I was only recently introduced to Wabi-sabi. At first I thought it was a kind of Japanese dish, best eaten with sushi or served with miso soup. It’s however not a gastronomic offering but rather a philosophical one. But every bit as piquant and appetising as a tantalising Japanese offering!
Wabi-sabi is Japanese and Zen Buddhist in its origins but it’s global in its implications, relevant and resonant. It speaks to my Jewish heart and is especially interesting at this time of polarisation and extremism.
It is defined as: accepting the world as imperfect, unfinished and transient and then going deeper and celebrating that reality. We sometimes get locked into thinking that everything has to be perfect, that we need to be happy 100% of the time. This can have the opposite effect and lead to dissatisfaction, distress and depression. Instead, we should acknowledge that there will be obstacles and failures, disagreements and difficulties, times of pain and perplexity.
The next step is to use these points of pain as springboards for growth. In religious terms they are gifts of growth from God or to use the exquisite phrase of the American poet Walt Whitman, they are the ‘handkerchiefs of God’. He has dropped them in our way so that we can pick them up and recognise just how beautiful they are. Ultimately we can come out stronger and more beautiful than before. We will never be perfect humans, but we can be perfectly human. As the great songster Leonard Cohen put it so powerfully and poignantly in his song Anthem: There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. For those familiar with Kabbalistic or Jewish mysticism, at creation our world was like a perfect vessel filled with light, but was shattered by the intensity of its own perfectly unadulterated goodness. Now all we have are broken vessels. Our task is to gather together all those shattered pieces of light, those scattered sparks. Judaism has always recognised and taught that this world is full of failure and frustration.
Putting it differently and more simply -it’s a reminder that life is not one sided but multi-faceted and that its complexity should be embraced and not avoided.
In our age of extremism, we are often distracted by the loud voices on either side declaring that there is only one truth, one way. These are harsh and militant voices filled with sound and fury. They don’t allow for subtlety and thoughtfulness or seeking genuine communication and peacefulness. They prefer dislocation to dialogue, disjunction to balance. This is not the way of wisdom.
I am intensely disturbed by the furious fractioning of the population of Israel. I am not a lawyer and don’t pretend to understand the subtleties of judicial reform being proposed or the purported failures of the Supreme Court. I do however understand that this is a country tearing itself apart, that my people are fracturing themselves. I shudder to think how this is reminiscent of what precipitated the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. The Temple, say our sages, was already destroyed when the Romans set it on fire. It had imploded by the senseless hatred of Jews for other Jews. They were literally killing each other; a group of them set alight the food storage of the city of Jerusalem.