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Sunday, 14 October 2012

Pictures of Who we Are

It is one of the most breathtaking sentences in world literature: Va’yitzar Adonai Elohim et Ha’adam, afar min ha’adamah, va’yipath b’apav nishmat hayyim va’yehi ha’adam l’nefesh haya (Genesis 2:7). Let me try and open out the verse that we read this week, as we begin again that great annual cycle of reading from the Torah.

“The Eternal One, Adonai, who is multiple, Elohim...”, experienced in multiple ways, “...formed/crafted...” - va’yitzar - the word is used of a potter shaping clay – “...the human being, humanity, dust from the ground...”; and this profound link is established between adam, humanity, and adamah, the earth beneath our feet: we ‘groundlings’ share something deep and resonant with the fabric of the planet – “...and he blew into its nostrils the breath of life...” : so a second profound link is established, between the divine energy that animates all of being, and us, filaments of being, human carriers of, representatives of, divine being breathing itself in us, through us – “...and so it was that, so it is that, humanity became/becomes a living soul, soul-filled life...”

It can take our breath away, this majestic description of how we were/are breathed into being. Every breath we take, a minor miracle: a reminder of the wondrous nature of being alive, and yet how fragile it all is, as the High Holy Day liturgy has so recently reminded us – “like a cup so easily flowers that a dream that fades away...”

This is us, fragile, dependent, vulnerable. And the imagery goes back to the these opening chapters of this extraordinary prose poem that is so embedded in our consciousness, this religious myth of creation, of origins, a way of picturing who we are - bound up with the earth and earthly life, and at the same time bound into the Eternal One, who breathes existence into being, so that we are linked – if it is only the atoms within our bodies – to all that was and is and will be. Carbon atoms from the very beginning of the universe are grafted into us – I don’t understand that, at all, it is just as much a mystery, a mystery story, as the Biblical account. It is hard science, the fact of carbon atoms from the creation of the universe being present in us, but it is still beyond my understanding.

I had a strange experience last week, reading the paper. I glanced at the obituaries and I saw (as always) a name I didn’t know, Dominic Hibberd. My first thought was that it was an interesting name. And the obituary started by saying he was the world’s leading authority on the life and work of Wilfred Owen, a poet I’ve loved ever since I was at school where I first studied Owen’s poetry. And as I skimmed through this article – and I was really skimming, because I wasn’t that interested in this man or his life – my eye caught the line that said that he had graduated from Cambridge, and then in the 1960s taught at Manchester Grammar School. And then I thought: Mr.Hibberd! Like unearthing an old penny that’s been buried in the garden, the cobwebbed memory returned. Mr. Hibberd had been my English teacher at school, one of them anyway, and I don’t know if he taught me Wilfred Owen, but I had not thought of him, ever, for well over forty years. Why would I? The abyss of the past had swallowed him up, and I guess he couldn’t have been a very good teacher, for he left no trace on my conscious mind, except his name.

And when I read about him - an only child, bullied at public school (Rugby), short-sighted, slight of build, ‘a shy and diffident man’, his obituarist said, ‘so quietly spoken that it was sometimes hard to catch what he was saying’ - I could imagine how daunted he might have felt in front of a class of rowdy grammar school boys. And we knew nothing of him or his life – he was gay, it turns out – as we knew nothing of any of our teachers’ lives. (Not even their first names). And yet he had this passion for Owen, and he dedicated his life to an academic career working on Owen’s life and poetry.

And I’m sharing my thoughts about this because I have been thinking this last week or so about how unknown people are to us, not just when we are children, or adolescents, but throughout our lives. We think we know people, but I wonder if we really do, even people close to us, they may have hidden parts, they will have hidden parts – whether it about their sexuality or their love of poetry, or chocolate, or any one of a thousand other things that we will never know, private things, secret things. We are a mystery to ourselves half the time, let alone being a partly-closed book to others who know us, or imagine they know us.

