Friday, October 28, 2016

It Takes All Kinds--Or At Least Four Kinds

On the street in religiously diverse Penang, Malaysia
So already, "People are different" (40).* That's some dull, obvious way to begin a blog post, you might thinking.  But it's worth noting what the sentence does not say, what caveats it does not include. It doesn't say, "People are different, and some matter more than others" or "People are different, and those who have achieved and excelled are more valuable than those who have not."

I point this out because recently I rubbed up against my own associations with the notion of difference, particularly difference not defined by the things we're "born into": ethnicity, native language, skin color, and family economic level, to a name a few. Social and cultural difference is so important that I wrote a blog post about it earlier this year. But it's not the kind of difference I'm talking about right now.

2 Sets of 3 Sisters, Raised by 2 of 3 Sisters
What I am talking about right now is difference in ways of being in the world, approaching life, responding to what life serves up. How many times have those of us with siblings wondered why we are so different from our brothers and sisters,** who were raised by the same parents in the same house, in the same community, with the same values? To some degree, it just has to be about personality, some kind of hard wiring that inclines each of us to act and be a certain way. Which doesn't mean we can't act ways we're not inclined, can't become adapted to new ways of being. As Loretta Casterini puts it in the movie Moonstruck, "So maybe, maybe my nature does draw me to you [her fiance's brother], that don't mean I have to go with it. I can take hold of myself and I can say yes to some things and no to other things . . .! I can do that."*** 

So here's what happened. I was reading 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays**** in preparation for the Jewish High Holy Day of Sukkot***** when I came to the section about the four ceremonial items that are central to the holiday: the citron, or etrog, and the palm frond, myrtle branch, and willow branch, which are bound together to become the lulav.******  These four items are held together and shaken--in all four geographic directions, then toward the heavens and the earth--throughout the week of the holiday.

Because I understood Sukkot as a harvest holiday, I had assumed these four items had only to do with the harvest. But I was wrong: they actually and importantly also represent four different kinds of people (112).

Simon Jacobson offers the following explanations that come from the Midrash:
  • "The citron, which has both a delicious taste and a delightful aroma, represents the individual who both learns and achieves."
  • "The palm frond produces fruit that has a taste but no aroma; this is the portrait of the scholar who shuns the world of action."    
  • "The myrtle, which is fragrant but tasteless, is the activist whose profusion of good deeds overshadows his scholarship."
  • "The willow, which is tasteless and scentless, represents the person who neither learns nor achieves, actualizing neither his intellectual potential nor his capacity to improve the world" (112).
My first thought: clearly the citron was the most valuable of the four items, the symbol of the personality type to which all should aspire. Clearly, it must be the "best" of the four kinds of people. No one would ever want to be classified as a willow.

But immediately after describing the symbolism of each of the four kinds, Jacobson asserts that the four items are "'all bound together in one bundle,' each an integral part of the community of G-d. They are all indispensable, each contributing to the others" (112).

Well, dog my cats, I thought, quoting from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I taught that novel so many times that I can never forget how Huck's "uncivilized" perspective is precisely what gives him an unobstructed view of human society. The citron was no more important than the willow--just different. I was wrong.

Jacobson goes on to say more about the willow:  
Weeping Willows Near Furnace Brook
"And the willow, which does not openly exhibit any positive qualities nevertheless grows in clumps by the river. In the same way, some people might not display any positive traits, but their roots are imbedded in the banks of their ancestral river and nourished by the waters of their heritage. Observed alone they may not yet express their virtues, but when gathered in community, their souls shine." (112).
Now this really made me pause and think. As a longtime high school teacher, I put so much effort into helping kids to recognize the virtues they did have (or encouraging them to cultivate the ones they lacked), to use those virtues on behalf of themselves and others, and to make those virtues apparent to those who would judge them, particularly those who would say yea or nay to their college or scholarship applications. Hanging out with the anonymous throng at the edge the river wasn't going to cut it.

But my reaction had far deeper roots hardly most nourished by my Jewish heritage. Like so many people I know, I have often competed successfully for what I wanted: admission to particular schools and programs, certain jobs, various types of recognition. In other words, I have a long experience of preparing and expecting to be compared to others and judged, and a fairly good track record for being chosen. So is it surprising that I should look at a list of types of people and assume that it represents a hierarchy?

