Resistance, Transformation, Hope and Words

(Yom Kippur 5778)


Words are Important

Words are important. The world is made of words. God spoke Creation into existence with ten turns of phrase. The kabbalists believed the world to be made up of letters, Hebrew letters, like atoms, forming the physical stuff and spiritual substance of everything in and around us. We know personally the power of words. We wait every year for this night, for the Kol Nidre prayer, and our chance to be released, relieved, of the words that caused harm.

The world is made of words. The other night Susie Miller gave me a book. It was a book in Hebrew that a student had brought to her studio for use in art journaling. And even though someone had already begun to take a scissors to it, Susie spotted the book and rescued it from the pile of National Geographics destined to become collage fodder.

We opened the book together. It turned out to be an old printing of Sefer Raziel Hamalakh – The Book of the Angel Raziel, a medieval mystical treatise. It was probably compiled in 13th Century Ashkenaz – that is, in the German Rhineland; but the story the book tells of its own origin is that it was given to Adam and Eve by the angel Raziel, after they were expelled from the Garden. They were displaced and dispirited; they had never experienced such hard times (they had never experienced any hard times). And Raziel came to them with kindness, and with this book to give them access to God's secret wisdom.

I took the book home and thumbed through every page, stopping to read here and there and to look at the charts and diagrams. The book is a kind of grimoire – a collection of magical spells. But this is not the stirring-herbs-in-a-potion kind of magic. The ingredients of the spells are all Hebrew letters. The magic, if you want to call it that, uses permutation, or rearrangements of letters, including God's name, to effect something in the world. It is full of formulas and codes and explanations of how to do math with the letters, to transform reality by monkeying with reality's DNA.  

Now like Adam and Eve, we are also in a time of feeling displaced and dispirited. Not that the Obama years were a Garden of Eden, although it often feels that way in retrospect. But we certainly feel a new kind of vulnerability now, a kind of danger. It has been, undeniably, a difficult year. Political upheaval like we haven't seen in decades or ever. Growing boldness among groups organized around hate. We have witnessed a fraying of the field of kindness, the field of dignity, the field of citizenship,  the field of ecology, and whatever it is that holds us together in holiness, which we might call the Godfield. These fields are fraying and we are afraid.

So how do we do the mending? Certainly there is political organizing to do; rallying and teaching. But there's also deep magic we could be cooking up. I am not a master of occult practices, even Jewish ones. I can barely make any sense out of any page of the Book of Angel Raziel. But the angel's suggestion that behind transformation lies language – that should mean something to us. If we want to mend the field, we start with language; we start with our words. Our words conjure a world. And we want it to be a world that we want to live in.

So a few thoughts about language and action. And times when language is action.

Resistance and Transformation

Since the election last November we have been repeatedly called to resist. At first, the idea of resistance was very appealing. We did not want to go where it seemed the country was going. So we would resist, from the Latin root sistere, meaning to stop or stand.

There is a noble quality to stopping; to standing firm. Even a romantic quality. It invokes the firmness of Martin Luther King and the cleverness of partisans in Polish forests. Using the language of resistance, we connect ourselves to some of our great heroes.

But resistance is also limiting. That kind of standing firm can immobilize us. When our heels are dug in deeply, it is hard to move in any direction, even toward the places we want to be. Resistance is a reaction, a strong one, but not clearly a strategy for change. And "resistance" is language that places us on the outside, outside of power. When in fact we have such innate ability to transform the culture, if we don't let our own words give that power away.

So I propose that in our language we begin to resist resisting; or desist from resisting altogether. Let us pick up our feet and give ourselves room to move, to flow, and to lead.

There is no doubt: we have been good resistors. We have had lots of practice. And now it is time to be good transformers instead.

Inviting Vision

So how do we do this? How do we become good transformers?

We begin by inviting some vision. Something like we've been doing here over these Holy Days. We vision the world we want to see and let it guide us. We vision in detail. Not in generalities, like "a world of peace" or "an era of equality." Those are good on paper, but they don't give enough guidance or sustenance. We need to imagine in detail. What does peace actually look like? Feel like? Smell like? What is work like in a peaceful world? What is the economy? What is art? What is my home like and who is there?

You don't have be locked into the details – your vision will evolve as you evolve. But the details are important. They make it real. In fact, some of the details can be drawn right into the present moment. We think of vision as looking at a far horizon, some distant future. But the visioning isn't happening at a distance. As tomorrow's Torah portion tells us, "It is not remote; it is not in Heaven; it is not over the Sea. It is in your mouth and in your heart."

In other words, vision of the future does not live in the future, but rather in the beating heart and formative words of this moment. And so nothing stops us from manifesting details of our vision right now. In our relationships, in our politics, in our stewardship of the Planet. We don't need to wait for the world to be perfected, or different, or for there to be a new administration, or multiple political parties, before we start manifesting a more perfect world. Many people in this room already do this: by insistent kindness, by community involvement, by bringing to their work values of empathy and equality, not just as goals but as the process by which they move toward their goals.

My vision of the future tells me what I need to change now. A habit, a way of thinking, a willful ignorance of my privilege. And taking that guidance heart allows me to transform my little corner of reality and, hopefully, let that transformation radiate out. This kind of change is slower, but it is also more enduring, and future generations will thank us.