This is especially true of course about people in the public eye, whom we know at second hand, or think we know, through the media, TV, films. But this is a fantasy we have, because of course most of their lives are hidden. But then we seem to be shocked when something different from the public persona is revealed, and we see they are something else. Not something else instead – that is the mistake it’s easy to make – but something else as well. Jimmy Savile did a huge amount of good, he was renowned for his charity work. But he was something else as well. Something hidden from the public eye, or rather – as these things often are - hidden in plain sight. Everyone knew about his sexual predilections, it seems, but everyone also didn’t know what they knew. Or chose not to know what they knew.

Just like – a different example from this last week – the cyclist Lance Armstrong, with an extraordinary public image as a sportsman who battled with cancer, survived it, wrote a best-seller about it, won the Tour de France a record 7 times, a sporting phenomenon - yet now revealed to have a hidden life, a systematic drugs taker and bully of others to take performance-enhancing banned substances. A life hidden from the public eye, but again, hidden in plain sight.

Or take the banking scandals of the last few years that have precipitated this ongoing economic disaster – systemic acts of wrongdoing, dissembling, fraudulent practices: hidden vices yet in plain view for those with eyes to see. And some did.

It’s a story as old as history, as old as the creation of adam from adamah, the story of how our earthly being gets split off from our divine being. And it happens to all of us, the way we split off parts of ourselves and hide them from the eyes of others, and even from our own eyes.

And in our verse in Genesis there is an extraordinary gesture towards this in the first word of the verse – va’yitzar, “and he fashioned/formed/crafted”. The verb is written with an extra letter, an extra yud, that isn’t necessary: it’s redundant, and yet it is there, and it is a mystery why it is there, it’s in plain sight, but something is hidden in it. And it allowed the rabbis of the midrash an opening to articulate a profound insight into the human condition, because they said there needs to be two yuds because humanity, and each human being, contains two inclinations: the yetzer tov, the inclination towards goodness, and the yetzer ha-ra, the inclination towards evil. Each letter yud of this verb in Genesis chapter 2 about the forming of humanity represents one inclination. And we have both incarnated within us, breathed into us. They are in every breath we take, they are in constant tension within us, goodness and perversity, creativity and destructiveness. This is what it means to be human. We live with both, we are both, we need to keep both in view when we think about ourselves, when we think about other people.

And that is difficult to do. Because we don’t want it to be true about ourselves, or about others, this inner dividedness, this inner tension between acting in godly ways, with our goodness and compassion, and acting in life-diminishing and destructive ways.

And we can see this played out in the public domain all the time. Whether it is bankers, or the police, or clergy, or judges – we want our authority figures not to be earthly beings, not to have hidden lives. We want the security of knowing we can trust what we see, what he hear, we want to be able to rely on the constancy of others, we want undividedness in people, we don’t want to think about ourselves or others caught inside this eternal tension between the two yuds, our two yetzers. It can be too unsettling to hold in mind our own and others’ inner polarity.

(And we also have the opposite phenomenon of loving to see the flaws in others exposed. The British take a perverse delight in pulling down idols from the pedestals on which we have put them. Perhaps if we can brand them as sinners, flawed human beings, we don’t have to look at ourselves and our own flaws and failures: they can carry all our transgressiveness for us.)

Yet this is who we are, this is how we are made, this is what it means to be human. We are not machines to be programmed to always behave in one way. Part of that vulnerability, that fragility, of being a nefesh ha’ya, a living being, a soul that is alive, is that we are plural beings. “I am large, I contain multitudes”, said Walt Whitman in his famous poem, ‘Song of Myself’. Part of being human, part of being conscious as a human being, involves learning about the multitudes that we are, that each of us is. That is spiritual work, it is psychological work - and for Jews, it is religious work as well. Our texts keep pushing us towards this work, keep telling us that we need to engage the better parts of ourselves, our compassion, our generosity, of passion for justice, our capacity for love. But if we are to live out those better parts of ourselves, we need to know the forces in us that pull in opposite directions, that block that inner divinity being enacted.

And the work never ends. For it is, fortunately - as Kafka reminds us in one of his parables - “ is, fortunately, a truly immense journey”. Another breathtaking sentence from world literature.

[based on a sermon at Finchley Reform Synagogue, October 13th 2012]