Liquid Analogies

Yom Kippur 5773

“Love, it’s exciting and new, come aboard, we’re expecting you, –everybody (who is old enough to remember)—the Love boat, soon we’ll be taking another run, the Love boat promises something for everyone…” ok, I’m just going to stop right there. What was it about the TV show “The Love Boat” that made it so popular? It certainly could not have been the writing or the shorts, I don’t know, maybe it was about the shorts? Probably not. Perhaps, what everyone was so interested in was the alternate reality that was created once the guests boarded the ship. You get on a cruise and the regular terrestrial rules no longer apply, you either find new love, or you look into your longtime beloved’s eyes and rekindle something. Either way it will all be over in 47 minutes. But there is something about the high seas, the only law is maritime law and that somehow makes everything different. On the sea, there is a fluid reality.

The English poet John Donne wrote,

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

No man is an island said a man living on an island. John Donne speaks of an image of radical interconnectedness. Each of us is completely and incontrovertibly connected to all others. If a clod be washed away, Europe is the less. If one human were to fall be the wayside, then humanity as a whole is diminished. “Any man’s death diminishes me ,“ he says and “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

It’s a powerful statement of community. It’s a powerful hope for community, but is it practical and realistic? I don’t mean to say it isn’t worthy, I’m just not sure it’s exactly true. If everything is always experienced completely communally, it leaves no room for individual experience, something that is only my loss or my gain. Or yours. Something private. Even in a close community that is dependent upon each other, isn’t there room for privacy and individual experience. We may not be islands exactly, but I’m not sure that every bell tolls the same for each of us.

In his poem “Invictus,” William Ernest Henley writes of an opposite worldview, he says,

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Henley writes of a different ideal here, rather than being completely interdependent on all of humanity, he describes a state of being completely independent of all others. He is the master of his fate, the captain of his soul. He may be the captain of only a small dinghy, but regardless it’s all his and he gets to steer without regard to others.

So what if each of us were a ship, not an island that stays in one place, but a ship that moves around and perhaps interacts with other ships. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writes,

Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another
Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.

If Donne describes a kind of radical interconnectedness, as he says, “any man’s death diminishes me,” Longfellow writes of the loneliness of radical disconnectedness. I might be the captain of my own vessel, but that means that I only have very brief encounters with other passing vessels. I am adrift out here in the sea and occasionally I meet up with another lonely drifting vessel but then it is again darkness and silence. In Longfellow’s description, I am beyond being unaffected by another man’s death, I am barely aware of another’s existence at all! But there is something else here in Longfellow that is different from Donne. Donne uses the metaphor of an island, a land mass, something solid and stationary, but Longfellow is all about that liquid or fluid reality. A ship doesn’t stay in one place even when anchored. It bobs and moves, it stretches as far as its anchor chain will allow in every direction. While we may not agree with Longfellow about the loneliness of this fluid reality, it is a much better metaphor for modern life and modern community than that of the island that doesn’t move that stays in one place always.

Zygmunt Bauman is a Polish English sociologist who wrote in his book “Liquid Times”:

…the passage from the “solid to a “liquid” phase of modernity: that is, into a condition in which social forms (structures that limit individual choices, institutions that guard repetitions of routine, patterns of acceptable behavior) can no longer (and are not expected to) keep their shape for long, because they decompose and melt faster than the time it takes to cast them, and once they are cast for them to set.

He is talking about the ways that our world and our institutions have changed. Once upon a time in human history our world was contained by how far a person could travel in a day. That depended on how fast and how far you were physically capable of walking, or how far your donkey could travel while carrying you. Modernity and the industrial revolution brought hard and solid things like automobiles and airplanes. You can travel with these machines much further in a day than on a donkey, thus your world becomes larger. But now, in our postmodern world the question is no longer about how far one can physically travel. Now with technology you can connect with anyplace on earth without leaving the comfort of your bed. You can connect with every single friend you have ever known in your entire life on social media, without ever leaving home. Ever. I mean that you could potentially connect with people like crazy for days, but go the same amount of time without physically hugging someone or even shaking hands, and yet you will still be acutely aware of every funny thing someone else’s child has said, or where it is your first boyfriend from 2nd grade is drinking his coffee at this very moment. You will also know a lot more about everything that is happening everywhere. Perhaps some of you are even doing that with you phones right this moment.

