Being a Joyful Servant

An Interview with Lawrence Kushner
By Mary NurrieStearns


While we were searching for material for this issue, Lawrence Kushner's newest book, Eyes Remade for Wonder, came across my desk. I picked it up, intending only to glance through it, and found myself immersed in it. Through reading his words, I discovered that Kushner had insight about the subject of humility from the perspective of Jewish mysticism. Sensing that he would contribute to our understanding of humility I contacted him to set up an interview.

Kushner is rabbi at the Congregation Bel El in Sudbury, Massachusetts. His books and lectures have been a source of spiritual nourishment for people from all faiths for the past twenty-five years. Indeed, that was my experience. Being in conversation with him was most uplifting.

I interviewed Kushner by phone while he was at his home. He responded easily and with depth to my questions. In fact, the text that follows is almost verbatim, a commentary on his understanding of humility.

Personal Transformation: Let's begin with a definition of humility.

Lawrence Kushner: Humility is the joyful awareness that I am a creature of God and so is everyone else. It's the "so is everyone else" that makes up humility, transforming the ecstasy into an abiding sense of gratitude. I think it was Martin Buber who wisely observed that humility is not thinking that you are lower than anyone else, it's just not thinking that you're higher than anyone else.

PT: What is humility founded on?

Kushner: Humility is founded on creatureliness I have been created to do something that only I can do, just as you have been created to accomplish something that only you can do. It is founded on the notion that each life has a sacred, unique and never-recurring possibility. No matter who I meet or how beneath me she might "appear" to be intellectually, socially and financially, spiritually, she has a job that only she can do and it is an honor to meet her . . . or him.

PT: There's dignity and worth in every human being.

Kushner: Yes, spiritual essence. Humility comes from realizing the dignity in each creature. Theologically, you can also construct humility from an understanding of what for Jews are the first two utterances at Sinai. Some Christian traditions number the utterances in a different order, but for Judaism, the first utterance is really not a commandment; it's simply, "I am the Lord Your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." The second utterance begins, "You should have no other gods before you, no likenesses in heavens above." Those two, according to the Talmud, were heard by the assembled community of Israel at the foot of Sinai directly from God personally. Everything else, they heard through Moses. The first two are almost the flip side of one another. The first one says I am God, and the second one says you can't have any other gods. It's almost as if God gets us all together at Sinai and says, "I just have two things to tell you. Number one, I'm God; number two, you're not." The basis of all arrogance is thinking that you're God. The basis of all humility is realizing that you're not, and no one else is either, and that as creatures, each with unique tasks, we revere one another's spiritual assignments. The reason for our lack of humility is that human beings, as part of the human condition and struggle, have this proclivity for falling into thinking that they're God.

PT: Give an example of how we fall into thinking that we're God.

Kushner: We forget that we're going to die. That's it, in a nutshell. We get to thinking that we're going to live forever. If we live forever, all bets are off, all rules are gone, and we can do whatever we like. Then something comes to us, sometimes as devastating as an appointment with our physician who has bad news. Other times it's just a scare. I was on a plane last week that was hit by lightening, and I was reminded again. The greeting of the monks is memento mordi, "Remember, you're dying." This is not said in a morose or depressing way, but in a grateful and enlivening way. It's a reminder that you are a human being. Kafka said the meaning of life is that it ends.

PT: How do we recognize humility in one another?

Kushner: The Talmud asks the question, "Who is wise?" and gives the surprise answer, "Someone who learns from everyone." We recognize humility in others by finding something that we can learn from them. Do you hear them? Are you paying attention? There's something you can learn from everyone, something that only he or she knows, that only he or she can teach you.

PT: Which is part of their spiritual assignment, in a sense.

Kushner: It's like each person's life has the pieces of a 1,000 piece interlocking jigsaw puzzle. In Judaism, at the time of death, we say the shemah, which is the declaration of God's unity, put the last puzzle piece in place, and die. In my experience, no one seems to get issued a complete puzzle. Everyone's puzzle is missing, on average, seven pieces, and these puzzle pieces are distributed randomly into other people's puzzles. We spend our lives walking around saying, "Do you need a puzzle piece with a little yellow in the corner and a red line running through it?" Then we meet someone, and he or she says, "Oh, my God, I've been looking for it all my life." We say, "I don't know what to do with it, I wound up with it, take it, it's yours." It's rarely the author or featured speaker who has your puzzle pieces; it's usually someone who has a bit part in your life whose name is not recorded in the program.

PT: That's an example of humility being based on interconnectedness.

Kushner: I call it the "who was that masked man, anyway?" phenomenon. Usually, we don't know who it was until months, years, decades later when we look back realizing, with humility, that if it hadn't been for that person, our life wouldn't be the way it is now.

PT: Why aspire to humility?

Kushner: The way I'm parsing it, the question means: What value is there in being aware that you are a creature. It seems to me that the only other two options are to say that life is the result of some cosmic crapshoot which renders life meaningless and absurd, or to say, on the other extreme, that I made myself and I'm God. So, to aspire to humility is to constantly remind oneself that one was created for a purpose.

PT: You're talking about purpose. How are purpose and humility linked?

Kushner: It is rare that people are given a clear and focused sense of what their purpose is until their last hours, and then only with a bit of luck and grace, they look back from the mountaintop of their life and realize why they were created.

