You are Everything and Everything is You
While the narrative of Noah and the flood takes up the larger part of our Parsha this week, there are another nine pasukim/verses that also get a fair amount of play in Judaism. The story of the Tower of Babel may be short, but it has long been the source of much interest. Not because it tries to explain why people speak different languages. Rather because of the way the people of Babel relate to God.
The story tells us that the reason the tower is to be built up to heaven is so the rest of the world will know just how great the people of Babel are. The Midrash goes on to tell us that they wanted to make their name great by using the tower to attack God in heaven. I think most of us are not surprised by this. We know all about this kind of thinking even today. The project starts out with a good intentions, but is co-opted by those who bring to the table their own personal agenda. Perhaps the people of Babel only wanted to build the tower to feel closer to God. But as the tower grows, so grows their pride and their egos. They come to believe that they don’t only want to be near God, they want to conquer God, they want to “BE” God.
Isn’t it just like human beings. We start off with lofty goals but soon our “human nature” takes over and we let our good intentions get hijacked by what is easier, and what makes us look better to others.
The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, Tells a story of a King who is a master of illusions. He loves his people very much and he wants them to love him as well. So he builds a great castle illusion. It is filled will illusory walls and room, with illusory doors and halls. The illusory castle is set up like a giant maze in which the people can wander for days. Then, in front of every door and in every corridor, the kind places illusory bags of treasure. Treasure like gold and money, Hawaiian vacations and beautiful bodies. Then the King declares in a proclamation that the people should come to the castle and seek to find the King.
The people all flock to the castle and begin to search high and low for the King. But the longer they search, the more they get distracted by the treasure. One by one the people take the illusory treasure and stop looking for the King. Finally the King’s daughter arrives and sees that it is all an illusion and the King is, in reality, sitting in a chair in the middle of an empty field.
This story sounds a little like the Tower of Babel story. All the good intentions are derailed by the illusory treasure. I like to think that the metaphor of both stories is the same. The Castle and the Tower are the world in which we live, The King is God who wants us to discover how close to us the divine can be. And we, the people get distracted by the illusory treasure of the world and fail to see what is real and right in front of our eyes. Is it any wonder God confuses the language of people to help them see how illusory their desires really are?
I don’t know, maybe the idea that the world is really just an illusion is unsettling to many people. We like to think that we know what is “really real” and what is just an illusion. Judaism teaches us that the world is not always what we think it is. In our faith a strong man is not one with bulging muscles, but one who can control his evil impulses. In our faith a rich woman is not one with lots of money, but the woman who is content with what she already has. In our religion, if you want to be honored, you make sure you honor everyone else and if you want to be wise, you have to learn from everyone else. Things in this world are not always what they seem.
But the real essence of the illusion is not that we chase after what is not real but in the fact that we can’t see what is real, that God is not far away, but close by, perhaps right in front of our face. We are created in the image of God. We are not separate from God, but we are filled with God. The only things that separate us from the divine are our own wants and desires. If we can channel what we want to reflect the divine within us, we can make the presence of God more real in the world.
The Tower of Babel teaches us that when we go out to fight against God, when we live our lives with the idea that every person acts only out of his or her own self interest, then we will create a babel of a society and do nothing to bring God into the world. On the other hand, if we act to make life better for others, to help unify humanity and promote peace between people and nations, we reveal the presence of God in the world.
This is why the story of the Tower of Babel is followed immediately by the genealogy that leads us to the birth of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham is the son of the King in our story. The first Jew stands in for all Jews. We all have the potential to be the son of the King and see through the illusion. Abraham did it when he lived his life, not as he wanted to, but as God directed him. By following God’s directions we will see Abraham will win three great blessings. His family will be protected from Danger. He will become wealthy and he will be the founder of a great nation. By not fighting God, by following God’s call, Abraham gets all he wants and more.
And so can we. On Yom Kippur I put out a call for what I am calling the Heneni Initiative. That we need to rise above the illusions that surround us and see clearly how we can make a difference in the world. In this manner we can bring into focus the fact that God is in plain view, in all our daily actions. When we become a part of people helping other people in need. When we join other people in making a difference in the world. When we stand up with others for what is right and just. We are making visible the presence of God in the world.
We are hoping to initiate the Heneni Initiative with three important causes. First of all we are forming a group to advocate for Israel, our homeland and the center of Jewish life. God knows there seem to be an endless supply of people who are Israel detractors, and I am not referring to Jews who lovingly criticize Israel, but those who question Israel’s basic right to exist. When other nations of the world condemn Israel, we need to speak up on her behalf; to the American public, to American politicians and to the world. It is important work and we are looking for those who think that this will be their cause, and help us get the word out, to our community and to reasonable people everywhere.
The second group we are forming is on behalf of Darfur. The human cost of the war that keeps the people of Darfur hungry and the killing by terror and famine are a cause that should move all of us to end humanities latest example of Genocide. Small actions on our part can make a huge difference in easing the suffering of the people of the Darful region of Sudan. We are talking about medicine, solar stoves and basic supplies. A little bit can go a long way and much suffering can be eased, all we are looking for are a few caring souls to help us all find our way to honor God through our work with those who suffer.
And the third group we would like to organize is to help feed the hungry right here at home. That one of the richest, strongest nations in the world has people who go to bed hungry at night is one of the great stains on democracy. We already collect food for the hungry in our Lobby every day. Every time we place a sandwich into the hand of a hungry man or woman, we can see the face of God. It is really that simple. We are looking for people who will help us feed others and who will guide our community in this holy work.
These three projects are just the first that will make up this Heneni Initiative. What other projects can there be? That depends on each of us and what will motivate us to see beyond the illusions in our life and what will help us discover our connection to God. I can’t call everyone up and make a personal plea to get involved. We all have to take the initiative and be like Abraham who followed God’s call and like Isaiah, who said “Heneni”, “Here I am, send me!”
Life can seem like just a noisy babble when we all just go our own way and ignore the presence of God before us. But when we act together to strengthen each other and bring order to the world, we can sanctify our lives and build a more holy world. Abraham and Sarah did it and they changed the course of human history. We can too, and through our actions bring God into our lives.
May we find God, in our hearts, in our deeds and in a folding chair right in front of our eyes.
Amen and Shabbat Shalom