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Knowing What We’ve Found – 10/6/2013

The parable of the blind men and the elephant, which we heard earlier, is common to several different religious traditions: to Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism and Sufi Islam. It is a particular favorite of Unitarian Universalists, referenced by us at least as often as the stone soup folk tale, the call of Isaiah or the sermon on the mount. We are drawn to the story because it illustrates how different people can experience the same thing differently. And it counsels humility in the face of disagreement, since with our limited selves we can each find some of the truth, but can’t discover all of it on our own. In fact, we can get the closest to knowing the whole story only by comparing notes with other people who have a different piece of the truth than we do.

There is an inversion of this same story that the psychotherapist Steve Andreas used in the title of his two volume book, Six Blind Elephants. It goes like this: once, a group of blind elephants were talking about this thing and that, and came to the subject of human beings. Because they could not agree on just what sort of things humans were, they agreed that they would find one and examine it for themselves. When they finally did come across a human, the first elephant reached out with one of its legs and felt around for it. The others all followed suit. Once they had done so a few times to be certain, all the elephants agreed: human beings are flat.

This can be taken as an extreme example of what science calls the observer effect: the way the studying or measuring an object or phenomenon changes it. As Unitarian Universalists we are committed to seek after truth and to hold fast to it and act on it where we find it, but that just begs the question: how will we know it when we find it? How often, in fact, do we humans come across things of inestimable value and fail to recognize them – fail to recognize not just what the elephant is, but even that one is in front of us?

At the intersecting borders of Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, the salt waters of the Dead Sea rest at more than 1,000 feet below sea level – the lowest elevation found on any continent. That part of the world is often described in the west as being all desert – it is not. There are sources of fresh water and large stretches of green and growing things all throughout the eastern Mediterranean. But the Dead Sea is one of the places where the region lives up to its reputation. The waters are so salty that they are nearly useless to any sort of life – even the hardiest microorganisms – and the surrounding area is rocky, dry terrain where few plants or animals can grow or live. But there is still enough scrub grass for nomadic shepherds to pass through the area grazing their flocks, and this was what brought three Bedouin men – Muhammed Edh-Dib, Jum’a Muhammed, and Khalil Musa – to the shores of the Dead Sea in 1947. By chance, they made one of the most celebrated discoveries in 20th century archeology.

Passing by a cave in the rocky hills, one of the Muslim men tossed a stone inside and heard the sound of pottery breaking. Their exploration revealed manuscripts with Hebrew letters – the first of what would come to be called the Dead Sea scrolls. The Bedouins had no way of knowing exactly what they had found – the texts were faded and obscured, written in archaic forms of a language they did not speak. They could recognize that they were very old, and might be worth something to someone. Finding that someone, though, was not an easy prospect. One of the first potential buyers they approached rejected the documents, assuming that they must have been stolen from a Jewish synagogue. That first potential buyer couldn’t imagine beyond his own limited understanding. He was like the child in an ancient Chinese story, the son of a great horse expert who tried to find a fast, strong steed by following his father’s advice. “Look,” he said, “I have found just the one, with a tall, wide forehead and large eyes, just as you taught me.” Only the father had actually seen a horse in person before – his son’s prized find was actually a toad. Exasperated, he replied, “This horse likes jumping, but you just can’t ride it.”

More than a year after their discovery, the scrolls wound their way to a cobbler and part-time antiquities dealer. He bought them for a tiny sum, and sold them for a larger amount that is still incredibly small in retrospect. The materials were divided up and some of them wound their way to the United States. All of this took place as the war that led to the modern state of Israel was breaking out – the tensions between Arabs and the Jews who were most interested in these artifacts made open negotiations for them almost impossible. The conflict also complicated exploration of the cave where the scrolls were found, once the story of these works made its way to scholars excited by the prospect of finding more.

Finding something precious, whether a lost treasure, a deep truth, or any other potential source of joy, is not enough to make use of it, not if we don’t understand what we’ve found. Even with understanding, we may not have the means to fully make use of such a find. We can end up like the three Bedouin shepherds, convinced to sell some of the most prized objects the history of biblical archeology for the modern equivalent of $29.

What Muhammed, Jum’a, and Khalil had found, it turns out, were some of the very oldest biblical documents known to exist – from the period of the Second Temple, between 2,000 and 2,500 years ago. Explorations around the first cave eventually found more, with evidence of an ancient building on the hilltop above. This cache of documents includes ancient copies of books which can be found in the Hebrew bible, as well as other scriptural texts that didn’t make it into that canon – apocryphal books, they are called. There are also more unique records, evidence of a particular religious community with its own particular way of living and worshipping together. The study of this vast collection has been an ongoing international project for sixty years now. Most of them are kept in a special museum wing called the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, though you can see a few of them for yourself for the next few weeks as part of a touring exhibit at the Museum of Science in Boston.

