My Rebbe Is An Activist, But I’m Not

Even respectable chassidim agree that talk is cheap. I’ve heard them speak about it for hours at farbrengens.

However, every respectable chassid also knows that the three garments of the soul, in descending order of truth/reality, are thought, speech, and action. So really, action is cheap.

Maybe that’s why Jews love action.

Oh, I’m not saying Jews are stingy with words, especially if they’re complaining. But the type of speech Jews like nowadays isn’t speech at all. College graduates gussy up action to seem like words. Newspaper ads, protest slogans, “think”pieces.  Not for these is humanity distinguished from the rest of the animal kingdom by the term “medaber,” the ones that speak.

After all, animals communicate. Bees dance, dolphins whistle, dogs urinate (some human protesters have taken this approach as well). Everything in the assuredly vast range between gnats and investment bankers shares the same type of speech, the type that leads to the manipulation of food or mates (I heard praying mantises get a two-for-one special). What is the fundamental difference between sniffing under another dog’s tail and demolishing that snotty know-it-all with a facebook comment? Both are important practical skills in their respective species; both are fundamental to social interaction; one of them might even make you friends.

Real speech of the “medaber” type is about abstractions. Eleanor Roosevelt once said the endlessly tweetable quote, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” This only proves that she considered the average mind sub-human (in violation of Democratic values!). The quote should say, “Human minds discuss ideas; animal minds discuss events and people.” This means that math major was in some sense expressing more humanity with their non-ironic goggle glasses than you were by picketing Monty Python for sexism, which should make you nervous.

Jewish speech is really just more Jewish action. And no one does Jewish action better than Lubavitch, which some compare to McDonalds franchises and some compare to cockroaches, and no one knows which is more insulting. This weekend you can tune into the incredible Kinnus HaShluchim, the annual conference of Chabad emissaries all over the world, a room full of chassidim who have done it, who have set up shop for life in the far-flung reaches of the globe just to wrap tefillin on or light candles with or feed kosher food to another Jew who needs it. Watch them speak about actions and act on speeches (“Spontaneous dancing!”).

They are heroic, they are self-sacrificing, they were a big part of making me who I am today, and I salute them. They are doing G-d’s work.

They are also doing the Rebbe’s work. The Rebbe who said “action is the main thing” in every talk. The Rebbe, who transformed a small chassidic court into etc. etc. The Rebbe, who always demanded more and for whom no words were sufficient.

For him, action certainly was not cheap.

“Wake up!” says the reader, if they’re even half-Chabad. “This world is important, it’s all happening here. We have to do the mitzvos, we have to bring moshiach and light up this darkness!” And that’s true. There is no use arguing what the Rebbe made so clear. The world is dark, and it does need moshiach.

Action is still stupid, though. Light for lighting up darkness is also dark. When someone wants Moshiach because it will fix the world, then they don’t want Moshiach. When they’re shvitzing with lepers in Bangladesh (can you put tefillin on the wrong arm if it’s the only one left?) in order to see their dead loved ones again, it’s not redemption they want. When they, lord help us, deal with Israelis in order to bring peace to land, they are missing the point. And that’s the problem with action, in a nutshell: wrestle with a muddy man and get dirty, wrestle with the world and you become redefined in its terms.

Action will never capture moshiach for moshiach’s sake. Action will never be a yearning to know a G-d who is beyond this world. Action is ever declarative of the world’s existence.

Inaction is much better. Like the story Rabbi Manis Friedman tells about the reactions of the “Orthodox” Jews to the enlightenment. Reformers would come and say, “Such and such a custom is archaic, not real Judaism, beyond twisted, and worst of all unhygienic, care to comment?” Group one replies, “You may be right, we’ll look into it.” Group two replies, “You’re definitely wrong. We will do twice as many unhygienic customs, just to spite you.” Both of these groups, though opposites, are equally reactive to what the world says, and they act. Group three, and this was the general Lubavitch approach says, “We will keep on doing what we always have done, uninfluenced.”

The only real escape, if you don’t want to play the world’s game, is inaction.

I am forced to conclude that when the Rebbe says take to the streets, or storm the defenses, or turn over the world, he’s not talking about the same type of thing as Occupy Wallstreet or The Tea Party. It is not a “rah rah we can change the world” type of thing. Which is fortunate, since those types of things are often crawling with bacteria and self-righteousness.

