Friday, July 1, 2011

The Soul of Love

A friend of mine once refused to go out with a guy because she was appalled by the kind of shoes he wore. Fortunately she was persuaded to meet him. They eventually married and now have two children. Still, my friend’s shoe fixation could have prevented the discovery of her beshert, her intended soul mate.

Although potentially catastrophic, her over appreciation of footwear has a bright side. It teaches us a graphic lesson about an all too common behavior: when we relate to someone based on his exterior we risk missing the real person inside. It’s not so easy, though, especially when we meet someone for the first time, to see past the public persona.

Yet the Torah expects us to. “Love your fellow as yourself,” it asks us – every fellow Jew, even someone we’ve just met. But can we love someone even before we get to know him or her?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe showed this is possible. The Rebbe, in his eighties used to stand up to eight hour every Sunday greeting a continuous line of people who came to him for advice or a blessing. When asked how he was able to do this, he replied, “When you’re counting diamonds, you don’t get tired.”

Souls were the Rebbe’s diamonds. He loved every Jew he met because he zeroed in on each person’s soul. The language the person spoke, the way he looked, his education level, his prominence all shrank in importance in the Rebbe’s estimation. What mattered to him was the divine soul, a part of G-d residing in every Jew.

Because the Rebbe shared this secret with us he must have believed that we, too, could love every Jew by lowering our valuation of the body – the biosocial aspects of a person, external to his essence – and giving precedence to the soul.

Divided Bodies

All my friends seem to be just like me. We all bought the same smart phone, we all like the same ’70s rock music, we all follow the same sports, we share the same sense of humor, understand the same literary and historical references, go to the same restaurants, vote for the same political candidates. My friends are even the same size as me. (OK, there was one little, short guy we made an exception for because he’s got such great albums.)

There’s a problem, though, with this cozy arrangement. While these interests bind my group of friends, they lock out anyone of a different type. That’s because the idiosyncrasies we share in common are manifestation of the body. And the body separates us.

G-d endows each of us with a different blend of physical features, inclinations, talents, strengths and weaknesses. But what makes each person unique undermines our ability to unite with one and other. Just think of all the jealousy, competition, lost friendships, divorce, prejudice and war triggered by excessive concern over outward differences between people, groups or nations.

In the Torah, for instance, when G-d wants to squash the attempt of the builders of the Tower of Babel to climb to Heaven and challenge Him, He confuses their efforts by causing each schemer to speak in a different language. Introducing a new physiological variable among them, language, breaks their unity.

Even a friendship between two people who speak the same language – both literally and figuratively – can be undone by personal differences between them. When one person no longer shares the same things in common with the other, a friendship may collapse because it depended on those interests to keep the relationship glued together.

As these examples attest, biosocial factors don’t make the strongest possible bonds. The body presents too many opportunities to examine the many differences among us. When the goal is to love our fellow in the same way that we love ourselves, a method of loving that highlights the differences between us is bound to fail. So loving every Jew requires employing something more universal and cohesive than the body as a catalyst.

As we consider this point, my social group is beginning to realize that choosing friends on the basis of favorite album doesn’t encourage a lot of diversity. Se we’ve started to broaden our concept of friendship. The result: guys have been hanging out around here who are a lot more well-rounded than we are. It’s just not an acceptable solution. Someone’s got to come up with a way to promote unity that doesn’t involve genes or breeding.

Soul Brothers

Unlike the body, which points up how we’re all foreign to each other, the soul demonstrates our equality. No one can see the soul. As far as anyone can tell, each person’s soul is the same as any other. While the body flaunts its distinctiveness, drawing comparison and judgment, a person’s soul, in its concealment and mystery, invites us to value its role as our connection to G-d without having to judge its performance compared to other souls. Cherishing the equalizing soul more than the body, then, enables us to love every Jew.

Although the apparent equality of all souls in their concealment encourages us to treat all Jews with love, the soul as illuminated by Kabbalah compels us even more so to love every Jew. As bodies, Jews are like everyone else. As souls, we’re unique. Besides the life-giving, natural soul G-d provides all created beings, the Jew possesses a second divine soul, which is a part of G-d. So spiritually all Jews, true brothers, descend from the same father.

That’s why the Baal Shem Tov said we must have self-sacrifice to love another Jew, even one we’ve never seen. When we respect a fellow Jew’s soul more than his body our love for him doesn’t depend on whether we’ve met him before. We know he has a brother soul. To love a Jew, say the last remaining Jew in Afghanistan, all we need to reflect on is that he’s Jewish.

Biological siblings, despite the distance caused by their squabbles, ultimately feel the intrinsic bond that unites them. Similarly when Jews hear about a brother living in some far corner of the world, they experience a feeling of kinship, of familial love.

