I’m not a bird expert, but I knew immediately that this bird was unusual. It was totally white. Flying over the river, its long neck and large white body caught my eye. Later, the bird book told me it might have been a snow goose or a whistling swan, but maybe it was something else. Whatever its name, it was striking. It was singular. It was inspiring.
With Passover approaching, I am thinking about freedom. I can feel my depths working on freedom, working on moving me to some new spiritual plane, uncovering more of myself, making myself better known to me.
Learning who we are takes a lifetime – a lifetime of Reed Sea crossings, of deep explorations of our souls and our psyches. Learning to love takes time, too. Another lifetime of sea crossings. The two – knowing ourselves and knowing how to love – feel inextricably linked. Truly loving someone requires accepting him for who he is. We can only effectively accept others if we accept ourselves, if we know ourselves, if we trust ourselves.
Rabbi Bunim, a Hasidic master, taught that every person should have two pockets, with a note in each pocket. When feeling depressed or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket and take out the note, “The world was created just for me.” When one is feeling proud and mighty, one should reach into the other pocket and take out the note, “I am but dust and ashes.”
Dust and ashes. These words don’t mean, “I’m no good.” They mean, “Don’t be arrogant.” Rabbi Bunim is reminding us to find humility in the face of others’ reality.
A few weeks ago we read the story of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, who offered to God “alien fire which He had not commanded them.” (Lev. 10:1) In response, they were consumed by fire.
It’s not an easy story. Really not. And yet….something about it feels familiar. Have you ever gotten your head snapped off for trying to be helpful to someone you love and care about? Such experiences often leave me feeling as though I’d been consumed by fire. Alternatively, have you ever been upset by someone else’s offering – someone’s alien fire – that wasn’t at all what you wanted, and that in fact may have felt definitely unwanted?
The mistakes of “alien fire” are often related to a disconnect between intention and impact. As David Trietch points out it is important to be aware of them. After all, my intentions may be the best, but that doesn’t mean that the impact of what I do is the best. I know the intention by which I give something, but you only know if I tell you. And you know the impact of what I’ve done, but I don’t know it unless you tell me.
The Torah text doesn’t tell us what Nadav and Avihu’s intentions were, and just as we often do when someone doesn’t tell us their intention, the rabbis speculate and interpret. Given God’s reaction – and the assumption that God knows what is in our hearts – the interpretation that Nadav and Avihu’s intentions were not so great makes sense.
But we, unlike God, cannot know what is in someone else’s heart unless they tell us. We can guess, but we may very well be wrong. When someone tries to help us, we can make the world a better place by assuming that it is given from the heart, and we can respond accordingly even if we don’t understand it. Someone else is different from us, and sees the world differently. If we love that person, we need to accept all aspects of her, not just the easy parts. Not to tolerate her, and in fact, not even to accept, but to embrace, to empathize with, to have compassion for, and to love, all of her.
What does it mean to empathize, to have compassion, to love? Karen Armstrong has written a whole book about compassion, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, and spearheaded a campaign for greater compassion in the world. She points out that we speak about “compassion” all the time, but do we know what we mean? Like the wind, and like God, it may be easier to see and understand the impact of compassion than to see and understand exactly what it is, as the Charter for Compassion states, “Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of the world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity, and respect.”
Sounds kind of like what Rabbi Bunim was saying, doesn’t it? To find humility. To be kind. And it’s about our response to every single person and every single aspect of every person.
How do we get there? How do we become more compassionate? Armstrong discusses twelve steps. Fox steps can also help make it happen – walking like a fox, which, as Tom Brown describes in his Field Guide to Nature and Survival for Children, causes us to immediately slow down. If we walk like a fox, with short strides, letting the outer edge of the foot lightly touch the ground and then rolling the foot inward, our feet won’t hurt any more, we will see more of what is around us, and we will do less damage. This kind of walking is about our bodies, but the concept applies to our souls and our spirits as well. Walking like a fox causes us to slow down, and slowing down helps us find compassion. It allows us to offer “native fire”, and to offer our fire only when we are commanded to do so. It allows us to be more alert. It opens our eyes to seeing a snow white goose.
Thinking about freedom and Passover, these ideas flow together. On the first Passover, the Israelites made an offering of a Pascal lamb, a step toward freedom. At the temple, there were multiple kinds of sacrifices, certain of them bringing the freedom that comes with forgiveness.
Freedom comes when we offer the right kinds of sacrifices, for when we put out into the universe, give to God, our core needs – our own personal reality of who we are, we will find that we no longer need to ask for lesser, not-so-real needs. Giving the correct kind of sacrifice requires knowing who we are, and knowing who we are requires clear intention.
Freedom comes when we are able to give in ways that are needed by others. But to give what is needed, we need to know and understand what is needed, which requires relationship. Thus finding freedom also means building relationships and understanding others.
Freedom comes when we are able to accept what others give us and not to reject it as alien fire, but to understand it as it is given, to trust ourselves so that we can accept something from someone else, even if it isn’t just what we need or want.
White is the color of peace. A white dove brought an olive branch in its beak to Noah, marking the end of the flood and the beginning of a new effort to build a just and righteous world. White is the color of the flag marking a truce.
I could not give the bird a name, but I saw that it was white. White, the color of peace. White, a sign of hope.
This Passover may we refrain from consuming with fire those whom we think are giving us alien fire, and may we learn how to give only native fire. May we find freedom in white birds and in walking like a fox.
Rabbi Katy Z. Allen