I have a trivial story that I told my children growing up. I’ve revised it here from what I told them. The punchline is the same.
“There once were two brothers around bar mitzvah age who were confused about what their adult life was going to be like. They asked the teacher. What should I do in life? What is a good Jewish life? What is a good human life?
The teacher spoke of the process of creation, that God only went so far in the creation process, and then rested, that the remainder of creation was for us to participate in, and do the best that we can. The boys responded, “What does that mean?” (in not that nice language).
The teacher then spoke about how all things in the world, at whatever scale are in a state of tension, of pulling apart, falling apart. That in a healthy being, those tensions exist in a state of balance, so that they don’t fall apart, and are in fact useful characteristics in a helpful life. But, that inevitably things start to and then do fall apart.
And, that through whatever form, wherever you find yourself, the best that you can is to help people, communities, nature, your family “get it together” (to coin an apt sixties phrase). In a word, that you should work to make things whole, in all your relations, where you find/put yourself.
So, the young men later went out into the world.
The older found that there was MUCH that had fallen apart in the world, that there were many people’s lives that were distressed, even people that were very close to him. He noticed patterns to that distress, that many people had similar maladies, from similar causes, with similar subsequent symptoms.
He got angry about that, and decided that he would put his teacher’s words into practice, and vehemently criticized the system and oppressive regimes that had caused so many such suffering. He went so far as to participate in some borderline violent demonstrations, and came to think of the wealthy, the powerful, authority in general as evil. He decided that he would work to tear down the system, and trust that nature was a self-organizing process, that something organic and better would replace what was.
His brother, did not get angry at social incongruities, as he had already gotten married and was much more concerned with the stability of his livelihood and family. He applied the same teaching differently. He noted that some revolutionaries (somehow he excused his brother) had excessively attacked some of his colleagues work that he knew was benevolently motivated (at least to the market targeted), and came to disregard and even to hate those that rebelled, those that sought to turn the world upside down. He even went so far as to attend rallies furthering the order of the status quo. Some of the rallies focused on the rebels, that they should lock the door and throw away the key. (He didn’t take those remarks seriously, preferring to consider other parts of the message as important. “Personal responsibility”
At thirty, both brothers were invited to a family event in which the teacher was also invited. It was the first time in a decade since they had seen him, and both were eager to tell of their lives and hear the teacher’s comments, endorsement and advice.
The first brother told of his life, of his current attitudes, of his sensitivities and angers, seeking the teacher’s endorsement. The teacher responded, “It is obvious that you have your heart in the right place. You are obviously at root a very compassionate man, to be so concerned with others’ suffering.”
The second brother told of his life, of his current attitudes, of his commitments, sensitivities and angers, also seeking the teacher’s endorsement. The teacher responded similarly, “It is obvious that you are very concerned about the well-being of your family, your community. I can see that at root you are a very compassionate man, to be so concerned with others’ welfare.”
But, then later, the teacher spoke to them together. “You are beautiful young men. I can see why your father is so proud of both of you.” (This confused each of them, as they each thought that the teacher would endorse their approach over their brother’s.)
“But, there is something that you are both doing wrong now. That is rather than making things whole, a lot of what you are both doing now is to make holes.
The difference in actions that you each feel called to, is really not that large.
You who feel concerned for humanity’s suffering should continue working for their restoration, helping them, and where you identify wrongs that suppress them in some way, working to change that. But, you should do so in a way that does not threaten or hurt the people that you believe are doing wrong. In fact, you should be appreciative of what they have accomplished in their lives, what they find important, why, and how. By remaining sensitive to ALL your relations, you will be better able to succeed at improving the lives of those that are harmed, those that you have come to care about.
You who feels the importance of family commitment, hard personal work, should value the efforts of those that speak up for others (and for those that speak up for themselves). They do not threaten your life. They offer you a window to improve your life. If we are successful in this world, but at others’ expense, then what have we accomplished. Have we made anything whole?
Jewish life is both a credo and an association. We have a purpose on the planet, of to serve as “a nation of priests”. Our association, our community, is not an end in itself, but a means to the end of serving as a nation of priests.
Some interpret that purpose as only or primarily the literal instructions for priestly service articulated by Moses for the tabernacle, then elaborated further in the Jerusalem temple worship.
Others interpret the phrase more broadly, meaning to “make things whole” where we stand, not just through sacrifice, or even prayer, but through the composite of our action, our life, our sensitivity.
The term “brit” (society), is in fact a conspiracy of wholeness, a community of people entrusted to make things whole, healthy, to aid in God’s work of creating a coherent, balanced, healthy world, during the period that God rests, now.
This is what I teach my children.”
All my relations.