This is a very old quote, maybe it was Plato, maybe Aquinas, maybe, more recently, Heschel. But I just found out today it was also a favorite quote of Rabbi Michael Robinson, who passed away early Thursday morning and whose funeral I attended today.
Michael Robinson was a force in Sonoma County. He was a tireless activist, forming an interfaith coalition that successfully supported affordable housing projects and services for the homeless. He took any and every opportunity to push people to engage in the political process, to hold their leaders accountable, to show up at meetings, rallies, and community events. He was a fighter, an organizer, and he got things done.
I didn’t know Michael as a rabbi, but as a neighbor and good friend of some close friends of mine. I knew his wife, Ruth, before I knew Michael, and soon enough our social circles overlapped to the point that I saw both of them fairly frequently. What I remember most about Michael was his restless spirit. He was an agitator, even in social situations, and was rarely content to leave well enough alone if he thought a moral or political lesson was in order. If we were in an arrest situation, I would want him on my side. As a religious leader, he was formidable.
Rabbi Robinson’s funeral was held at the Friedman Center in Santa Rosa, a large meeting space that was packed for the occasion. I felt it a slightly odd venue for a service, because there were no religious symbols on the wall behind the lectern and Michael’s plain pine casket. There were two open display cases in the wall filled with tree branches and other greenery, and a small sign higher up that said in bright letters:
At first, I found the sign very distracting. It was jarring to see that stark instruction while stories were being told by Michael’s family and friends, beautiful cantorial passages sung, and the poetry of Psalms and Mary Oliver recited. But in ritual, everything that happens is for a reason. There is no detail of setting or events, no matter how random or unplanned, that is not also part of the ritual action.
I was reminded as I sat there of a comment made by Al Gore in his recent Rolling Stone interview. The interviewer had asked Gore what gets in the way of people hearing the message about global warming, and he replied, “Our brains are [good] at perceiving danger in fangs and claws and spiders. It’s more difficult to trigger the alarm parts of the brain—those connected to survival—with grave dangers that can only be perceived through abstract models and complex data.”
The alarm parts of the brain. Those are definitely what need to be triggered here at home, both about global warming and about the grave threats to our democracy posed by the current administration run amok. Both crises are complex and involve lots of abstractions, and both are huge threats facing us right now. Even at the Friedman Center on a scorching hot day, with the parking lot filled with more Priuses than I’ve ever seen in my life, there are alarm parts of our brain that we don’t really want to hear.
It was apparent listening to the speakers at Michael’s funeral that he inspired many, many people to shake off complacency and become active in their communities. Michael Robinson lived his entire adult life trying to wake up the “Fire Alarm Inside” every person with whom he had contact. And yet, towards the end of his two-year bout with cancer, he told people he was happier than he had ever been.
To me, this is the sign of a life well lived. To work tirelessly at all we are put here to do, and then in the end be satisfied that we have done our best and let it go. To give thanks for the miracle of having been alive, and look forward with wonder to the next adventure. I believe that Michael is savoring every moment of his new life of spirit, and is even now figuring out how best to alleviate suffering from wherever he is.
It is hard to imagine, when a big personality dies, just how we will fill the empty space in the social fabric made by their absence. This year, death has taken from us two towering examples of lifelong activism, Luis Kemnitzer and Michael Robinson. Somehow we will reorganize, and the gaps will be filled. New leaders will emerge, perhaps in some of those people who heeded the Rabbi’s call to wake up and get involved. Whatever happens, it is our concern now, not his. Go easily Michael, and rest in peace.