Last week, many news outlets reported on an atmospheric occurrence from two years ago. According to The Washington Post, "On July 23, 2012, the sun unleashed two massive clouds of plasma that barely missed a catastrophic encounter with the Earth's atmosphere. ...Had this event occurred a week earlier when the point of eruption was Earth-facing, a potentially disastrous outcome would have unfolded."
There but for the grace of God, right?
There is so much that is out of our control, all the time. And you take that on any level: from the small occurrences that seem so large in the moment -- like getting stuck in a traffic jam when we have someplace else to be -- to the truly immense and significant experiences -- like life-altering events that we have done nothing to invite. For a species that thinks itself so powerful, perhaps we've missed something along the way.
In this world where so much seems beyond our will, what is within our grasp to hold on to? What are the atmospheric conditions of our lives that we can actually control?
The Chasidic masters of Jewish tradition answer that question: the only thing that any one person can actually control is the climate of his or her own heart. "Is my heart warm and open today? Or is it cold and closed?" That is it. But that, they say, is truly a matter we can direct. The condition of our hearts is the only seat of our dominion, and who and what we let into our hearts is ultimately the only measurable that matters.
These recent weeks have left me with an aching heart. The pain of our world, both near and far, is something that I feel most deeply. And with each divide, each blinded us versus them, each skewed news report stewing in its own sanctimoniousness, each hateful remark, each tunnel and bullet and bomb, the walls of self-justification amass higher and higher, obscuring the light from entering our hearts. It feels as if the cosmos is cracking.
This day, I do not write of right and wrong, justification or fairness. I do not want to write about any of the things that speak to those parts of us that stimulate our egos. I do not want to write about Israel or Hamas, about politics and media, about Europe and anti-Semitism, about a shot down airplane carrying the world's best hope for a cure for AIDS now lost along with hundreds of other souls, about families that have no shelter or food, about children alone on a border in Texas or shot down in Chicago's streets. About people who sit or stand next to us every day who feel more alone than we could ever know. Today, I write about how our hearts respond when we encounter any of these situations or people, and more.
From the evening of August 4th through the evening of August 5th, the Jewish people will observe Tisha b'Av, a day of fasting and lament primarily in memory of the the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. In Hebrew, the Temple is referred to as Beit HaMikdash, which when translated, refers to The House from which Holiness Comes. Although certainly historical detail about the events leading up to the Temple's destruction and the Jewish people's subsequent exile exists, Jewish tradition frames our memory differently. When explaining why the Temple was destroyed, instead of citing reasons like the enemy army's strength, Jewish tradition teaches that the Temple was destroyed on account of our own moral failures, the most well-known narrative rooting the cause of the destruction to something called sinat chinam -- most often translated as baseless hatred. When translated literally, however, sinat chinam really means the condition of hating graciousness. It refers to the denial of benevolence, the abnegation of mercy, the rejection of compassion.
What, according to Jewish tradition, led to the destruction of the place where my ancestors felt most connected to the Divine? The condition of closed-heartedness.
What leads to the destructions of our deepest connections to ourselves, each other, our world and to the Divine? In our day as well, the condition of closed-heartedness.
We cannot control the disasters that loom in the universe or the wars that rage across battlefields or inside each other's souls. The only question each of us must ask ourselves is: "What is the climate of my heart? Is it heat or ice? Vulnerable or locked up tight?"
I often wonder what it would be like if we could go through our days entirely openhearted? I wonder if our hearts could sense the echoes of isolation, fear and despair that our ears cannot perceive? I wonder if we could find a way to hold each other with increased sensitivity and compassion? I wonder if we could heal the brokenness in each other's hearts with our own? And if we did so, what sort of Seat of Holiness, what sort of Mikdash we might build together again?