February 25, 2011
What I learned from Desmund Tutu
I was nervous about going to hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu this past Sunday at All-Saints Church. I was nervous because, despite his remarkable life story, which of course includes fighting and winning the battle against apartheid in his homeland, South Africa, he has made comments in the past about Israel and the Palestinians that have made him unwelcome in the mainstream Jewish community. So, in choosing to attend the service, sit in the VIP section up front, alongside other dignitaries, interfaith leaders and Hollywood actors, among others, rather than stand outside with a picket sign, as I imagine some in our community would have rather me do, I was nervous about what I might hear from this renown voice for civil and human rights, especially in light of the fact that just 2 days earlier, the United States had chosen to veto a U.N. resolution calling the Israeli settlements illegal, even though our stated foreign policy agrees with that resolution, not to mention all of the unrest and turmoil in the greater Middle East. I sat anxiously, surrounded by Muslims and Christians, and because it is an Episcopal Church, a few Jews as well, and waited for Bishop Tutu to preach.
He is about to turn 80, but he has a presence and fortitude that belies his age. Not much more than 5’4” tall, a higher pitched and sweet sounding voice emanates from his throat, overlaid with an accent that sometimes makes him hard to understand. He rose to speak, looking out over the capacity filled church, including hundreds watching on video monitors outside, and gave us the following message: God is holy, therefore we are all holy; we are God carriers, God’s stand-ins, God’s viceroys. He told us that each human being, no matter what color of skin they have, is created in God’s image, therefore is a piece of God, therefore is holy, therefore deserves respect, dignity, compassion and love. It was a message of deep spiritual depth, one that he brought around for just a moment, at the very end, to today’s reality. More on that to come.
Bishop Tutu was echoing the scriptural reading of that morning, one that we Jews are really familiar with: Leviticus 19, known in our tradition as the holiness code. It is here that we get some of the more famous lines about how to live a life of holiness, as the Torah calls us to ‘kedoshim t’heeyu, you shall be holy, ki kadosh ani adonai eloheichem, for I, Adonai your God am holy.” Don’t put a stumbling block before the blind, don’t insult the deaf, don’t hate your brother/sister in your heart, don’t hold a grudge or take revenge, and of course, love your neighbor as yourself. He preached that we have become desensitized to the notion of holiness, for which he placed no blame, but stated as fact. Do we see the face of God in every person that crosses our path? Do we remember the teaching, in the Jewish tradition he said, that tells us of the midrash that an angel walks in front of our every person, no matter man or woman, young or old, straight or gay, black or white or brown, Jew or not, an angel walks in front of us and announces, “make way for the image of God, make way for the image of God.” We are all God-carriers, he kept repeating, God’s stand-ins, God’s viceroys. And, we don’t remember it. Tutu asked what the world would be like if we all believed, truly believed, the words of our respective scriptures, the words that we hear in synagogue, church, mosque, shrine, or other “places of worship,” that tell us this week in and week out. Would we kill one another, would we hate one another, would we destroy one another, if we truly believed the words of our tradition? Would we kill others if we believed it was killing a part of God every time? What do you think?
The Torah offers us a pathway to think about this idea of holiness, of course, in the same section that was read that morning, Leviticus 19. That got me thinking about an idea, one that crystallized during my weekly meditation sitting group here at PJTC. There is a difference in life between living ethical and living holy, between setting up a society that seeks fairness and equity and a society that goes further and seeks holiness amongst the people. In parshat Mishpatim, which comes after the experience at Mt. Sinai, we get pages of laws, rules and guidelines for establishing ethical communities, from treating slaves fairly (which was a huge improvement for the time), restitution for damages, civil law, injury law, fair treatment of workers, money lending, caring for the poor, as well as not mistreating the stranger, widow or orphan, a running theme in the Torah. I noticed something interesting in this whole section: only at the very end, and really in relationship to not eating flesh torn from the beasts of the field, does it say anything about being holy. These laws are what God expects of us humans in building a community, the ethical import of differentiating ourselves from the animals. We need laws to function more efficiently and in safety; we need laws to ensure that everyone is treated with respect and dignity. But, these laws say nothing, really, about being holy. For that, we need Leviticus 19.
