On Religious Sensibilities, Termites, and the Dot of Goodness

R'Sherril Gilbert

Compiled by Rabbi Sherril Gilbert rebsherril@outlook.com 
Inspired by R’ Chava Bahle, R’ Debra Orenstein, & R’ Avraham Greenbaum, Margaret Wheatley; Judaism Unbound podcast, and R’ Hannah Dresner. 

Sermon given at the Lakeshore UU Congregation – 24 November 2019

So there is this passenger sitting on a train and he is watching with astonishment this older man across the aisle who keeps repeating the same behaviours, over and over again. First the old man is mumbling a few words to himself, then he smiles, and finally he raises his hand and stops talking for a few moments. 

After watching this strange behaviour for close to an hour, the passenger could not keep quiet any longer, and says, “Excuse me sir, but I couldn’t help noticing what you were doing. Is anything wrong?” 

“Not at all,” replies the old man. “You see, whenever I take a trip, I get bored. And so I always tell myself jokes, which is why I was smiling.” 

“But why did you keep raising your hand?” 

“Oh, that. It’s to interrupt myself because I’ve heard that joke before.” Note 1 

Okay, next. 

A married daughter is calling her mother on the phone. 

“Hello, Ma?” 

“Hello darling, what’s the problem?” 

“Oh, Ma, I don’t know where to begin. Both the kids are sick with the flu. The fridge has just broken down. The sink is leaking. In two hours my Hadassah group is coming here for lunch. What am I going to do?” 

“Oy, oy, darling, don’t worry. I’m going to get on a bus and take it to the subway. Then I’ll take the subway to the train, Then I’ll take the train to Beaconsfield. Then I’ll walk the two kilometers from the train station to your house. I’ll take care of the kids, I’ll cook a nice lunch for the Hadassah ladies, and I’ll even make dinner for Barry.” 

“Barry – who’s Barry?” 

“Barry – your husband!” 

“But Ma, my husband’s name is Steve. Is this 536-3530?” 

“No, this is 536-3035.” 

“[Pause] Wait, does this mean you’re not coming over?” 

You GET it, right? Somehow, we know these are uniquely Jewish jokes – there is something about the characters and their ways of being in the world that we understand and can really connect with. 

Freud might have been the first serious student of Jewish humour when he correctly identified a self-critical or self-reflective component in many of our jokes. He would say, “I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.” Jewish humour, after all, is an extension of the Jewish mind, so it was no accident that the pioneer of psychoanalysis was especially interested in Jewish jokes. 

My colleague Rabbi Moshe Waldoks co-wrote a book that has now become a classic in the Jewish world, called The Big Book of Jewish Humor. In it, he maintains that Jewish humour is humour that is overtly Jewish in its concerns, characters, definitions, language, values or symbols. Primarily, according to Rabbi Waldoks, Jewish humour is usually substantive – it is about something. It is especially fond of certain specific topics, such as food, or family, or business, or anti-Semitism, or wealth (or its absence), or health and survival. It tends to be anti-authoritarian, ridicules grandiosity and self-indulgence, exposes hypocrisy, and kicks pomposity in the pants. It is strongly democratic, stressing the dignity and worth of common folk. 

I think that the unique contribution of Jewish humour to the world is that it has this ability to shine a spotlight on a broad range of distinctly and plainly human characteristics and behaviours that we might call Jewish sensibilities. Jewish sensibilities are particularly Jewish ways of being human, ways of being in the world that guide and orient how Jews speak, and act, and make choices. Note 2 

These sensibilities comprise a sort of unarticulated and undocumented “code” that many Jews try to follow — a code that we may even judge ourselves by. These sensibilities are captured in Jewish humour but originate in our texts and teachings, in the stories we have told and re-told from biblical times to the present day, in our individual and collective experiences that have shaped these narratives, and in the lessons that have been derived about how to live a worthy and fulfilling life. It’s a sort of code that overlaps but is not synonymous with the requirements of Jewish law or traditional practice. 

Some examples of Jewish sensibilities include things like making Shabbat; asking for forgiveness and repentance; following the rhythms, holidays, and cycles of the Jewish year; treating others with dignity and honour; being a mensch; and doing tikkun olam, or social justice. 

There are many other micro-narratives that we have integrated into our tradition. When times are tough, we say the Hebrew phrase gam zu l’tovah – this too is for the good. My mom said it all the time, almost as if saying it would make it come true. And the concept of welcoming the stranger, and remembering that we were once strangers – is central to our human rights efforts with marginalized populations and immigrants and refugees. 