Philosophers and ideologues used to believe they had new ideas about which human society would forevermore be based. Now we are lucky if new ideas about human society last a full decade. The speed at which the world changes has increased. Social models are outmoded before they even have a chance to set, to prove themselves. That’s what I believe Bauman is trying to say. What does that have to do with us you might ask if you were Donne. What does that have to do with me, you might ask if you are Henley or Longfellow. In order to answer that we need to look at some Jewish texts.

Deuteronomy 33:5 describes a future semi-messianic vision. The words in the Torah, yachad shivtei Israel might be translated as “all the tribes of Israel together” The midrash here (up on the wall behind me) goes on to explain that this means when all of Israel is one group, Aggudah is the word they use in the Hebrew. But an Aggudah can also be translated as something that is clustered or collected, something brought together in some way. This seems not to be about taking all the groups and making them one homogenous group, but perhaps more of collecting the tribes in one area while they maintain their own individual tribal identities. A citation from the prophet Amos is thrown in, “He that builds His upper chambers in the heavens, and has founded His vault upon the earth,” this is here to explain that when the tribes behave as one aggudah, one group of clustered tribes together, then God’s palace will be built upon them with the upper chambers in heaven and the basement on earth.

But then the midrash goes on to explain about Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, he said,

A parable: a man brought two ships, tied them to anchors and iron weights, stationed them in the middle of the sea, and built a palace upon them. As long as the two ships are tied to each other, the palace stands firm. Once the ships are separated, the palace cannot stand. Thus is it also with Israel: when they do the will of God, He builds His upper chambers in the heaven: when they do not do his will, he founds His vault upon the earth, if one may say so…

These ships that he describes are lashed together in some way, maybe side to side, back to back, or front to back and then this structure is built upon them. For the structure to hold, it surely needs both ships to stay lashed together. If for some reason the ships are no longer prepared to tie themselves one to the other, the palace will fall, and all will go straight down. So it is with people, this text implies, when they (we) do the will of God, then God builds in heaven; and if not the palace will fall into the sea.

If we are each autonomous vessels or if we are each the captain of our own autonomous vessels, the question needs to be asked of each of us… to what amount will I be bound so that I can contribute to the creation of a platform for a palace to be constructed. Do I care enough about communal unity to be tied to you, do you care enough to be tied to me. But the question is even harder than that. If we agree to be tied together, we can’t be tied too tightly or too closely, or else the water will break us apart. The only way this system functions is if we are tied together but also with some distance between us. Also, these lashed together boats each have to be self-sustaining. If your boat goes down, you endanger me and vice versa. Now that we are tied, I have a responsibility not just to myself and to the palace that we have built, but also to you. If my personal bad choices endanger you, then you might suddenly have some authority over the kinds of personal choices I make. I am the master of my own soul, but am I willing to compromise my independence in order to build something sacred with you.

This past April marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Those that made it to the lifeboats survived together primarily because they tied their boats to each other. They intuitively felt the need to tie themselves together during such a scary uncertain time. This is the converse of personal responsibility and dragging everyone down with you—everyone else will also support you so that in times of individual trouble, you won’t go down.

So if we agree to tie our individual boats together into one Aggudah, one group made up of individuals, and we do this so that God might build a palace upon us with the top in heaven and the foundation on earth, in which direction do we tie our boats? If we are tied together back to back, then we have protected our most vulnerable part, and with our fronts out, each of us has our own neutral space, we can look out on our own lovely view. The palace can be built, it will stand, it will be successful. The only thing is, that beyond tying ourselves together we will never interact with each other. We won’t see each other, we won’t even know if another vessel is faultering, and if we’ve been really good engineers in our design, there will be redundancies, and we might not even notice if one or two of the vessels separates from the aggudah, or worse, goes down.

So I have one more piece of text for you, from Proverbs 27:19 “As in water face answers to face, so too the heart of man to man” Obviously, when looking into water, we see our own faces, we see a reflection. Somehow this verse is also trying to tell us that there is something like that reflection like the water reflection when a human heart looks to another human heart. Martin Buber taught about paying close attention to another, really being present for another, and then God would be present. If we tied our boats together so that we all faced each other, our connection would be very different. Not only that, we might actually see this palace that God was building, we might even get to go in and have a little sit down for dinner. For sure, our structure wouldn’t be nearly as safe from outside danger, but our relationship with each other would be stronger. We would spend our days seeing each other and participating with each other and this Godly palace that we were supporting. But we might miss the privacy.

