For most of us, the very word “Orlando” surfaces images of childhood fantasies. Whether you are at Disney World, Universal Studios or an actor playing a Mormon missionary and dreaming of the place you’d most like to be stationed, Orlando represents something innocent in the minds of most Americans. Until now...
When events like this shatter a piece of our comfortable assumptions about safety, security and tolerance, we often move from the initial stage of bewilderment to anger and then to questioning basic assumptions about our shared humanity. It is this last stage that is most pernicious because it eats away at hope and optimism. Years ago, I came across this translation of a passage from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first chief rabbi of what was then Palestine, in the introduction to Herbert Wiener’s Nine and Half Mystics. It gave him hope. It's always given me hope.
As long as the world moves along accustomed paths, as long as there are no wild catastrophes, man can find sufficient substance for his life by contemplating surface events, theories and movements of society. He can acquire his inner richness from this external kind of “property.” But this is not the case when life encounters fiery forces of evil and chaos. Then the “revealed” world begins to totter. The man who tries to sustain himself only from the surface aspects of existence will suffer terrible impoverishment, begin to stagger...then he will feel welling up within himself a burning thirst for that inner substance and vision which transcends the obvious surfaces of existence and remains unaffected by the world’s catastrophes. From such inner sources, he will seek the waters of joy...
Rabbi Kook adds an important stage to traveling through the kind of emotions many of us are experiencing this week. When an event pushes us deeply out of the complacent and familiar, we are forced to search for a language of reason and meaning to get us out of the existential mess. When our revealed world - the one we know - totters, we stagger but then find that this itself releases a desire for something greater and more meaningful to carry us above the pain.
In the biblical verse above, Moses and Aaron encounter an Israelite nation who complain sharply against God because they were hungry and unsure of their collective future. They murmur so harshly that Moses asked himself and Aaron: what are we? Rashi interprets this to mean: “Of what importance are we?...Your sons, your wives, your daughters and the mixed multitude” are murmuring against us. On the face of it, this is a crushing moment in the leadership of two biblical heroes. But in mystical literature, this reads as a turning point. Only when Moses and Aaron humbled themselves with this question, were they truly able to rise in service to the people.
How does this work? Fasten your seatbelts and we will read Rabbi Kook’s interpretation of this verse through the translation of Daniel Matt in The Essential Kabbalah:
The greater you are the more you need to search for your self. Your deep soul hides itself from consciousness. So you need to increase aloneness, elevation of thinking, penetration of thought, liberation of mind - until finally your soul reveals itself to you, spangling a few sparkles of her light.”
Rabbi Kook believed that were an individual to reach this very elevated station of personal growth, he or she would abandon the ego and his or her individuation, melting into a state of unity, “becoming one with everything that happens.” At this stage, “you gather everything, without hatred, jealousy, or rivalry. The light of peace and a fierce boldness manifest in you. The splendor of compassion and the glory of love shining through you. The desire to act and work, the passion to create and to restore yourself, the yearning for silence and for the inner shout of joy - all these band together in your spirit, and you become holy.” [Orot Ha-Kodesh 3:270]
In other words, when we reach a true state of righteousness, we don’t see the differences among us. We rise above all the fractiousness and smallness of being human and achieve wholeness. For Rabbi Kook, this is not a serene, lonely state but a fierce boldness with the capacity to allow love to shine through oneself to others.
Now is the time for a fierce boldness of love and unity that comes from every person transforming the same question - “What are we?” - from the rhetorical, self-deprecating question of our human capacity for evil to the “What are we?” question of how little divides us ultimately when we overcome judgment and jealousy, pettiness of heart and smallness of spirit.
So what are you?