Taken on their own, one might say that these sensibilities are universal: inherent in most of the world religions and spiritual practices. Most religions claim values of dignity, honour, being a good person, and doing good in the world. All seven Unitarian principles are relevant examples of this universality. This month and next, I understand this congregation is focusing on the second and third principles. The second principle promotes justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; and the third principle invites acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. 

Taken on their own, individually these are aspirational principles that we would agree we all should strive for. These are most likely universal sensibilities: justice, equity, compassion, acceptance and growth. 

But when we look at these sensibilities as a set, as a unique collection of values, principles and practices, that’s when the individual character of the religion becomes apparent. 

I think that if we are going to try to describe the identity of any one religion, I want to suggest that we turn to the world of quantum physics and the principle of emergence. I’ll come back to the sensibilities in a minute. First I want to talk about emergence. 

Emergence refers to the existence or formation of collective behaviours — what parts of a system can accomplish together that they could not accomplish on their own. 

Emergence refers to how behaviours that exist on a larger scale arise from a finer scale of detailed interactions and structures of relationships, patterns of behaviours, habits of belief, and methods for accomplishing work. 

Emergence provides simple evidence that we live in a complex relational world and that relationships change us, reveal us, evoke more from us. We do not live in a natural world that encourages separateness. Note

Emergence is a common phenomenon found everywhere in life. The tower-building termites of Africa and Australia are a particularly stunning example: working alone, they accomplish little – they dig only modest piles of dirt. But working together, a collective forms. As a group, they become builders of these immense towers – engineering marvels filled with arches, tunnels, air conditioning systems, and specialized chambers. These intricate towers are the largest structures on earth relative to the size of their builders. 

And no one leader termite directs the effort. All the termites participate, doing what seems required as they observe the behaviour of others. With antennae waving, they bump up against one another, notice what’s going on and respond. Acting locally to accomplish what seems to be next, they build complex structures that can last for centuries. Without any professional engineers, their arches meet in the middle. 

Emergence is so common to our experience, but we don’t often recognize it. In fact, emergence is inherent in the enterprise of religious communities. In every locale where religious communities exist, individuals and groups interact to figure out what works for us. We exchange information, we adapt, we engage, and from our efforts, a system emerges with its own identity, its own characteristics, its own purpose, even its own kind of humour. 

These parts, taken together, could not be mistaken for anything else but that community. And when these parts are taken individually, these parts cannot do on their own what can be done when they are working together. 

So I have another joke for you. Note 4

At a great international interfaith gathering at a major convention hotel, five delegates found themselves waiting and waiting for the elevator following one of the sessions. To break the monotony and silence, one of delegates suggested they play a little game: “Let’s see if we can explain our faith in the time it takes the elevator to go from here to the first floor!” Although they would have to travel up and down several times, the delegates agreed. 

On the trip down from the tenth to the first floor, the Roman Catholic delegate volunteered to go first. He recited the Apostles’ Creed, and finished just as the doors opened on the lobby. 

Next, the Universalist delegate pushed the button for the tenth floor and proceeded to say, “We Universalists believe in the essential goodness of humanity and of God. We believe that God loves all creatures, and intends our well-being and happiness, in this world and the next. We believe in a God who rewards, and does not punish.” The Universalist was finished well before the elevator reached the tenth floor. 

Next, it was the Hindu delegate’s turn. Pressing the button for the lobby, she began, “We Hindus believe in the great wheel of life. All is a cycle, and what has been will be again. It is for us to understand our place in this turning, to do what falls to us to do, and to celebrate our place in the scheme of existence.” Like the Universalist, she was finished long before the elevator reached its destination. 

Now it fell to the Zen Buddhist delegate to push the button for the tenth floor. All waited eagerly for him to begin, but there was only silence as the car traveled the ten floors. When the doors opened, they asked the Zen Buddhist: “Why did you not say anything to us about your belief?” He replied: “In saying nothing, I said all that there is to say.” 

The interfaith conference delegates scratched their heads, then looked to the Unitarian delegate, the last to take a turn. The elevator doors closed, and she reached out to push the button. All were surprised when she pushed “2.” 

Why did you not push the button for the lobby?” they asked. 

“Because,” the Unitarian delegate replied, “there’s a great little coffee shop on the second floor where we can kick back and really discuss this!” 

