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Body, Soul and Social Action

by Rabbi David J. Cooper

David article3

Repair and healing are the important words in the theme of this year’s High Holydays. But in actuality, this has been Kehilla’s theme for all our everyday every-year operation as a caring community. These words are summed up by the Hebrew term tikkun. Thus our theme: “Tikkun Olam Meets Tikkun HaNefesh – The Dynamic Duo, Tending to Our World as We Tend OurSouls

 Too often people make too big of a distinction between tikkun ha-nefesh,“repair/healing of the self” and tikkun olam, “repair/healing of the world.”

 It isn’t that they are not different from each other, but rather it is that they are intertwined. In some way, the tradition is telling us that neglecting one aspect or both deprives us of fully experiencing our presence in the world and making it meaningful.

 In the Hebrew bible, the Tanakh, there are three incidents at Mt. Sinai, each of which illustrates the need to nurture our spiritual selves and also to become active in regard to making a better world. These are Moses at the Burning Bush {Exodus 3 & 4), the Israelites at the giving of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19 & 20), and Elijah’s confrontation with the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:8-16).

     The Burning Bush and the Tablets of the commandments are well known. In each story a person, or the people, have a vision of manifest divinity, a spiritual awakening. But rather than only giving instruction about religious lore and spiritual pursuit, Moses is sent to liberate the slaves, and the Israelites are instructed in laws of how to live in a mutually supportive society. The shamanistic leads to the socially activist.

     Less well known is the story of Elijah at Sinai (also called Horeb), which takes place several hundred years after the Moses stories. Elijah, fed up with his struggles against the corrupt monarchy of Ahab and Jezebel, retreats into the Sinai desert, apparently to pursue a religious enlightenment of some sort. He stands near the entrance to a cave and he knows he is experiencing God’s presence, which he searches for: first in the violence of a storm, then within the trembling of an earthquake, then in the light of a fire. Then he realizes that the presence he senses cannot be reduced to any of these. The moment of his enlightenment comes when all becomes quiet and he hears the divine voice as silence, or—as it says in many biblical translations—“a still small voice.”

     And that is where most storytellers end the tale, perhaps to show that the ultimate in our spiritual pursuit is the meditative moment that ties us to eternity. And yet, that is not the end of the story, because Elijah hears a message in the voice of silence, and that message comes in the form of a question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And so he is sent back to continue his mission to change the regime and eliminate the corruption, which has always been his job to do.

     Sometimes we get so totally enveloped in our efforts that we lose perspective and forget our ultimate purposes, and perhaps our foundational ethics. In such moments, we need that retreat to repair our souls, rest our bodies, heal our selves.

     But these stories tell us that this self-repair cannot be an end in itself, exclusive of other priorities which give our individual lives meaning, and which extend our purpose beyond our individuality. So maybe we can treat the High Holydays as our Elijah Sinai cave retreat. A moment to feel and to heal our spiritual connectedness and then to relocate ourselves in the great effort of Tikkun Olam. 

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