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Making Contact With the Other

We've seen an intense involvement with space recently. More than just outer space, a thirst for contact with the Other. During the fifties through the early seventies, most manifestations of this contact were scary ranging from full-scale invasions of monsters to the insidious infestation of the body snatchers. Something happened, however, in the seventies. Suddenly redemption seemed to come from afar and horror arrived from within. Many of us remember "E. T." and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" on the one hand and the "Exorcist" and other similar films on the other. In the eighties, yet another aspect of this developed with both the silly "Ghostbusters" and the serious love story "Ghost".

Last summer, among popular movies that dealt with The Beyond were the serious "Phenomenon", the frivolous "Mars Attacks" and the ridiculous "Independence Day". This summer, their complementary films are "Contact" and "Men in Black".

Beyond the movies, we have experienced real adventures. A few months back we saw the Martian landing, and now we get weekly reports from the Mir space station. All of this has renewed interest in the SETI project (the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence). Many people hope that these explorations beyond our earth will lead, not only to new knowledge, but an ability to solve some of the problems that plague our home planet.

This concern, this involvement with redemption coming from afar is not new, nor is it limited to American culture. It is possible, in fact, that it comes out of our own Jewish experience in the world. Some cultures view the world as suffused with holiness. In fact, animists, see no distinction between the trees and the spirits that make them live. We Jews have a different perspective on all this. We state that there is a world and it has a creator. And, while we can experience glimpses of the Creator in the world, God still reigns beyond.

I have said this many times in a variety of settings:

  1. We Jews believe that there is Something beyond the infinite. (That the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.)
  2. This Something (what we call God for want of a better word) cares about us enough so that...
  3. This God is willing to communicate with us.

We see this tension of our belief that God is within, yet beyond the created world from the very beginning of our story. Before God began to create, the breath of God hovered all over. God, functioning externally to all the stuff of existence then created this world. God continued to stand beyond the existence of these original humans and told them what was expected of them.

Moses sensed God's presence in the bush that did not burn up. It took the patience of one who could wait to see if a bush would burn to become aware of the Presence within and beyond. And then, was it no longer than later that year that Moses went up to the mountain? There he stayed for so long a time only to come down to see that the people had formed the Golden Calf as symbol of the Other they had tried to come to know. After its destruction Moses went back up the mountain and had a long conversation, wanting more -- and more intense, in fact, intimate contact. He says:

Hey, if you really loved me... you would truly show me your special ways.

To which God responds:

Sorry, fellow, you can't see my face and live. You can't become part of the infinite and still be a finite being, it just doesn't work. Once you're part of the Infinite, you're part of the Infinite. But, if you insist, I know of a little spot where you can rest. From there you can get a glimpse of what infinite has been. This much is safe, but don't try to merge too closely.

So, Moses accepts the compromise and even so comes down from the mountain, glowing with excitement from the experience. His aura is really powerful. Even the shepherd who follows the flock can tell that Moses has had an experience at the peak.

As I've mentioned before in a similar setting, Shai also had an intense experience with this force. This happened a thousand years after Moses, but it still caused great excitement among our people.

Perhaps a hundred or so years after Isaiah, during Persian times yet another sighting occurred. This one had an odd addition, different in that an object was seen along with the vision. This object has never been forgotten by the popular culture that has descended from our people's holy text.

Zeke went into the garden on an overcast morning. A stormy wind swept in from the north, then the clouds parted and he saw a brilliant amber light that shown on the entire vista. That was the appearance of something that appeared as of God (1:28). Some even say he saw a vehicle that emerged out of the clouds.

And then, in Roman times. Difficult times. Many currents flowed. Some looked for military solutions. Some looked for personal release. Others sought political resolution. Four scholars went to the pomegranate grove to explore the possibilities. There they looked for simple meaning, deeper allusion, practical lessons and awesome mystery. These were well grounded scholars: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elishah ben Abuyah and Akiva. They had grappled much with the troubles of our people. They had experienced the pain of the destruction of the Temple just a few decades earlier. They received knowledge and passed it on to new disciples, often in circumstances of great danger. But this day they had met to explore deeper avenues down the rows of the grove.

They met early in the day. As dawn broke through the darkness they recited the Shema together, slowly focusing on the unity of all creation as the increasing sunlight rose to distinguish between so many things that had seemed as one in the darkness. Because they were alone, far from the occupying Roman forces, they felt secure enough to say the second line of the Shema aloud proclaiming God ruler over all the earth... a seditious act according to the Romans. They meditated deeply on the merits of our ancestors, God's strength, and redeeming power.

The four scholars concentrated on the three-fold holiness of God's awesome presence: the holiness of all beyond their ken, the potential holiness of everything of which they knew and the holiness of awareness itself. Each time descending deeper into their understanding of the cosmos that stretched from deepest space to the deepest recesses of their own souls.