I think that this little story captures the essence of what I am trying to say. Each tradition on its own can be identified through a set of values, principles or sensibilities – these are what differentiate one from the other. But, like the theologian Matthew Fox taught, while there are many wells there is just one river. From the lens of deep ecumenism, Fox said that our individual faiths share a broad but common range of beliefs. 

I want to give an example of this. There is a Jewish sensibility known as nekudot tovot – which literally means dots of goodness

This idea seems to have originated with Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who was a great 19th century hasidic rabbi. Rebbe Nachman taught throughout his life that there is no person, no condition, and no expanse of time without some measure of good in it. 

For Rebbe Nachman, the amount of good that is needed is very tiny. “That is all you need to find in another person,” he taught. “Just the smallest bit, just a dot of goodness.” 

But you know, this can actually be one of the hardest things for us to do. We can all think of people who we know, people who have not exactly been exemplars of goodness, people we think of as evil. And yet in Rebbe Nachman’s teaching, we are counseled that, for our own well-being – for our own well-being – we must do our best to focus on finding the good in other people. 

“Know,” he wrote, “that you must judge all people favourably. Even if you have reason to think that a person is completely wicked, you must search until you find some bit of goodness, some place in that person where he is not evil. In that good place inside of him, he is not bad! Treating people this way allows them – and you – to be restored.” 

Rebbe Nachman’s prescription for happiness is the same as his prescription for repentance, which is the same as his prescription for forgiveness, which is the same as his prescription for gratitude. For Rebbe Nachman, it’s all one process. Amidst the bad, look for one good point, and then look for another, and then look for another, and then expand the good points, and attach them to one another, until you weave something together that is made up of genuine goodness – even if it started out mostly bad.

This teaching, this important sensibility, is Rebbe Nachman’s gift to those of us who struggle to let go of grudges, to see beyond frustrating personality traits, to open our hearts to people who may have hurt us. And sometimes, says the Rebbe, full forgiveness is too much of a challenge to achieve in one go. Even so, we should not be discouraged. Even taking that one step, seeing that one tiny dot of goodness in another human being, is a worthy exercise, because our small step will elevate both of us. 

And Rebbe Nachman does not stop with this tremendous idea. He goes on to encourage us to do something that may be even more challenging: he instructs us to extend this position of open-heartedness, of lovingkindness, of belief in human goodness, to ourselves

He says that, “You have to search until you find some point of good in yourself to restore your inner vitality and attain joy. And by searching for and finding some little bit of good inside of you, you genuinely move from the scale of guilt onto the scale of merit.” 

The Rebbe is teaching us that we don’t get rid of the dark by yelling, “Darkness, go away!” We have to find a spark and turn it into a flame, and then light a candle, and then use that candle as a to light other candles. My friends, if this is not a prescription for human flourishing, I don’t know what is. 

And I want to suggest that this very Jewish principle of the dot of goodness is actually a universal principle, one that is found in many of the world’s faith traditions. Matthew Fox suggests that we need to return to our spiritual sources – not to run empires or propagandize – but to find the joint truth together – the common ground that is already there waiting to be discovered. Going down into the well of our own tradition, whether we are born into it or have chosen it – we do indeed arrive at common waters of wisdom. 

Okay, one more bit of humour: 

It’s near the end of the day at the Pearly Gates and there are just three people left. The first one approaches St. Peter. St. Peter asks the man his religion and the guy says that he’s Catholic. St. Peter pages through a thick book, reads something and then asks, “Did you go to church every Sunday and receive the sacraments?” The guy says, “Oh, yes,” and St. Peter lets him into Heaven. 

The next person approaches and St. Peter asks what religion she is. “I’m Jewish,” she says. St. Peter again flips through the book, reads something and asks, “Did you study the Torah?” The woman responds, “Oh yes,” and St. Peter lets her into heaven. 

The last person approaches and when asked she tells St. Peter that she is Unitarian. St. Peter again flips through his book, looks up and asks, “Did you bring a hot dish to share?” 

Thank you very much, happy Sunday! 

  1. The Big Book of Jewish Humour, Eds. William Novak and Moshe Waldoks
  2. http://forward.com/shma-now/jewish-sensibilities/
  3. A Simpler Way, Margaret Wheatley  
  4. Rev. Dana Worsnop’s Elevator Story (Dana was an intern minister at Toronto First in the Nineties)