Isaiah 54:10; I John 4:7-8, 11-12
The Rev. Tom Herbek
February 10, 2019
Elie Wiesel, author and teacher, survived the death camps of the Holocaust. One of his students, Ariel Burger, wrote a book about what it was like to be in his classes; it is called Witness:
It’s 1996 and I am sitting in my first lecture as a college sophomore, about to get my first taste of Professor Wiesel’s class at Boston University. It’s the beginning of the semester, and the course is titled Jewish Women’s Voices. Professor Wiesel starts with the biblical story of Adam and Eve.
“From the beginning, Genesis teaches us how to be human together. One of the first things we notice in the story of man and woman is the reason given for Eve’s creation. The verse tells us that her mission is to be an ezer k’negdo– literally, a helper against him. Ezer means ‘helper,’ k’negdo means ‘against him.’ Why against him? The rabbinic commentators tell us that this teaches us a model of friendly antagonism, one in which, in order to support you, I challenge you. My intentions are for the sake of our friendship, so that your thinking is clarified, your ideas refined within the bounds of our conversation. The first couple are also the first friends, the first strangers, the first to encounter an other. What does it mean to disagree for the sake of the other rather than in order to defeat or silence the other?”
In our society today, this seems like a very strange way of looking at relationships. In our society today, it seems that our differences often divide us from one another. Wiesel helps us to understand:
Professor Wiesel says, “I hope that you encounter the other here, in this room, those who hold different beliefs, values, worldviews than you do. When you do, you are faced with a choice. The choice is to listen, or not. I hope that you listen really listen, not to find the other’s weakness but to find his strength. To disagree, to engage with controversy does not mean to refuse to listen. On the other hand, to agree with someone does not mean to merge with the other. We are different; we have our own histories, our own destinies.”
“But,” says Tammy, “if I disagree strongly, don’t I have an obligation to try to convince the other person he or she is wrong?”
“That is fine, but the question is, how do you do that? Hegel said that real tragedies are not conflicts between right and wrong; they are conflicts between two rights. And there is a wonderful Hasidic teaching about this that says when two people disagree, and each one pulls away to his own side, his own opinion, a space is created between them. In this space, worlds can be created, provided the two antagonists do not fill the space with too many words. It is only because two people disagree that there can be such a space; were they to hold identical positions, there would be no room for innovation. In other words, conflict can be a good thing-if it is done well.”
“But why not try to identify with everyone, find what unites us?”
“Of course we must find what unites us,” says Professor Wiesel. “But we must not allow that search to collapse the distinctions between us.”
“Rather than collapse the distance between us, between our worldviews and opinions, we need to sustain the gap, he says. In this way; we serve as “helpers against,” friendly antagonists, partners in clarifying our thoughts. Many of us spend so much moral energy on promoting connection that we sometimes forget to truly celebrate difference. We profess that all human beings are familiar to us. We claim to be so comfortable with different people, religions, ethnic groups, languages, skin colors, face shapes, that we no longer see them. There is a certain kind of jadedness that comes with such tolerance. Nothing surprises us anymore, and it is difficult to respect what you do not see.”
Certainly, especially today, we need to celebrate what we have in common, but let us not lose sight of what our differences can bring to our lives. We need to also understand and celebrate our differences, for, as Plato once said, we are born whole, but we need each other to become complete. I like how Joan Chittister describes it: “We gain the insight to see ourselves through the friendships we make. They mirror us to ourselves. In them we see clearly what we do not have as well as what the world cannot do without. They do not judge us or condemn us or reject us. They hold us up while we grow, laughing and playing as we go. They bring us to the best of ourselves. ‘One’s friends,’ George Santayana wrote, ‘are that part of the human race with which one can be human.’ (Between the Dark and the Daylight)
When people are able to accept each other’s differences, it enables them to see new possibilities. Sometimes when we see two people in love, it allows us to see possibilities we never believed were possible.
Love is such a powerful emotion that it touches not only us, but the people around us, as well. How nice it is to be around a couple who truly love each other. It gives us hope, and at least a small glimmer of the possibility of a better world. Especially for those in our world who have rarely seen or felt love, this glimmer of hope is essential. Hilda Pacheco understood this:
When Hilda Pacheco got married, she made sure to invite a special group of guests: the orphan children of La Mision. They held a treasured place in her heart, these lonely souls from a small town between Tijuana and Ensenada. She had worked with them for the past eight years, persuading her Irvine employer and other donors to help refurbish their crumbling orphanage, La Puerta de Fe, which means door of faith.