Not at all, but that doesn't make my assumption praiseworthy--unless the ultimate good and goal is defined as secular "success." That's the great thing about religions, or "wisdom traditions" as religions scholar Huston Smith calls them: as we strive to reach our individual spiritual potentials, the only person we're each trying to best, if we do think in terms of competition, is our individual self.

Willows in Castleton, Vermont
But there's Jacobson again, reminding us that it's not all about standing alone and having already achieved our individual spiritual potentials: when describing the lack of apparent virtue in the lone willow tree, he says that the tree hasn't "yet" expressed its virtue, confirming that it possesses concealed virtue that will be revealed. And there's no need for that unactualized willow to feel outside of the circle: that "tree" can be part of a group of trees, the "souls [of which collectively] shine," radiating the Divine light that is within each and all. Groups matter. They hold and help.

These days, I'm finding it hard to walk by clumps of willows at the edges of ponds and brooks without thinking of shining souls. "To everything there is a season," says the Book of Ecclesiastes. There will be a time for virtue, but the willows need not apologize, need not feel lesser, need not fear exclusion.  

R&L Final Project by Kate McGovern and Sasha Warner-Berry
The more these Sukkot symbols made me feel eminently acceptable, integral, and included no matter which one of them best defined me, the more I found myself remembering what I'd learned about Hinduism  twenty-two years ago when I first read Huston Smith's The Illustrated World's Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions. At the time, I was developing an interdisciplinary high school English course called "Religion and Literature" because the students in my school******** were religiously diverse and perpetually curious about the spiritual and religious aspects of "life" and the literature we were reading.

"People are different." So states Smith multiple times in order to emphasize an underlying principle that distinguishes Hinduism from the other religions/wisdom traditions in his book. Before describing the four different paths to the Divine that Hindus can travel, Smith asserts that "All the religions in this book recognize different spiritual personality types, but Hinduism is exceptional in the attention it has given to the matter: it identifies the principal types, and delineates the programs that are suited to each" (26).

Hinduism's "fours" as identified by Smith--the four spiritual paths, the four basic personalities for which those paths are designed, the four stages of life, even the four castes******** --have stayed with me over the years because they so readily correspond to my experience of the world and the people in it. That a similar kind of wisdom should be embedded in Judaism, also centered around the number four, really pleases me.

Frankly, I've been both humbled and relieved by what I've come to understand over the past couple of weeks. I need to strive against perceiving human hierarchies where they do not and need not exist. I also need to trust that my authentic spiritual best will ensure my inclusion among those who seek Divine connection and yearn for a just, peaceful world. I'm sure I'm not the only one out there who tends to assess others and to fear being judged myself. But looking down on ourselves and other people does no good at all. It's a waste of love, which is out there in abundance--and which the world, a world filled with people who are all so different from one another, sorely needs. We all need it.

* Smith, H. (1991). The world's religions: A guide to our wisdom traditions. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.
** A picture of my three cousins and my two sisters. The youngest in the photo currently lives in the house pictured here.
***WikiQuotes. (2016, August 21). Moonstruck. Retrieved October 26, 2016, from 
**** Jacobson, S. (2008). Acquiring the "four kinds." In 60 Days: A spiritual guide to the high holidays (pp. 112-113). New York, NY: Kiyum Press.
***** I spoke about this holiday in my last blog post.
*(6) Screen shot of photo on Amazon product page for "Etrog lulav set for sukkot certified kosher by Rabbi Galndower from israel":
*(7) I taught at the Pilot School (1969-2000), the now defunct democratic alternative high school that was one of several different programs/schools of choice within Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. 
*(8)The caste system is the most controversial of the fours listed above. As Huston Smith says before explaining the system and its rationale, "We shall skirt the cloudy issue of how caste arose and record at once perversions that have enteredwith time if they were not there from the beginning: the wretched state of outcastes (untouchables) who are excluded from the caste system altogether; the proliferation of subcastes . . .; massive proscriptions against intermarriage and interdining; gross inequities . . .; and a [rigid] heredity system . . .." (43).