Years ago, I went hiking in the Lake District in northern England. When the sun began to set, we climbed a hill in front of a wide mirror of water upon whose soft rippled surface shone small golden lights from the houses on the other side. For each valley in the distance, there was another dark roll of the landscape that revealed another hill, and then another and another as far as I could see, as if multiples of lakes and lights stretched around the whole world until they came right back to where I was standing. The birds were already asleep for the evening. Not even the leaves made noise in the breeze. I had never heard such quiet, or witnessed so much soft, grand, goodness of nature. I started to shake, and couldn't catch my breath. I was afraid to move. I felt inadequate in its presence and frustrated that I could only grasp a small part of what it was trying to say, like a student in a class that's too advanced. I stood on the hill and tried to inhale; I knew I couldn't let this opportunity pass, and that I needed to learn from it, be like it. But I feared I was standing too close, and that my incomprehension and messy, flawed humanity would somehow break the hills, the lake, the reflection.
I think that's why the rabbis at my synagogue make me nervous. I'm sure this is the last thing they want me to feel. I've been lucky in life, so far--I've been mostly surrounded by goodness, and even those whom I loved and who loved me but also did hurtful things always had my best interests at heart. But how the rabbis live--and how they teach us to live--embraces more goodness than I've ever seen. It's not the kind of perfection that's on a pedestal, far from it; they're very human. They speak from the ground and, as much as their positions of leadership will allow, share their fears, struggles, and flaws. They raise the bar about what being human means, imperfections and all. So much goodness intimidates me, even blinds me sometimes, makes me speechless. This does no one any good, just like Nelson Mandela wrote. I know my reaction is a function of my own insecurity and that I need to get over myself, as I did when I was self-conscious about singing and dancing during services. I'm working on it. Meanwhile, I stammer in their presence and try to learn everything they have to teach.