Pacheco can honestly say she knows what it’s like to be in their shoes. For eight years of her own childhood, she lived at the Door of Faith. She entered as a young girl and left a young woman, passing through adolescence without her parents. They had not died, but marital problems and poverty had left Pacheco and her siblings without a home.
Yes, she knows the sorrow of growing up without a family, just like the children she has watched grow up at the orphanage over these past few years. Those children are teenagers now, around the age Pacheco was when she left La Mision to rejoin her mother in Santa Ana. What future lies ahead for them? What hope do they have to make something of themselves, these castaways scarred by the hurt of being abandoned or unwanted?
Pacheco invited them to the wedding so they could imagine new possibilities. So they could see that love between a man and a woman is possible. That having a family is possible, even for children who have never known one.
The children gathered for the September 23 wedding, along with Mexican peasants and prosperous Americans representing both sides of this new union. “That was my dream,” she said, “to be able to unite my two worlds and have harmony.”
-Los Angeles Times
So many people in our world desperately need to imagine new possibilities. They can only do so when they begin to see love, begin to experience love, begin to believe that love is possible. The writer of I John is right. Love casts out fear, and it is the only antidote to the stifling grip of fear in our lives, and in our view of the future.
William Sloan Coffin said that: “Fear distorts truth, not by exaggerating the ills of the world…but by understating our ability to deal with them… while love seeks truth, fear seeks safety.” Sometimes the fear keeps us from experiencing the love that is there, keeps us from seeing our ability to deal with the world.
We must give up that stifling fear and embrace the new possibilities that the future holds as we realize the power of love. When we give up on love and give in to fear, then life stops having any meaning.
Sometimes love and acceptance allows us to give up our fear. Rachel Remen describes a patient of hers:
Connection strengthens the life in us. Sometimes the life in us is strengthened by discovering that others need us. Other times we are strengthened by discovering beyond a doubt that our love matters to someone more than we realized possible or that someone loves us just as we are.
Recently a woman, long recovered from breast cancer, told a group of other women about her husband. “Richard is my blessing,” she told us. This was a second marriage for both of them, and they loved each other and each other’s children dearly. Richard was a widower when they first met; his first wife had suffered a long and painful death from cancer.
Less than a year into their courtship, when Celia found a lump in her breast, she had not thought much about it. She had found lumps in her breasts before. She had gone to the doctor alone and was alone when she received the devastating news. This lump was not like the others. This lump was malignant.
Almost her first thought was of Richard and his children. They had been profoundly wounded by cancer only a few years before. How could she bring this terrible thing into their lives again? She had called Richard immediately and, without telling him why, had simply broken off their relationship. For several weeks she had refused his phone calls and returned his letters. But Richard had not given up and had continued to pursue her, begging her to see him.
Finally she had relented and arranged to meet with him and tell him good-bye, thinking perhaps this would convince him to stop pursuing her and go on with his life. Richard appeared to be under great strain. Gently he had asked her why she had broken up with him.
Almost in tears, she told him that she had found a lump in her breast and that it was malignant. She had undergone surgery a few weeks ago and would begin chemotherapy the following week. “You and the children have lived through this once already,” she told him. “I won’t put you through it again.”
He had looked at her, openmouthed. “You have cancer?” he asked. Dumbly, she nodded, the tears beginning to run down her cheeks. “Oh, Celia,” he said, beginning to laugh with relief. “We can do cancer…we know how to do cancer. I thought that you didn’t love me.”
-My Grandfather’s Blessings
How hard it is for us to realize that those who love us can do so even through the toughest of times. Sometimes we are surprised by their view of the ironies of life. Sometimes love is so deep that it astonishes us.
At this time of year, as we celebrate the possibilities of love in our world, may we be enabled to be loving in a way that lessens the fear in those around us. May we celebrate the differences in friends and family and those who have chosen to journey through life with us. May we see that we do need others in order to become all that we have been created to be. And may we be constantly aware of the differences that enable growth and learning, love and laughter, honesty and thoughtfulness, compassion and peace in our lives and in our world.
So let us seek new possibilities in the love of God and the love around us, possibilities that strengthen and sustain us, and that create new visions of what our future might be.