatry there is separation and in separation there is surrender.

"Is this the fast that I have chosen?" proclaims Isaiah. "A day for one to afflict the soul, to bow the head like a bulrush and lie upon sackcloth and ashes like a mourner? You call this a fast? What good is it? What does it accomplish? This is what I call a fast: unlock the shackles of your selfishness, and break the yoke of your greed. Free the oppressed, share your bread with the hungry and open your house to the homeless. Protect the vulnerable. And turn not your back on your own flesh and blood." Isaiah, chapter 58.

And it comes close to home. For the past couple of years a group of men have met with me to talk about men's issues. At one of these evenings the speaker noted that in every marriage there is always some tension that never goes away, some fight that you have over and over again. So she recommended that each of us go home, sit with our wives and say to them: "I know we have this tension. But without fighting, tonight, I want to listen to you. I won't answer back. I won't argue. I just want to hear what's in your heart." The next morning I received two dozen calls from women: What did you do to my husband last night?

It may be the hardest thing in the world to learn: It's no longer about me. About my desires, my needs, my happiness, my satisfaction, my fulfillment. Perhaps life's greatest struggle: learning to quell the infant inside who screams: I want, I want, I want. That way only leads to tragedy. Adam stands in the Garden, holding the fruit his wife has just handed him. And he is torn. She has eaten, should he? If he eats, he violates God's trust, and he will die. If he doesn't eat, he betrays his mate. She will die and he will live in loneliness. He chooses to eat. "Better death," teaches the Talmud, "than a life without others."

All of Jewish life strives toward oneness. The Hebrew word for holiness is Kedusha from the root K'D'Sh: Kadosh. Trace the use of that word and discover the essence of Judaism.

A family, a havurah, a community of friends, gathers at a Shabbat or holiday table to celebrate life together, to share our stories, our laughter, our tears, the triumphs and failures of our lives. We raise a cup of wine and recite a prayer of sanctification. But it isn't the wine that is sacred. The prayer affirms the holiness of the circle around the table -- the bonds that hold us together as family and friends. That prayer is called Kiddush.

Two separate, independent individuals -- from different families, different cultures, even different planets, he from Mars, she from Venus - find wholeness in one another. They pledge to share life together. A ring is placed on a finger -- a ring whole and unbroken so that their lives, their dreams, their pain, and their joys will be wholly intertwined. The tightly drawn circle of the self is unlocked to include another whose happiness becomes my happiness, and whose suffering becomes my suffering. And we recite: Haray at mi-kudeshet lee -- "With this ring, we are mi-kudeshet, bonded in sanctity." This miraculous process is called in Jewish tradition, Kiddushin.

When a loved one dies, we refuse to let the catastrophe of death be the last word. We will not sever our bonds of loyalty and love. We will not lose our memories of shared wisdom, warmth, strength, vision. We rise in synagogue -- in the midst of our people -- to recite a prayer that affirms the triumph of life over death, of hope over despair. The prayer is called Kaddish.

And at the end of Sabbath, we recite a blessing on the distinction between the holy and the ordinary -- hamavdeel bein kodesh l'chol. What is the tradition's word for the opposite of holy, for the profane, the mundane, the ordinary? It is Hol -- literally "sand". Hold a handful of sand, and then open the hand...what happens? That's the opposite of holiness.

The Protestant scholar Rudolf Otto taught that holiness lies in the contrast between our small insignificance, what he called our "utter creatureliness" and God's frightening "tremendum". Holiness is the shiver of vulnerability in the face of awesome infinitude. For Rudolf Otto, holiness is found in the God's distance. We Jews find it elsewhere: in God's warm closeness. Asher keedshanu b'mitzvitav -- In the bonds that bring us together. We find it in shared laughter and shared tears. We find it in oneness.

Now I beginning to understand the greatest of mysteries. Every textbook of religion I have ever read has declared that death is the great catalyst of spirituality. Religion comes to answer the problem of death. If that's so -- if death is so central to religion, where is the tractate of the Talmud dealing with death? I have Shabbat with the laws of Sabbath, Ketubot about marriage law, Baba Metzia about torts and litigation, but no volume on death. If death is the preeminent spiritual issue, why does it receive so little attention in the Bible? The Bible takes four verses in the 34th chapter of Deuteronomy to describe the death of Moses. And nothing about his afterlife, his reception into heaven, his eternal bliss. Abraham dies in three verses. King David in two verses. Why so little about the greatest of spiritual mysteries?

When life is lived in pursuit of oneness, then death is not a crisis of ultimate separation, but an invitation to ultimate reunion. In the El Malay Rahamim prayer, recited at graveside, at Yizkor, we ask: B'gan Eden Tehay menuchato. May death bring our loved ones back to the Garden. To oneness. To wholeness.

Rabbi Akiba, according to a legend of the Talmud, was arrested by the Romans for the crime of teaching Torah in public. Condemned to death by torture, he was brought before the arena at the time when the morning Shema is recited. As the torturers proceeded with their horrible task, the rabbi raised his voice to recite Shema. "Ad kaan?" asked his astonished students, "even now?" "Of course," he responded joyfully. For all my life I have loved God with all my heart and all my might, and now I am able to love God with all my soul." He continued with his recitation of Shema. And as he reached the word, Ehad, One, he died.

Abraham Joshua Heschel taught:
"If life is a pilgrimage, death is an arrival, a celebration. The last word should be neither craving nor bitterness, but peace, gratitude.

"Our greatest problem is not how to continue, but how to return. [The Psalmist asks] 'How can I repay unto the Lord all His bountiful dealings with me?' When life is an answer [to that question] death is a homecoming.

"This is the meaning of death: the ultimate self-dedication to the divine. Death so understood will not be distorted by the craving for immortality, for this act of giving away is reciprocity on our part for God's gift of life."

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Ehad. Listen Israel to the message of our faith, the wisdom of our tradition, the legacy of the generations of our people: The universe is one. Humanity is one. We are one. And God is found in that oneness.

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