Recognizing, or failing to recognize, the true value of an object is reoccurring trope in folklore. In the tale of Aladdin, the magic lamp containing a powerful, wish granting genie is left in the care of a young woman who does not know its true value. A scheming sorcerer tricks her into trading it away by disguising himself as a foolish merchant and going through her neighborhood calling out a too-good-to-be-true offer: “Old lamps for new! Old lamps for new!” In one of archeologist-adventurer Indiana Jones’ films, he must choose the true Holy Grail from among a collection of false cups. The right choice means eternal life, the wrong one instant death. The whip-slinging professor finds the right cup in a matter of instants, because of his superior insight as a scholar of antiquities, and because he is the hero of the story.

In reality, however, knowing the true value of whatever we have found is not so simple. Even once their historical importance was clear, the scholars studying the Dead Sea scrolls had no idea how to properly treat and care for them. Photographs from the early years show researchers working in sunlit rooms and smoking cigarettes around ancient materials now kept in dark, climate-controlled environments. Fragments of papyrus and animal hide were fixed in place with scotch tape; modern restoration work is thus focused more on repairing damage done in the early years of study than in the centuries the scrolls lay undiscovered. Knowing that something is precious does not always

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mean we know how to treat it with care and respect – or that we will do so.

The origin and meaning of the scrolls themselves is also still in dispute, after half a century of careful study. They were, for a long time, attributed to a little-understood, self-isolating Jewish community called the Essenes. The thinking was that the Essenes made their home on the hill above the caves. More recently, scholars have begun to agree that the texts found in the caves were made elsewhere, possibly brought there from several different locations to be hidden to protect them from the armies of Rome. Collections of plates and bowls have been found amongst the documents – this was said to be because one of the most important practices for the Essenes was the sharing of a ritual meal. But now one of the competing theories is that the building above the caves was never the center of a religious community – instead, it was a pottery works, and all those plates and bowls are just leftover goods that were never sold.

Yet, even with so much uncertainty and unanswered questions, the Dead Sea scrolls have a tremendous amount to tell us. They demonstrate evolution in Hebrew as a written language, and show how the wording of scripture which is today thought to be set in stone actually varied in earlier eras. And they form a snap-shot of religious thinking in Judea in the time around the life of Jesus. There were conflicts between established religious authorities and new groups searching for a purer, more authentic way, fear and anger at living under Roman occupation, and an obsession with a dramatic end of human history, thought to be just around the corner.

A week ago, another story involving incredibly valuable things buried in the desert came to an end: Breaking Bad, the television program about a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who transforms himself into the kingpin of a methamphetamine empire through a grueling process of violence and betrayal. Throughout the story, the main character, Walt, insists to himself and to everyone else that his only motive is to leave behind an inheritance to his wife and children, since he knows that he is dying of cancer. He uses love of family to justify progressively more and more terrible and destructive acts – a fictionalized exaggeration of an all-too terribly common practice. But in one of the show’s final scenes – COVER YOUR EARS NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT ANY SPOILERS – Walt finally finds it in him to admit the truth, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it.” The story demonstrates the limits of “following your joy” as a moral guideline – finding something enjoyable isn’t a sure sign that it’s right. It also points to the danger that results when we lose sight of the value of what we already have. Walter White began his story with financial problems, professional disappointments and the frightful prospect of impending mortality – but he also had a partner and a child who loved him, with another on the way. He ended his story with nothing but the wreckage he had wrought and the consolation that he undid a bit of it in his final hours. “Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance,” said the Greek philosopher Epicurus. When we undervalue what we do have, no new acquisition can fill that hole; when we are driven by scarcity it leads to self-destruction.

If the story of the Dead Sea scrolls is about recognizing the true value in things, about coming to understand the elephants we meet, what model does it offer? In the Jewish tradition it is said of the Torah, “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.” A quick judgment of some chance find, or realization, or human relationship is rarely the final word. The study of the scrolls and the caves where they were found has taken thousands of people decades of careful work, and it is still going on. If we were to devote ourselves with even a tiny fraction of that dedication to the study of our own lives – of what we have, what we need, and what is true by the light of our own experience – what wonders might we find?

As a metaphor, this study also shows us that trying to make such an exploration all on our own has little chance of success. Great undertakings of discovery require many people working together. This is what congregations such as ours exist to do: we help each other examine our own stories, find what is best in them, and live more closely in accordance with what we find. We do this by intentionally being a part of each others’ lives: by worshiping together, learning and serving together. Getting to know one another, and offering our encouragement to each other, as well as our admonition, should we go astray. It is also up to us to discern collectively what our collective is for and about: to name and to follow our mission as a congregation. It’s something that needs to be renewed and revisited regularly, as we change and grow. Just in the past several months I believe I see a new sense of who we are together emerging, as the spiritual practice of hospitality moves towards center of our congregational identity. As individuals and as one community, we grow and change over time and our sense of what matters most – though it may be rooted deeply and securely – also moves with us.

Among the many documents contained in the Dead Sea scrolls is a composition called the Community Rule. This text spelled out the rules and expectations of the religious group that created it: what they believed, how they lived together, what they were for and about. Though very different in form and shape, and dramatically more concerned with doctrine and uniformity of belief and behavior, this ancient document is not so far removed from the words that are critical to our own community: our bylaws, our mission statement, and the words we say together each week. For thousands of years, people of faith have come together to support and sustain each other in the quest for truth and the hard work of living. Ours is just one manifestation of an incredibly ancient pattern.


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