An Atari computer game produced 15 years ago was similar to Dungeon's and Dragons. There were different mazes and puzzles to be figured out. Our kids, who were in junior high at the time, thought it was neat to get tips and tricks from their classmates. My daughter came home with what was called an undocumented trick, one that was written nowhere. It was received by word of mouth. In this Atari game, if you went into one of the rooms and moved the cursor up against what looked like a wall and hit certain keys at the same time, you could walk through the wall and go into an otherwise inaccessible room in which there were a rainbow and the initials of the game's creator. That stayed with me as a metaphor for the religious search that we're discussing. In other words, what do you have to do to access the initials of the Creator that presumably are encoded within everyone and everything at all times? The name of the game is to find the presence of the Creator and then act in ways to help others find it, too.

PT: So that we don't have to wait until our final moments to find our meaning?

Kushner: I wouldn't say it guarantees you a clear sense of what your purpose is, but it can certainly give you the satisfaction of knowing that you are on the right track. Realizing how all the pieces fit together is always related to moments of death or near-death experiences. I qualify a powerful mystical or spiritual encounter as a near-death experience because in order to have it, you must be willing to let go of yourself. In Hasidism, which is the last great flowering of Jewish spirituality, the 18th Century Jewish Spiritual revivalism in Eastern Europe, one of the ultimate goals of spiritual life was to live in such a way that one was continuously aware of one's presence within the Divine. In order to attain that level of awareness, in addition to leading a devout and pious life, one had to be willing to experience what in Hebrew is called bittul yesh, which means a loss of self not in an aesthetic way, but like a drop that falls into the ocean. The drop is still there, it is just impossible to identify its boundaries any longer. That's bittul yesh, which is a small death. Whenever we behave in such a way so as to find the presence of the Creator, we experience a sense of momentary ecstasy, and we, too, become like a drop that has fallen into the sea.

PT: What does the pursuit of humility move us toward?

Kushner: Humility is the key, the instrument opening the portal to the sense of one's presence within God and ultimate meaning.

PT: How, then, do we grow in humility?

Kushner: A couple of things come to mind. First, one must learn what it means to be a joyful servant. Start by serving the people you live with help them, learn how to tend to their needs, even before they can express them. At the beginning of the main prayer segment of Jewish liturgy, before reciting the primary bouquet of prayers, a passage is read from psalms 51:17 which says, "Oh, God, open my lips that my mouth may declare Your praise." It's a beautiful and a curious teaching that invites us to relinquish control of running our lives, saying that we are prepared to simply be an instrument, an agent of the Divine. You move from learning how to serve others joyfully to learning how to serve the Holy One of all being. In the way Judaism structures religious life, this becomes the fulfillment of God's commandments. Each day is filled with a myriad of opportunities for secret observance, and each one of them is an opportunity for humility, an opportunity to be a joyful servant.

PT: Give an example of that.

Kushner: This is one of my favorite stories, and it's true. When my wife, Karen, was six or seven months pregnant with our second child, we lived in a little shoebox of an apartment in Marlboro, Mass. It was a cold, wintry night, and we had gone to bed around 11 p.m. A little past midnight, she woke me up, apologetically, telling me that she couldn't sleep. She said she would love a chocolate bar with almonds. I realized that this was the strange craving of a pregnant woman and was eager to help. She'd been schlepping this baby around in her belly, and I was getting off easy, so I figured it was the least I could do. Before she completed enunciating her request, I said, "Don't worry about a thing, honey." I put my Levi's on over my pajamas, threw on a sweatshirt, snow galoshes, and my down parka, hood, gloves and muffler. I ran down the few flights of steps to the car and to my chagrin, saw there were about three inches of wet sloppy snow all over the car. I cleaned it off, started the car, and then had this horrifying realization I had no idea where I was going to find a store open in the middle of the night. I drove up Route 20 and remembered the Holiday Inn out on Route 495 had a candy machine. I can still picture the night clerk watching this car skid to a stop in a snowstorm, a man runs in, waves, pumps quarters into the candy machine, grabs a handful of candy bars, runs back to the car, and drives off into the blizzard. I got home and gave my wife the candy bars.

For about an hour on a wintry night, I, Lawrence Kushner, who normally has a very well-developed ego, did not have an ego. Instead, I was a servant of Karen Kushner's ego. I did not stay in a warm bed. I drove around looking for candy bars. Here's the crazy part. Doing what my lover wanted made me happier than doing what I wanted. It was more fulfilling. It was transforming. By letting go of myself and serving someone whom I loved, I reached a state of humility and an otherwise unattainable fulfillment.

PT: In addition to being a joyful servant, how else do we grow in humility?

Kushner: We go out to others and try to find out what their unique job is and what we can learn from them.

PT: Does strength of being come from grounding our lives in our purpose?

Kushner: I'll give you a choice. There are two people with whom you could pick a fight. Who would you least prefer to fight with? One is a 250-pound weight-lifting bruiser, and the other is a 90-pound weakling who is running an errand for the godfather. I'd pick the bruiser anytime. If you fight with someone who is on an errand for someone very powerful, you also pick a fight with the person they represent. The messenger says, "Don't mess with me because I'm on an errand from the man." You realize you don't want to get in trouble with him and leave the messenger alone. It's that way with religious and spiritual acts as well. When we realize that we are agents of the Most High, we do whatever we do from the position of enormous strength.

PT: What would you like to say in closing?

Kushner: My latest favorite humility story: I lecture all over the world and often, they are big lectures, with hundreds and sometimes thousands of people. At virtually every lecture people come up to me with books they'd like me to autograph. There's rarely a lecture where someone doesn't present me with a book written by Rabbi Harold Kushner. I try not to make them feel too embarrassed, but it is awkward. I used to say, "Whose name do you want me to sign?" What goes on for me internally is that they remind me that I'm not very important; they thought I was somebody else. I thank them and I'm grateful for it.