Now perhaps the smartest design would mean that some ships face in, some face out, and some face each other along the edges away from the main section. And the truth is, in a strong mostly but not radically interconnected community that’s probably the way it is. It would be even better if there was a way for the ships to change places with each other too. Sometimes gazing out at the view, sometimes looking directly at just a few other ships, sometimes right in the middle serving as an integral support of the whole.

I know we have some folks here who are regular sailors. When I was growing up I learned to sail a small sunfish during my summers at Camp Seneca Lake. One of the things that I remember was that each of us had the sunfish we preferred to all the others, because even though they all looked the same, each boat behaved a little differently than the others. But the lesson I really learned about sailing was that when someone yelled “hard alee!” you should duck fast. I can’t even tell you how many times I or someone else in the boat would get smacked hard in the head because we weren’t paying full attention to the boat.

Several years ago I sat on a Beit Din for a conversion for a woman who grew up sailing. She had been asked to write up a few pages about her life and why she had decided to become a Jew. Her first paragraph said,

I have always lived my life by signs. I grew up sailing on Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, and one of the most important things I learned about sailing was being able to watch for signs of life. Signs of the wind alighting the sails and signs of the wind when turning the boat in a different direction, Hard Alee, that moment of no direction, when the sails twist and dance before taking a direction windward.

During her Beit Din, I commented that to me the words “Hard Alee” had always meant “duck!” and she laughed and said that she had forgotten that at one time it had meant that for her too. She obviously was a much better sailor than I.

But what she writes about here is that sailing is not merely sitting on a boat and drinking a cocktail. Sailing is about seeing what’s going on all around you, it is about noticing where the wind is and adjusting, sometimes quickly, when the wind changes. It’s also about knowing the quirks of your individual ship.

Of course all this talk isn’t really about ships. I’m talking about our souls. And the palace that gets built isn’t a hard and physical structure, I’m not talking about our new building, the palace is what’s inside our synagogue walls, it’s our community. We are each a soul (sole?) captain. We are the only one who can steer our own souls. In order to do that we have to know our own quirks, and we have to be observant about how we respond to the changing winds around us. We also have to understand that all reality is fluid; that it changes rapidly around us and sometimes, actually often, or even usually, individuals do best in changing surroundings when we can team up and rely on other individuals. Once we start teaming up, we’ve created an aggudah the difficulty always lies in figuring out how closely we each want our destiny to be tied to that of the group. I believe there is deep value and strength in tying one’s destiny to the Jewish community, to congregational life. Obviously, I’ve made that value my life’s work. But each of us has to decide if we will tie ourselves to the community, to this Kol Ami community, and if so, will we face the middle and become a primary support of the structure, will we face a few others and be connected to the whole through those others, will we point ourselves outward, serve as a lookout, stay connected, but maybe not the primary support. Or will we move our place from outside to inside and then back again.

Alternate realities with new discoveries are not just on “the Love Boat,” a community made up of lots of individuals who have agreed to bind themselves to each other can also offer, “something for everyone.” In fact an Aggudah, when tied together with just the right amount of proximity and just the right amount of distance can create a kind of holiness that reaches between heaven and earth, a kind of holiness where God can dwell amongst us. A community, can become it’s own world, it can be a safe place where people really know you and love you anyway. It can be a place where we support others who are in need, and refuse to let anyone go down alone. It can be a place where we are able to reach out and care for those outside our own community who don’t have the same kinds of support we do. It can be a place were we are educated and have our brains nourished along with our hearts, and not to forget a place where our souls can learn to grow beyond themselves as well. A healthy modern community is in constant fluid motion, if today there’s something uncomfortable or distasteful, tomorrow that might be very different. Each individual that ties him or herself to the aggudah has the equal opportunity to affect the direction, an equal opportunity to yell “hard alee!” May this New Year be one where each of us binds ourselves to something greater than ourselves, and may we do so in a way which is healthy and nourishing and which increases the holiness in our world.

Ken Yehi Ratzon, may this be God’s will.