In my 20s, I lived on a kibbutz in Israel. The idea to leave America and move to Israel first came to me when I was working in a school for multiply-disabled children in Atlanta, where I became close friends with a 65-year-old foster mother of several of the kids. She went on a tour to Israel with her African American Baptist women’s group, so she could “walk where Jesus walked.” And when she returned and told me about it, she caused me to fall in love with the place without even seeing it, and I knew I had to go.
In that time, it was fairly easy to sign up as a volunteer on a kibbutz. You just had to get yourself there, and then everything was provided. My work assignments were picking oranges and running the un-knitting machine. Yes, there’s a machine that unravels sweaters so the yarn can be used again. But it takes a certain mentality to want to own one, which says a lot about the nature of kibbutzim in that time.
I lived on the kibbutz in the last years of what’s called the Golden Age of the kibbutzim. They were progressive, intentional communities, set up for the good of the people, with communal and cooperative ideals. Goals were equality, efficiency and quality of life for everyone. Energy use was smart. Everything was recycled, and there was little waste. No job was more important than another, and everyone changed roles regularly – except for the chefs, because if they were good, no one wanted to switch them out. Children slept in communal dorms, and adults had tiny cottages. I slept in the volunteer village, but I also made friends with some kibbutzniks, so I got into their homes and saw everyday life, including walking the children “home” at bedtime.
As volunteers, we worked six days a week, saving up our days-off in order to travel the country and eventually see the sites, which is why most of us were there. Of all the places I visited – even better than Bethlehem on Christmas Eve – was the site of Qumran, near the caves where the Scrolls were found. When I stood in the excavations of the Essene community at Qumran, looking east toward the Dead Sea with the cliffs behind me, I thought it must be the quietest and most still place on earth, and I felt at home.
By the time I left Israel, I was hooked on the Essenes, who were also an intentional community, and off-the-charts progressive for their time. And forty years later, I’m still studying them and better understanding their ideals.
Ancient history tells us that 2500 years ago, there was a group of healers around the Dead Sea, perhaps part of the Essenes, called the Therapeutae. And I’m fascinated by a healing principle they applied, which isn’t being taught in medical schools today. It was the principle of giving a life for a life.
When these Therapeutae healers graduated their training, they were sent to the neighboring towns, where people with contagious illnesses were put outside the city walls. And they were told to take the first sick person they encountered. So their first challenge was to expose themselves to a potentially communicable disease. Then they brought their patients back to the caves around the Dead Sea, where they cared for them until they recovered or died, never interacting with other people and never leaving.
So the Therapeutae principle of healing meant that they gave their lives to their patients – and that by giving life, the patient received liveliness and vitality, and could recover.
Interestingly, patients sometimes recovered on the way to the caves. If a healer were willing to give his or her life, and the patient believed in the probability, what could be accomplished in five, ten or fifty years, together in a cave, could also happen in the moment that the decision was made.
The time wasn’t necessary if the willingness to give the time already existed. In other words, the commitment by the healers to give themselves completely meant that it was as good as done. Whether healing took place on the way to the cave, or years later, or not at all, depended on the beliefs of the patient and also the healer.
It’s a wonderful historical example of loyalty and contribution, and of healing methods that we can’t comprehend easily. But how does it apply to modern times? What does that level of commitment look like in the average person’s experience? In our experience?
We just have to turn on a TV or a phone, to look at today’s world and see that it’s overflowing with divisiveness, anger, fear, cruelty, pain, sadness, disease, crime and war. And we can decide that it’s the norm, that it’s impossible to make a difference, and that self-protection is the only answer.
Or we can choose not to live there.
There’s a force of goodness in the world that’s constantly providing solutions, opening doors, lining up opportunities, resulting in “miracles,” expressing as love. And whenever we deny it, we contribute to the existence of the opposite.
Whenever we condemn people who we don’t even know, or attack our politicians and religious leaders, or criticize our colleagues, or gossip about our neighbors, or belittle our partners, or teach our children that the world is a threatening place – and especially when we devalue ourselves – we block that force of goodness, in the world and in our lives.
By locking ourselves away inside our beliefs – by living in fear of life and each other – we contribute to the existence of fear and hate in the world.
We’re in this together, and we naturally want to bond with each other and support each other. We want the emotional, physical and moral support of a group of people who act like our family, even if they’re not related to us.
But if we choose instead to focus on our differences – if we’re afraid of strangers because they think and act differently from us – we’ll isolate ourselves. And our fear-based beliefs and perspectives will prove us right.
In our modern western culture, we encourage independence. And yes, it’s important to be responsible for ourselves – especially our thoughts, words and actions, because no one else is. But responsibility for self also includes responsibility for others. Like modern-day Therapeutae, who are not unlike the original Therapeutae who made the world a better place two millennia ago – one hurting person at a time.
Whatever we do for ourselves, we do for other people and the planet. And we’re alchemists whenever we choose to find something worthwhile in a challenging experience – whenever we turn chaos into gold.
We do it by letting go of negative attitudes. By giving people the benefit of the doubt, no longer focusing on their weaknesses, and instead searching till we find what’s of value. By refusing to focus on how bad life is, and instead remembering that we get more of whatever we see – and then making a commitment to see what’s working well.
We do it by creating the internal change that we want to see externally. It happens first in our minds, and then in our experiences. And the reward is a better life for us, and everyone we affect.