By Natan Margalit
In the depths of winter, when the stark lines of bare tree branches are etched against a gray sky, it feels like each tree has pulled away from its neighbor, shrinking into itself, saving its energy to survive the cold season. We are also seeing that same reflex toward isolation in our society and country. Pulling back, closing borders, building fences, retreating into hostile enclaves. But, while a cycle of contraction and expansion is natural for the trees – the spring will come and they will reach out again with new shoots and leave – the current plunge into isolation and fragmentation doesn’t look to me like a natural cycle.
That is because this fragmentation didn’t just start in the last few months. Our culture has been isolating and fragmenting for years, even centuries. Long ago Western culture started to break down our innate sense of relatedness to a living, sacred world. We started thinking of it as inert matter, resources to be exploited. This industrial, mechanistic view of nature sucked people into that same picture, treating them as cogs in a machine, units of production, interchangeable and expendable. In education, we divide up our knowledge into neat, boring subjects instead of living, experiential wisdom. We left our villages, towns or shtetls to live as isolated urban or suburbanites.
We have a deep yearning for that sense of belonging that we left behind. It is not our natural state to be isolated. Our loss of community comes out in modern plagues of depression, addiction, and the desperation which leads to following political or religious “saviors.” In the 21st century, this fragmentation has been speeding up. We find ourselves looking for love in front of screens. We are less present to family and community, yet are available to work 24/7 – or we don’t work at all because we’ve been downsized. This latest election is like a fissure opening under our feet, the ground cracked apart by tectonic forces finally reaching a breaking point.
So, paradoxically, much of our current political and cultural crisis starts with the natural instinct to hold onto connectedness: to family and community. One feels in this contraction a desperate attempt to recover a lost sense of home, to recover a longed for feeling of belonging.
I’m a parent and I love my children with a fierce love. It is a primal instinct and I know that I share it with every parent. I would do anything to protect my children. So when I see that millions of Americans support a ban on refugees and immigrants from Muslim countries, or oppose any form of background checks on gun ownership, or oppose the obvious statement that “black lives matter,” I may recoil in righteous anger, but then I have to remind myself that these opinions are often powered by that same instinct for protecting one’s family, children, and communities. It is hard to remember that fear and even hate are twisted versions of love, or the memory of, the longing for, love.
So, yes, we need to fight oppression, prejudice and discrimination, and stand up for our country’s ideals of liberty and justice for all, yet we must also remember that we can fight back by teaching love how to expand instead of contract.
Jewish life is built on connection. In our traditional communities a call to “make a minyan” – to show up at synagogue to fill out a quorum of ten for saying kaddish or reading Torah – has long been a sacred obligation. You dropped everything and you showed up. Because some sacred words need a kind of spiritual ballast – a presence or spirit that is greater than the sum of its parts – which only emerges when a community is present. The Jewish institution of minyan is an example of the natural, organic principle that says that an organism or an eco-system or a community only comes alive when the parts are connected into a whole.
But the minyan, the community, isn’t the only level of wholeness that we recognize. On Rosh HaShana, when I spread my flowing tallit, prayer shawl, over my wife and children as we listen to the sound of the shofar, I feel like our family is a small sanctuary. We are a sanctuary within a sanctuary. In fact, Judaism recognizes multiple, nested sanctuaries: the individual, the family, the synagogue, our people, all of humanity and Creation.
Like the tallit, all these connections form the fabric of our lives – holding us together and protecting us. They are our sanctuaries, in Hebrew “mikdash.” And the nestedness of all these sanctuaries is another natural, organic principle. All life is nested, as a cell within an organ, within a body, within a family – each nested level with integrity and wholeness. Each connected to the others in a both/and relationship, not an either/or.
We all have multiple identities and commitments. So, we should cherish our bonds of love and belonging, and also make sure that those feelings don’t exclude and contract, but spread out to all our widening, nested, circles of relatedness.
Another piece of natural wisdom Judaism offers is “mitzvah:” the idea that we all have our job to do, our sacred tasks and actions. The wisdom of “mitzvah” is that you can do your small action, and while you don’t have any guarantee it will change the world, it just might. In nature, as we know from the (hypothetical) story of the butterfly in China that flaps its wings causing a hurricane in Kansas, a small action can have big consequences. If enough of us do our small mitzvah – call our senator, show up for a meeting, donate funds or time – without the guarantee that it will change anything, but knowing that it is the right thing to do, it just might change everything.
As we look towards spring, like the trees, we need to reach out once more and touch one another, feeling our essential connections, expanding our love.
Natan Margalit was ordained in Jerusalem in 1990 and earned a Ph.D. in Talmud from U.C. Berkeley in 2001. He has taught at Bard College, RRC, Hebrew College Rabbinical School and is Founder and President of Organic Torah Institute, a nonprofit which integrates systems thinking and Judaism.