Hello there, troublemakers.
Because I have a feeling this is a room full of troublemakers. All of you, stirring the waters. Don't deny it. I've seen you! At organizing meetings. Attending vigils and protests. Posting, sharing, writing letters and calling representatives. Attending our last Social Justice Café. I've seen what you're up to, all of you troublemakers. Sometimes it's about politics. The Anti-Muslim ban and health care and racial justice. Sometimes it's about Israel and Palestine. Sometimes it's about sex and gender and other no-longer-convincing binaries. Troublemakers. Sometimes it's about our own religion and its not-always-easy legacy and the people who sometimes speak in its name. And there you are, objecting and protesting and plotting and daring to try new things. Alternative families and permaculture and men in skirts.
You are all troublemakers. All of you.
And I figure this is a week to honor the troublemakers. Because stirring the waters has a long and proud history, and it is specfically referenced in this week's haftarah portion. The bit comes in the first Book of Kings, where the profit Elijah goes to challenge King Ahab, the king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, about his misdeeds. Ahab looks at him and says,
הַאַתָּה זֶה עֹכֵר יִשְׂרָאֵל
Aren't you the troubler of Israel?*1*
'Okher Yisrael. Troubler of Israel.
'Okher is a word that appears only a handful of times in Tanakh, and then a bit more in Talmud and Midrash. It means to "stir up" in all the ways we mean that phrase in English – to literally stir liquid, and to stir up stuff in the liquid. To make the clear wine murky by bringing up the dregs. And also to stir up trouble, to make difficult someone's life or work or monarchy.
'Okher Yisrael – troubler of Israel, agitator, stirrer of shit, Ahab calls Elijah.
And Elijah holds his ground and challenges the king, saying lo 'akharti et Yisrael. No, not me. You. You are the one who made all the trouble.
What had Ahab done? King Ahab was guilty of many crimes over his life including murder and theft, and at this point he had been building altars to other Gods – to Ba'al, a Canaanite deity, and to Asherah, an old Semitic mother goddess. Elijah comes knocking because the God of Israel is steamed that the King of Israel is sharing his devotion.
This story has some politics to it. It is written down in the time that Judaism is moving from polytheism to monotheism. That struggle is recorded in this story. The polytheistic king challenged and shown up by the monotheistic prophet.
But let's put aside the politics of that time, because they might not ring so true for us anymore. After all, lots of us in this community have altars in our homes. Our bric-a-brac includes statuary from other traditions – little Buddhas and fertility goddesses and kokopelli images from the American southwest. We, in our very postmodern, universalist frames of mind, say, "All of this is the face of God; Divinity is represented in many forms and many ideas and I am inspired by having them all around me." If someone gave you an Asherah statue you'd probably put it right on your mantelpiece without worrying about Elijah knocking on your door to scold you.
But maybe there is a different kind of idolatry, something other than polytheism, that is alive right now, and that we would want to challenge. What might idolatry mean to us?
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg offers a thought on this.*2* He begins from the premise, drawn from our creation story, that every person is made b'tzelem Elohim – in the image of God. Every person. Not just Adam. If this is so, says Rabbi Greenberg, then the diversity of humanity is in itself key to understanding or experiencing the fullness of the Divine. And in contrast, if you think that some humans are more deserving than other humans because of their race or sex or nationality; if you think some humans deserve safety and dignity more than others, then you are denying some of tzelem Elohim. You are making the image of God less than it can and ought to be. You are honoring a shtikl and not the whole. And that, according to Yitz Greenberg, is idolatry.
Rabbi David Seidenberg, in his book Kabbalah and Ecology: God's Image in the More-Than-Human World, argues elegantly that tzelem Elohim, the image of God, refers not only to humanity, but to all life on the planet, and to the planet itself, and to the cosmos within which the planet is suspended. Building on the work of medieval Kabbalists, especially the Spanish rabbi Yosef ben Shalom Ashkenazi, to whom Adam didn't mean some dude in Eden but the full length, breadth and guts of the Universe, Rabbi Seidenberg moves humanity out of the center so that all of Creation can be God's image. And if we accept this idea, then preferencing the comfort of humans over the survival of other species or of the planet itself is impermissibly narrowing God's image. Again: idolatry.
This might be the kind of idolatry that we, with Elijah-like zeal, are gathering ourselves to challenge. When we look at the king – and by "king" I don't just mean the guy in Washington who acts like one, but any power, whether governmental or corporate or cultural; when we look at the king and see the king practicing idolatry – valuing some lives over others; then it is each of our job to be an 'okher Yisrael, a troublemaker of Israel, someone who troubles the water. This is a noble and ancient calling. And when Elijah shows up at our Passover Seder this year, maybe it would be a good opportunity to ask him for pointers.
Now beware. There are risks associated with stirring the waters, as any activist knows. The thing is, when you stir the waters, the waters get stirred. There are ripples; and the consequences can be unpredictable. Other activists might be stirred up or stirring up in different ways, and the hulls of your ships might bang up against each other – the hulls of your friendships, your partnerships, colliding. This happens. And so it is important to remember that someone stirring the water differently is not necessarily your enemy. And that there is room on these waves for all of us to ride.
So how can we be 'okhrey Yisrael, holy troublemakers, without getting swamped andshipwrecked?
One nice hint comes to us through the New Testament, in the Book of John, that describes a scene of Divine healing. It says:
An angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool and stirred up the water; whoever then first, after the stirring up of the water, stepped in was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted.*3*
This is the image that was brought into the Negro spiritual "Wade in the Water," where it says "God's gonna trouble the water." Not meaning that God is going to stir up muck or make difficulty. But instead that God, through this angel, will activate the healing power of the water. And the water referred to is the pool called Bethesda outside of Jerusalem. An Aramaic name, Beyt Chisda, or in Hebrew, Beyt Hachesed. The home or source of kindness.
So if we ecumenistically treat the Book of John as the haftarah on our haftarah this week, what is its lesson? That when the water you stir is the water of kindness, then healing naturally flows from it.
How can we make sure that the water we troublemakers are stirring up is the water of kindness?
We can be the angel. Use our angel consciousness. Lift our awareness up one notch to make sure that even while we are making trouble for power, we are doing so out of love, love for the people who need our protection, love for the world we can still have. Holding in kindness even the people against whom we are protesting on any given day.
And through this we become the embodiment, the avatar, the angel of that kindness. We let waters of kindness flow. With the intention of bringing healing to our country and our species and our world. So that all of it – large and small, human and not-human, infinitely diverse – may at last be honored as tzelem Elohim, the image of God.
May we, troublemakers, angels, make it so.
*1* I Kings 18:17.
*2* Adapted from a teaching by Yitz Greenberg given at Limmud Bay Area, summer 2016.
*3* John 5:4.
Dedicated to my colleagues in the "Of One Soul" campaign of the Interfaith Council of Sonoma County.