Wednesday, November 01, 2000

Dr. Spock, Mr. Spock and You

Dr. Spock, Mr. Spock and You

Rabbi Michael Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
New York

Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Pshishke told his disciples: Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need.  When feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: ani eifer v'afar; I am but dust and ashes. But when feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: 'Bishvili nivra ha'olam. For my sake was the world created.'

I am not a big fan of the comic strip B.C. I'm actually not alone in this fueling. In fact, last year, a congregant called me to discuss borderline anti-Semitic overtones in one particular strip. I agreed, but wasn’t sure what to do about it. In addition, any time I see the comic strip, I am always tempted to take a pen and add a single letter after the title, changing it from the overtly Christian B.C. into the more neutral B.C.E. that Jews use in referring to ancient dates.

Still, B.C. does make me laugh from time to time. In particular, I remember one thread from years ago, an absurdly delightful interplay between one of the characters and all clams, everywhere. 1his character, it seems, suspected that clams had legs. One day, he was proven correct! He witnessed a clam walking. He shouted his discovery to the world: 'Clams got legs!' Of course, by the time anyone else came over to see, said clam was back on the ground, showing no evidence at all of its additional appendages. There was the man, stuck knowing that something was true, yet consistently: frustrated in his attempts to prove it.

Now, I'm going to make a bit of a leap here, but I have always imagined that this is how the scientists who study particle physics must fuel all the time. They suspect something, they even see something once, but then cannot duplicate the result, or prove it in a journal for the tiniest building blocks of matter are mysterious indeed. Sometimes particles reveal their character only in isolation other properties are brought out only in interaction with other particles, and only under certain conditions high speed; great heat; or under tremendous stress and pressure.

One of the most elusive particles of all is called the neutrino. For years, the neutrino was predicted by mathematical models and cosmological theories, but never seen in nature. No wonder. A neutrino can pass clear through a block of lead a light year thick and not interact with anything along the way. Neutrinos are produced by the nuclear reactions that take place inside an active star. 1heyare supposedly abundant, but the only way, so fur, that anyone has ever found to detect one on this planet is by having an isolated pool of water buried deep underground, where, from time to time, but very rarely, a single neutrino will collide with another particle, and reveal itself  Neutrinos have indeed been detected now. But until very, very recently, they were thought to weigh exactly nothing.

Then, this past May, further experiments revealed that the neutrino does, indeed, have a barely measurable mass. Now, having barely passed college physics, having given up my second dream in life -- to be an astronomer -­ nevertheless I immediately came up with my own theory. That perhaps this minuscule neutrino will answer the mystery of the missing mass of the universe, the: frustrating fact that the universe seems to weigh 90% less than scientists say it should. Perhaps this lowly particle will prove to be the most powerful force of all

Therein, of course, lies a lesson call it cosmological karma or the insight that everything matters. For if everything matters, if everything has an effect on everything else, if even the humble neutrino can have such an impact on the universe, think of what can be done ... by you, or by me.  Each one of us matters to the world we can't always prove it. We can't always convince each other. But we sense it, we feel it, we know it to be true.

In my last column, I wrote about accepting ourselves as we are, including our flaws. But there is a danger in that message, that we will confuse explanation with excuse, that we will say 'look, I know I caused pain, but that's just the way I am I can't help myself the devil made me do it.' Or, more Jewishly phrased: 'my yetzer hara'ah, my evil inclination’ Acceptance of ourselves as we are does not imply acceptance of acts that are evil or wrong.

And it does not mean that we are powerless in the race of our flaws or in the face of the world. Flawed, broken, shattered and cracked we may be.  But we are all there is of us. Sometimes a broken rod is the only rod, a bloody band the only one, an aching heart the only heart to do the good that must be done.  A self-absorbed in it's own weakness can still be awakened by the needs of others.  We have it inside us to have an impact to make a difference to change the world in spotlights or in shadows in large ways or small over the course of a lifetime and every single day.

To change the world, all it takes is three steps to act to not freeze from fear and to believe in ourselves.

Act now. You can make a difference. Rabbi Hillel, hu haya omer: Im ein ani li, mi li? U'ch'she'ani l'atzmi, ma ani? V'im lo achshov, eimatai. Rabbi Hillel used to say: If l am not for myself; who will be for me. But if l am only for myself: what am I? And if not now, when?

Sometimes I miss the 1960's. Now, I know there were plenty of problems with what one nation went through during that decade. A woman a little older than my mother once told me that she thought all the plagues of contemporary American life can be traced to that demented period of time in general and to one Dr. Spock in particular, who, she said, destroyed traditional values, taught selfishness and turned the concept of responsibility inside out. So, I know there were problems. And I am not endorsing drugs in any way, shape or form but, to be honest, I was actually... too young during that decade to experience its darker underside. What I remember, romanticized through the mist of time, is only this: the palpable reeling of power of involvement. The sense of being part of something larger than ourselves, yet which depended on each person present.

