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Three Lodestars for The New Year

What do Islamophobia, a friend's disappointment, and the Jewish New Year have in common? Each offers the opportunity to remember and practice the simple things that support the renewal of possibility.

The Jewish New Year, Rosh HaShanah, begins Wednesday night. I have been less involved in Jewish communal spirituality this year than at any other time in the last dozen years. This stretch of my journey has been toward a more universal spirituality, an attraction to the larger truths that seem to be part of the underlying structure of reality because they are shared across so many traditions. And so I have engaged less with the details of my own heritage tradition.

But the rhythms of the year's spiritual cycle still pulse in my blood. September starts to unfold, and with it, the habit of searching within, preparing for another year. Traditionally, Jews do a cheshbon hanefesh (a soul inventory), revealing to ourselves and others the t'shuvah (reorientation, repentance) that will bring us into alignment with our best selves.

This year, what I am seeing has to do with alignment, but in a slightly different sense: when I gaze within, I see a kind of map. Its fixed features are three lodestars that almost always emerge to guide me home. I call them seeing the simple thing, using the universal solvent, and understanding the holographic principle.

Seeing the simple thing. The temptation to eschew the simple thing is rooted in our sense of self-importance, as illustrated in the tale of Naaman in Chapter 5 of the biblical book of Kings. Naaman a brave and victorious army captain who is also a leper. A young Israelite girl Naaman has captured tells his wife that Elisha the prophet can heal her husband. Naaman's entourage of horses and chariots journeys to Elisha’s house in Samaria for healing. When they arrive, Elisha sends the great man a message: “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.”

Naaman is offended by the modesty of Elisha's prescription in relation to his own stature: “I thought, He will surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the afflicted place, and cure the leper.” But bathing in the Jordan? "Are not Amana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? May I not wash in them, and be clean?”

Naaman's servant stops him: “Sir, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more should you do it when he has only said to you, Wash, and be clean?” Relenting, Naaman dips himself seven times in the Jordan, "and his flesh is restored like the flesh of a little child, and he is made clean."

The hubris most characteristic of our time is the pervasive belief that our problems are so important and complex, they can never yield to the application of ordinary ethical and moral principles. The idea that small acts can make a difference can easily seem ridiculous.

But just for a moment, take the risk of seeming ridiculous. Imagine how the world would be transformed by the application of the golden rule, a single precept woven so deeply into the human heart and mind that it forms the DNA of all moral systems: “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow. This is the law: all the rest is commentary.” (If you are interested in how the golden rule appears in multiple spiritual traditions, you might enjoy the essay I wrote for artist Beth Grossman's recent exhibit on this subject.)

This lodestar reminds me (and perhaps it will also serve as a reminder to you) not to allow some inflated idea of our own specialness and complexity to reject the simple thing, the thing we have the capacity to do, and thereby to be made clean.

Using the universal solvent. Of all the simple things at our disposal, one shines like a beacon on my inner map, the one I call the "universal solvent." They say that if you hear the same message three times in close proximity, there's a teaching in it you ought to heed. Pay attention, please, while I whisper three times in your ear the formula for the universal solvent in human relations. If people are even somewhat present, open, and honest (a tall order, I know), these three steps immeasurably enhance the possibility of minds meeting:

Awareness, acknowledgment, response
Awareness, acknowledgment, response
Awareness, acknowledgment, response.

This works in the small world of interpersonal relations. My friend was upset because her pal had let her down, bailing on a commitment to support her during a scary medical appointment. Stuff happens, of course, and sometimes commitments are broken without breaking a bond. But what my friend couldn't get past was the lack of acknowledgment for her feelings. "It would have been completely different for me," my friend said, "if she had just told me she understood how I felt. I kept wanting her to say, 'I know what this brings up for you,' or 'I know this must be hard for you.' But all she did was talk about herself."

As in the little world, so in the big one of issues and politics. I am among those who have been appalled by the tidal wave of anti-Islamic prejudice heaped on the plan to build Cordoba House, an Islamic cultural center that includes a mosque (and a gym, theater, library, etc., etc.), a few blocks from the World Trade Center site in Manhattan. I am one of the initiating signatories to a statement by Jewish leaders supporting the plan. For readers who want to read a concise and fair account of the whole controversy, I recommend The American Muslim Website, where a detailed account by editor Sheila Musaji appears. I am honored to have some of my work reprinted on TAM, which provides a range of thoughtful and compassionate perspectives grounded in healing between the nations and opposition to all forms of terrorism.

I am certain that it is right to support religious freedom as one of the fundamental liberties on which our Constitution rests. But I also notice how few of the responses—even those that come out strongly on the civil libertarian side of the question—directly address our Muslim brothers and sisters with the same acknowledgment my friend needed in the little world of personal connection. "I hear what you are saying about how this feels. I am with you." Without those words spoken with the conjoined power of heart and mind, I have never seen real forgiveness, real healing, accomplished.

Two recent examples touched me greatly:

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat blogs as The Velveteen Rabbi. Please take the time now to read her story of an outpouring of compassion and help toward the members of a mosque desecrated by vandals.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is founder and director of The Shalom Center, an organization I have the honor to serve as Board President. At the end of his essay on recent calls to burn copies of the Quran, he recounts the kind of childhood story that instils the empathy that has given us the universal solvent, the capacity to put oneself in the place of the other:

Let us hope that a story from my own childhood echoes so strongly the memories and sensibilities of other American Jews that overwhelmingly, we will walk the path toward freedom and diversity, peace and economic healing:
When I was about seven years old (1940), my grandmother interrupted other Jewish women in line at the kosher butcher shop who were talking contemptuously about "the shvartzes" -- that is, Black people. She challenged them: "That's the way they talked about us in Europe. This is America, and we must not talk like that!"
We must not act like that, either.

Understanding the holographic principle. I call my third lodestar "the holographic principle" because every part of a hologram contains all the information possessed by the whole. No matter how you slice it, the same truths are revealed.

In an essay on "Enmity and Friendship" in his new book, Encounter, Czech author Milan Kundera describes what he sees as an important distinction separating two political stances:

the disagreement between people for whom the political struggle is more important than real life, than art, than thought, and people for whom the whole meaning of politics is to serve real life, art, thought.

Between those two positions, I side with Kundera and the second. But in truth, I don't think he goes far enough: from what I have seen, real life, art, thought, and politics are coterminous, congruent, and inseparable.

An anthropologist questions a shaman about the nature of the world. The shaman explains that the world rests on the back of a giant turtle. The anthropologist asks what supports the turtle. "Another turtle" is the answer. And beneath that one? "Another turtle." After a few such exchanges, the anthropologist, frustrated, asks what upholds it all. "Just turtles all the way down," says the shaman.

The people who are aligned with Kundera's first category will almost certainly find my assertion laughable, but here it is: how we behave in the little world of private relations; how we feed and cultivate our thoughts; how we marshal beauty, meaning, and imagination to make art; and how we formulate our collective actions as a society are one and the same.

Traditionally, on Rosh HaShanah, apples dipped in honey are eaten to remind us of the sweetness of life. In my New Year's gift to you, seeing the simple thing is the apple; using the universal solvent is the honey. Dipping them actualizes the holographic principle, so that whatever this year may bring, we will not lose our way, our lodestars will shine.

Belief matters so much less to me than desire and how we enact it. "Into My Arms" is a beautiful love song by Nick Cave that makes this point with heart-wrenching simplicity. May those who love be preserved and upheld in their love. May those who seek love find it. Blessings for a sweet year, dear readers.