Really, what the Rebbe is demanding is inactive action, or action not caused by or meant to effect the world. Only that can break the cycle of darkness and introduce a truly new light. Of course, connecting to something transcendent is a lot easier in speech and thought than it is in action. The Rebbe is actually demanding the hardest thing. Color me surprised.

The Rebbe is thus hardly an activist. People hear the Rebbe say, “Take to the streets and dance!” and get excited because this they can do, because transcendence and authenticity are so hard but moving their legs is easy. But it’s not meant to be easy. It’s like the people who hear they have to trust G-d so they never do anything to earn money. An amusing comparison, since the people that make the first error normally hate the supposed laziness of those who make the second. But these two people are one and the same. They both choose the sections of the directive that make things easier.

Turns out, we need both sides (shocker). You need balance. But not a balance where you sometimes learn and sometimes act. A balance where your learning and action interact to produce something new. An action that neither respects the world nor attempts to change it, but changes it through transcending it.

There must be some way to make action more than action, to change the world but remain unaffected by it.

So you can stay in Acopolco, explaining mikve to the coyote’s wife, and I’ll remain in this dark room typing these words. Sure, you’ll learn every morning, and I’ll shake the lulav with a Jew. You’ll tell yourself your actions, which are easier for you, are motivated by what you learn in the books. I’ll tell myself that the thinking that I enjoy is all going to be brought down into action.

Meanwhile, the exile spins on, and neither of us really wants moshiach. Neither of us wants everything to change. Both of us are inured to the dark, and our efforts will keep perpetuating it.

For me, the first step into the light will be the one away from my inner world and into public affairs. But others have the exact opposite problem. We should both get to work. Time’s a-wastin’, and the action is the main thing.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

My New Year’s Resolution Is To Make No Difference

I resolve, for the New Year, to not “make a difference.” I must accept what I cannot change and find the strength to change the things I can, to paraphrase a wise prayer. I will remember this year that strength is rarely measured in page views, Facebook likes, or marketing budgets. True strength is strength of character.

I resolve to neither need the status quo nor resent it, but to see it for what it is – the reality. Needing it is imprisonment and needing to change it is imprisonment. A relentless flow of news from around the world assures me that terrible things happening elsewhere are my concern. But while empathy is excellent, delusion is not. I resolve to care for the people in my vicinity on a daily basis, and for myself most of all.

I resolve to mind my own business. People say that minding your own business lets evil grow as no good people bother to stop it. People tend to forget that what makes the evil so bad in the first place is its failure to mind its own business.

I resolve to not read death tallies. Death tallies are only powerful for those who think there is something worth doing before the end. Are we alive because we’re alive, or because we happen to not yet have died?

I resolve to evaluate endeavors before I commit to them. Often, that which seems meaningful is merely a yoke. It says, “I am worth only the difference I make.” That which seems to affect no one but me in my own mind appears inferior. I will spend less time doing, or worse, worrying that I’m not doing. I will spend more time being.

I resolve to fight not just for external freedom but for internal freedom – the freedom to be alone, to think the thoughts I want to think, when I want to think them. One of the great teachers once said that the only difference between a man and a horse is the man’s ability to see a tree and think something other than “look, a tree.”

I resolve to experience wild abandon and childlike joy. They are in everything, from running wildly down the street to turning a page. I hear they can even be found in profound grief. May G-d keep me from knowing.

I resolve to appreciate the here and the now and the is, on its own terms, since it is. Existence is not a simple thing; it is bestowed. So much depends upon a red wheel barrow, glazed with rain water, beside the white chickens. Not upon a metaphor or complex symbol, but upon the wheel barrow itself, a gift from G-d. I will take the time to count my wheel barrows.

I resolve to notice the color of people’s eyes when I first meet them.

I resolve to taste my food.

I resolve to understand the words I read.

I resolve to break free this year. I will find my redemption. It is not hiding behind a police barrier, a soapbox, or a ballot box. It is hiding in a place of mystery deep within my own heart, a fortress with no front entrance only vulnerable from above.

I resolve to step away from the light and into enlightenment. I will find the silent place where I can see the G-d who should disown us but is stuck with us, the one who invented the music. I will find at least one way in which He doesn’t appeal to me. I will do the same thing with his creation. By these I will set my compass.

I resolve to pursue these resolutions not with a fierce sweat-stained striving, but like a cat finds balance on a sun-mottled garden wall, proud to do what it is born to do, warm to the touch in the morning light.

 

Image from Flickr. Thanks for reminding me about the red wheel barrow, David.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.