They beheld a vision of the holy Temple in Jerusalem which had been destroyed in their lifetimes. The gleaming gold and cream colored structure stood with its polished marble stones open before them and they entered its precincts. Descending through hallways through circles within circles , rings within rings.

They seemed to hear the rushing of waters all around them. Could this be actual water? Was it a hint of the justice that was to cover the earth as the waters cover the sea? Was this a reference to the life-giving waters of the words of Torah or was this a reference to some deeper mystery still beyond their grasp?

Ben Azzai said: "water!" and jumped in. Suddenly, he gasped as though drowning in the sea. His friends grasped his hands but couldn't hold him. They knew they needed to turn back. When the re-emerged among the pomegranates Ben Azzai was dead. Ben Zoma looked around him and recognized nothing. He spoke in babbling sounds like a flowing brook.

The fruit hung heavy on the plants, weighing down the branches. Some of the fruit was beyond ripe and had burst open in the heat with their bright red seeds spilling out. As Elisha and Akiva carried the body of Ben Azzai and guided Ben Zoma back to the local community Elisha felt as though the spilled pomegranates was the spilled blood and wasted mind of his two friends and the seeds of doubt found fertile soil in him. Only Akiva, who had seen much pain and horror in his life emerged unscathed. He vowed to warn others of trying to enter the paradise of deep contemplation.

And so, generation after generation, only the most knowledgeable and knowing drew close to the deepest of wisdom.

Our teachers taught that this world is ours and comparatively safe. Other worlds that we may explore have intense dangers and one must be highly prepared to venture into them or welcome aspects of them into ours. Our teachers did much to rationalize, that is, make reasonable, almost explain it all away.

The medieval Jewish philosopher/doctor Moses Maimonedes even redefined the existence of angels

Moses... heard... without action on the part of the imaginative faculty.... [all other] prophets hear speech [in prophecy] only through the intermediary of an angel... in these cases the intermediary is the imaginative faculty. [GP 11:46, 403]

But, the memories of the pomegranate grove, Ezekiel's and Isaiah's visions and Moses' closeness with God were hard to forget. For hundreds of years later, the rebbe of Chernobyl spoke to his followers about the contrast between this world and the other world of God.

What is the world? The world is God, wrapped in robes of God so as to appear to be material, and what/who are we? We are God and our task is to unwrap the robes and dis-cover that we & all the world are God [paraphrase].

The holiness of God... the presence of that Other, suffuses all of creation. Like radio and television broadcasts God's frequency covers the dial. We forget that we are like the radio receiver. Our task is to make sure that we're plugged in and that the aerial is up. One of our tools for receiving the messages from this Other is prayer. You have heard me read these words (from the Gates of Prayer) many times:

Prayer invites God to let the divine presence suffuse our spirits, to let the divine will prevail in our lives. Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge nor rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.

Three of the greatest twentieth century Jewish teachers added their wisdom the reality of the other and how to make contact.

The great rationalist Mordecai M. Kaplan who once got angry at me for having asked a question about mysticism (in the late 1960s) wrote:

To say "I believe in praying" sounds to me as absurd as to say "I believe in thinking." The question whether prayer is effective is only a special form of the question whether thought is effective. And just as we make use of the best thoughts of others in order to channel our own thinking into the surest and most beneficial effectiveness, so should we make use of the most noble and sincere prayers of others to channel our own prayers into a life of the greatest nobility and sincerity.

The quiet politically active mystic Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote [The Wisdom of Heschel NY Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975 p. 205]

To pray is to take notice of wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.

And the third, a second contemporary mystic, Martin Buber wrote, understanding our needs and desires that we expect an appearance of this Other, but that we only know where it will occur. And that place, he taught, was community. As a young man and a practicing meditator, Buber was, one day, in the depths of his meditation, when an other came to visit him, to ask him a question. As Buber relates the event, he was too busy and deep in his own meditation and quickly dismissed the other who went away. Shortly thereafter, Buber learned that this other individual had killed himself.

This experience lead him to the belief that we truly experience God's presence when we encounter the Other. Buber taught that we cannot interact with one another as though we are no more than objects for our use--or distractions from our own concerns, but that each person we meet is a representative of God. Each one of us created in the image of God offers us true and immediate contact with that Other whom we seek.

Our salvation will not come from outer space but from the other who sits beside us. As we leave this building this year may we be so much more aware of the holiness of those with whom we interact: across the breakfast table and across the conference table; on the assembly line, on the bread line and on the cashier's line. Each time we look into the eyes of another we can know that this person was sent to us with a message of the holiness of all creation.

There is a paradise here. Each one of us is a flesh and blood human being. But we are each also a hint of what humans can become. And a lesson of what humans have been. Beyond all of this, each one of us represents the deepest mysteries of the divine that resides in all.

May we use our energies this coming year to make contact with one another.


©Mark Hurvitz 1997
last updated October 20, 1997