Guns and Proses

So back to the power of – and trouble with – words. I have noticed more and more as I get older how, despite our talking all the time about peace, our language and our strategies for achieving it are often expressed in language that is about fighting, battling, winning. We use these metaphors because that's just how we talk. Our language is full of images of conflict and violence. We do it all the time and almost never notice it. What's the plan of attack? Who should we target with this campaign? Let's fight for our cause. Let's defend our position. Don't know if I can make that deadline, but I'll shoot for it. He sure shoots from the hip. What triggered that reaction? Getting tickets for that opera was murder. Watching it was torture.

An anthropologist looking at how we speak would never conclude that peace was a value that we claim to be paramount.

Yes, these are just figures of speech. But knowing that does not fix it. This language conditions us to respond to difficulty in particular ways. This set of metaphors limits the options we see for ourselves. So our model of making change is often not a model for transformation but a model for winning, which means someone else loses. And while winning is happy news for our "side", we haven't made deep change, because there is still a losing side that is stewing, and our happy outcome is destined to be followed by a backlash, like the one we live in now.

I'm not saying that changing our metaphor set will instantly change our culture. But changing our metaphor set is not nothing. It will do a couple things. First off, it will show greater respect toward people who have survived actual violence when we don't use their experience to express something abstract or trivial. Secondly, it will do something for us. As we notice and let go of violence and warfare as our dominant metaphors, it will require us to be creative; to take seriously the world we are trying to speak into being and to put words to it. Colorful words. Interesting, enticing, sticky words. Words that will make a better world irresistible, and us happy just to listen to them. This will be beautiful work to be part of.

So dropping the violence metaphors will do both these things, honoring others and nurturing our creativity. We will be killing two birds with––no, we will be feeding two birds with one seed.

Lifting our Perception

Last week on Rosh Hashanah we talked about how our worldview is informed by a Creation story made up of division and separation. And we talked how that encourages us to see the world through our divisions. And we suggested adopting a practice of lifting our perception a notch, to a higher level of generality and commonality, in order to bridge difference, build empathy, and heal our instinct to polarize.

And I told you that this practice would have applicability when we got to the topic of politics. And here we are. We are living in a time of bitter division. Over the past year, I have heard umpteen stories from congregants and friends who were afraid to engage with their families of origin this year, because they voted differently in the election. It has been a year where those political differences have seemed irreconcilable.

That level of division is unpleasant, of course. But it is also familiar and comfortable. The presence of deep division helps us build up our own sense of fire and zeal. But it's not clear to me that that really serves us.

It is much harder, and more important, to try to find what we share than what we don't. Finding what we share is risky to our identity and our prejudices. But it is transformative in a way that arguing someone down on Facebook is not.

So maybe what we need to do is dig down and find our chutzpah. The courage to take a different road and to raise our perception. And instead of saying to Uncle Charlie, "How could you have voted for him," we ask instead, "What has been important to you in your life?" Or to cousin Millie, "What are you most proud of?" Or, "What frightens you the most?" And then you share what's important to you and what you're proud of and what frightens you. And you do this without judgment, without trying to win, without trying to catch them in some hypocrisy. Not going for a "gotcha" but for an "I get ya." This is a brave path. It is not disloyal to your friends or to your beliefs. And it is necessary if transformation is really what we're after.

And this engagement is a kind of teshuvah. It is not apology, but it is a returning –– to the place where you are most human and most divine, most loving and most connected to the whole of our species.

A Last Word About Hope

There's one last thing I want to raise and that is about hope. Hope is a beautiful thing that has been faltering a bit this year. Frankly, even in the best of times, hope gets a bit of a bum rap. It is treated like fantasy or delusion, like it is the opposite of fact. I have no evidence to believe things will get better, all I have is hope.

But hope is not a groundless thing. It is not really a belief at all. It is an orientation. A practice. It is a habitual refusal to sit in cynicism. Hope is a lens through which we notice that healing is possible in some form or another, and that healing is happening all the time, every day. And hope is a willingness to notice this, and to be encouraged, to literally feel more courage, to feel heartened, by noticing.

We have talked for ten days about mending fields. And I have wondered what is the thread with which we can do the mending? And this is where I landed. In Hebrew, the word for hope is tikvah. And in Biblical Hebrew tikvah also means "thread" or "cord". And I'd like to suggest that tikvah, hope, is our thread for mending all of these fields. Our plans and programs will fix problems, our research will turn up new possibilities, our activism will change some minds. But it is our hope that will mend the fabric.

Back to the Garden

So there is much ahead of us. Much work. And much love. Don't be discouraged. Don't get stuck in a posture of resistance. Stay mobile and nimble. Dream a vision of the future, in detail, and notice that it lives in your heart right now. And invite it into your world.

Let go of language that turns even our best thoughts into military operations. Fashion new language to delight and inspire us all. Lift your perception and be brave enough to discover what you share with people you thought of as so different. And don't give up hope. Don't ever give up hope. For it is the thread for our great mending job.

The angel Raziel says we can change the world by rearranging the letters. So let us do that. Permute the letters as we go, leaving a trail of transformation. Let us turn our reactivity into creativity. When we meet someone and have the impulse to resist, let us instead find in them a sister. And as we move forward into what we perceive as a place of danger, let us turn it, return it, back into a Garden.