But when we finally get to meet that fellow Jew from a distant land, who would choose to obsess over his unusual shoes? Instead we would be moved to love him for that diamond inside him, the diamond whose worth is invaluable and whose beauty is incomparable, just like ours.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Bel Air

On a snow-covered Sunday morning in February I sloshed through suburban Kansas City in my family’s rusting, forest green Bel Air with my friend Tom. Fifty white boxes stuffed with bagels, lox and cream cheese were stacked on the back seat. The night before I had stayed up all night with my B’nai B’rith Youth Organization chapter preparing the prepaid packages for delivery to Jewish families throughout Kansas City, the group’s annual fundraiser.

I drove through the winding streets of a Leawood, Kan., subdivision clinging to the steering wheel, exhausted. Tom, who was Catholic, sat beside me munching on leftover, unclaimed Lender’s bagels.

The Chevy Bel Air, the first car my dad had purchased new, in 1966, had by 1978 known prouder times. Rust spotted the body and covered the roof; the front seat was marred by gaping holes, which my father had concealed with prickly seat covers. The trunk was inexplicably sealed shut (Tom said that missing Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa was buried there) and so was the glove compartment, which Tom was always trying frantically to pry open.

We drove by graceful, upper-middle-class homes, the yards buried in mounds of snow glazed with crystals glinting in the sun, past manicured bushes bestriding a curving driveway, the cold and sun outside, the car warm inside … and then I fell asleep – and was awoken by a bang that jolted me forward. I had rolled onto someone’s yard, smack into a tree.

Tom and I were uninjured and so was the Bel Air. The shock of the crash wore off, and then we both stared. The glove compartment was open.

“I can’t believe it!” Tom exclaimed, laughing hysterically. “Hey, maybe the keys to the trunk are in here!” Immediately he went to work exploring the long mysterious interior of the glove compartment.

“What’s in there?” I asked.

“Nothing,” Tom answered disappointedly, head down, rummaging through the glove compartment’s contents: “… a manual … gas receipts … an ice scraper … a piece of paper with something typed on it …”

“Let me see that paper,” I said, snatching it out of his hand.

I looked down and read what was typed at the top of the page: “Shake Hands with Your Uncle Manis, My Boy.”

“Wow! This is one of my Uncle David’s famous poems,” I said more to myself than to Tom. “It must have been sitting in there for 10 years.”

Tom looked uninterested. My uncle, I figured, presented the work I held in my hand at a family get-together possibly as far back as 1966, when I was only five years old. My father must have stashed this, his copy of his brother’s poem, in the glove compartment on the way home from the gathering.

Reading the verses brought to mind one of my uncle’s more recent performances. My family had gathered at a local restaurant to celebrate the imminent marriage of one of my cousins ...

A normally reserved, unassuming man – balding, medium height, wearing glasses – stands at the front of a banquet room and tells by heart the story of how my cousin met her fiancĂ© – and leads the assembled family on a rhyming roller coaster ride.

Speaking slowly, as if talking to children, he pushes them out of the gate – Then one evening Susan was at a farewell party being given for someone named “Jan.” He leads them around the bend – across the room she spied a tall, dark and handsome man. Carefully he takes them up the hill – She had to restrain herself from doing anything rash – pauses before the last rhyme, then sends them careening down the slope – for standing next to him was a short fella with a mustache. The room bursts into laughter.

... I stared past the poem propped up on the green steering wheel. Tom got out of the car. I thought about the last time I had seen my uncle ...

I’m in the lobby of our synagogue, Beth Shalom, after services. A big crowd has formed. I stand there expecting to see relatives and friends, fearing small talk. I spot Uncle David maybe five conversations away from me. I look in his direction, but I don’t go say hello to him.

I see a friend from Hebrew school days; we talk football. I look over at Uncle David again, still in the same spot, speaking to his sister-in-law. I want to talk to him. I’m just afraid I’ll get there and have nothing to say. I doubt that it matters to him, anyway.

Later on, after most people have headed toward the parking lot, we find ourselves next to each other. I say, “Hi.” He replies, “I didn’t think you were ever going to talk to me.”

... I stuck the poem on top of the dashboard, pleased to have rediscovered it: a lost family treasure written by a quiet man who found ways to let his friends and family know how he felt about them.

Tom stood outside by the tree looking at the front of the car.

“Any dent?” I asked.

“It’s hard to tell,” he answered. “There were so many dents here already.”

“Good.”

I returned the poem to the glove compartment and closed it, to hide evidence of the crash. Tom pushed the car off the yard as I steered, the tires making silent tracks in the snow.