Later, when I was in high school involved in my Temple youth group, the message came through again. I remember the motto of NFTY, the National Federation of Temple Youth, during the 1970's. A value and a promise all in one: 'You can make a difference.'

One dignified, determined... and ordinary woman... sitting in the front of a bus An ordinary worker in a ship building plant, racing down a nation of oppressors in Poland A man who kept his hopes alive through decades in prison, now president of his nation. What is the difference, what is the gap, between celebrities and ramous people, between a Rosa Parks or Lech Walensa or Nelson Mandela, and you, and me? Is it real power?  Is it the scale and stage on which their lives unfold?

It is neither. The gap is llllfeai the difference illusion. It is only the accidental focusing of the lens of history. All that separates your daily routine from a history book of the future is chance, and opportunity. So be prepared. A moment may come. A building may burn. A phone may ring. A movement may start from a casual comment. For better or for worse, you tire; your time may come with no warning at all

Indeed, whatever the scale, whatever the scope, we make a difference, in everything we do.

Passing neighbor, on seeing a friend working a vegetable garden in the back of his field: "You should thank God/or giving you such a good field." The friend, in response: "Yes, but you should have seen what it looked like when just God had it!"

The first step is just to act the second, to not be afraid.

Don't freeze from fear of what might be. No one can know all the consequences of any action. Rabbi Tar/on, hu haya omeir: Lo Alecha ham'lecha ligmor. V'lo atta ben chorin l'hivateil mimena; Rabbi Tarfon used to say: You are not required to complete the work. But neither are you free to abstain from it

It would be wonderful to know, before we did anything, what all the implications and ramifications of our action would be. All the possible futures from acting, or not acting But only God can have such knowledge.

We God, and maybe one other. Earlier I referred to Dr. Spock.  I now am, as I often do, to Mr. Spock for inspiration. (Someday I am going to write a book about teaching Jewish values through Star Trek.) There was that episode in which Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy go back in time, to the 1930's. Kirk falls in love with a woman played by Joan Collins, and Spock builds some machine in the basement that sees two possible futures for Kirk's girlfriend.
Either she will be killed while crossing the street sometime in the next week -- or she will go on to found a wide-spread peace movement and delay American entry into the war, thereby allowing Germany to build the bomb: first. In that: future, the Nazi's would have won the war, and this century of terror would have been even worse than it already was. All because one woman did not get hit by a car. Which, of course, without the convenient but excruciatingly uncomfortable foreknowledge only possible in fiction, any one of us would have tried to prevent? Maybe it wouldn't be so great to know everything in advance, after all.

But we do not have Spock's machine. All we know is that we must do what we think is best in our lives. We must act, without having all the facts. We must act on faith, faith in the: future, and faith in ourselves, that when we try to do something, we are acting to make this world a better place.

Ultimately, to do anything at all, we must believe in ourselves. Rabi omeir: al tistakeil bakankan, eleh  b'mah sheyeish bo.  Rabbi said: do not look at the flask, but, rather, at what it contains.  Despite the flaws I spoke about last night, we can transcend the limits of our ordinary vision. We have much more power, we can do for more than we usually assure.

A story, perhaps a myth. A Christian monastery fell on rough times, and people were leaving. No one is joining.  They decide to call in a rabbi as a consultant.  The rabbi sits with the abbot, and they study Bible together. The abbot tells the rabbi of his problems, and the rabbi says: "I don’t know how to solve your problems, but this I do know. One of you is the messiah."

The abbot is absolutely flabbergasted.   He calls together everyone, and he tells his people that one of them is the Messiah.  They can't believe it. But then all of a sudden they start wondering. Is it Brother Philip?  Nah, it couldn't be.  But then again, maybe it is.  It couldn't be Brother Eldridge -- but, then again, you never know.  And they start treating each other with dignity and with love and with a sense of searching piety.   From time to time people  would come to visit the monastery, and to enjoy the beautiful view that it afforded of the hills and valleys.  And sometimes they would talk with the monks. One by one, people started to join the monastery, and it was all because people there believed that one of them might be the Messiah.

Each one of us is like the stars in the sky... or the very smallest bits of stuff we study. Sometimes, we reveal ourselves, our nature, in isolation. In what we do when we are alone. More often, we learn about who we are when we fuel the pull of other people. In interaction with others. But under the scrutiny of a microscope or in the full light of day, alone or together, no matter which, every move we make, eve1y step we take... affects everything, everywhere. It is more than we can grasp. But, to borrow a phrase, we just do it. We can make ourselves matter.  We can make our lives count. We can mend the broken universe, and make it whole again.

Once more, from youth group, the words of Arik Einstein, a popular Israeli singer: 'Ani v 'atta, nishaneh et ha'olam; you and I can change the world.'