One Saturday morning, an old, shabbily dressed man happened to be walking through an elegant suburb when he spotted a huge, beautiful synagogue. He entered during the service, and took a seat in the rear pew. The well-dressed congregation was unnerved by his appearance. As he was leaving the service, the rabbi told the old man, “Before you come back again, please pray and have a talk with God. Ask God what God thinks would be the proper clothes for worshipping in this synagogue.” The next Saturday the old man returned to the synagogue in the same shabby clothes. After the service, the rabbi again asked him whether or not he had talked to God about the appropriate attire for synagogue. “I did talk to God,” the old man replied. “God told me that He wouldn’t have any idea what was appropriate attire for worshipping in your synagogue. God said that’s because God’s never been in here before.” This little joke illustrates what Leviticus 19 has to offer in regard to holiness. Unlike Mishpatim, in this part of the Torah, in the parsha called Kedoshim, literally meaning holiness, we are exhorted to dig deeper into ourselves and work to create a society that is not just fair and just, but truly holy, emblematic of God here on Earth. “You shall be holy, for I, Adonai Your God am Holy,” is how the parsha begins. It then goes on to teach about about the Sabbath, the danger of idol-worship, tells us to leave the edges of field for the poor, not to swear falsely by God’s name, not to steal from one another, not to put a stumbling block before the blind or insult the deaf, to deal with rich and poor alike with justice, don’t stand idly by the blood of our neighbor. And then comes the really big ones: Don’t hate your kinsfolk in your heart, don’t take vengeance or bear a grudge, love your neighbor as yourself. And, over and over again, the phrase ‘ani Adonai, I am God,’ is repeated, reminding us of the source of holiness. And unlike the laws in Mishpatim, I see these moral clarion calls of holiness exhorting us to raise ourselves higher and higher, to truly be what Tutu called God carriers, to go beyond ethical and fairness in laws and to seek pathways of living that elevate us beyond human capacity and into the true realms of being created in the image of God. We are holy when we work to eliminate hate from our hearts, for there is no law against that; we are holy when we don’t insult the deaf, for there is no law against that; we are holy when we turn away from revenge or holding a grudge, for there is no law against that. We can’t legislate holiness, it is the truest essence of being created in the image of God. We are God carriers, and this is our mission in life. It is not enough to create ethical societies, for that is just the beginning. Laws are needed, for sure, but holiness, kedusha, is what makes us “a little lower than the angels,” (Psalm 8:5) as the psalmist says. We are angelic when we overcome hatred and love the stranger, love our enemy, not because we are legislated to do so, but because we are God carriers.
After 20+ minutes of his sermon, which kept everyone rapt in attention, Tutu said, again, we are all God carriers, God’s stand-ins, God’s viceroys. Then he said, “Even Mubarak.” The Palestinians, the Jews, Americans, Arabs, South Africans, all of us are God carriers. And that is the hard lesson he was driving at, which he said explicitly at the end. It is easy to love those similar to you, to love those you already love. To be holy, to be God carriers, he said, is to love those you don’t like, even those you hate. To find the spark of holiness, the spark of God, in every person, in every human being. In that, the archbishop, knowingly or unknowingly, was calling to mind the great Chassidic masters, particularly the Baal Shem Tov and Rebbe Nachman of Bretslov, both of whom called us to love our enemies, to pray for those whom we despise, and most powerfully, when we see evil in others, use it as a mirror to see what is wrong with ourselves. That was all Tutu said about the situation today, leaving us to imply, infer and distill his message, so my nervousness was for naught.
The power of this message was driven home for me, finally, at the end of our meditation class on Tuesday, when I shared my insights. One of the women who comes regularly, and is a Shoah survivor, breathed a deep breath, looked at us and said the following: “In my darkest days in the concentration camps, when I was losing hope, I thought to myself, there must be some humanity in Hitler, perhaps when he is listening to music, the music he loved so much, maybe at that moment, for a split second, he is human. And that gave me hope to try and keep living.” We all sat in shocked silence, for who could say that other than a survivor and not be vilified, not be seen as sick and twisted. So, I will leave as Desmond Tutu left it, when he said “we are all God carriers, we are all God’s stand-ins, we are all God’s viceroys.” And he sat down. And so will I. Shabbat shalom.