In my 20s, I lived on a kibbutz in Israel. I first considered leaving America and moving to Israel when I was working in a school for children with special needs 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 black Southern Baptist women’s church group, so she could “walk where Jesus walked.” And when she returned and told me about Israel, I fell in love and knew I had to go.
In that time, it was fairly easy to sign up as a volunteer on a kibbutz. You had to get yourself there, and then everything was provided. My work assignments were picking oranges and running an un-knitting machine, which unravels sweaters so the yarn can be used again.
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. Almost 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 nearby.
I slept in the volunteer village, but I also made friends with several kibbutzniks. So I was able to visit their homes and witness everyday life, including walking the children back to their dorms 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 – my favorite was the site of Qumran, near the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.
As I stood in the excavations of the Essene community at Qumran, looking east toward the Dead Sea with the Judaean Mountains 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 today, 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 intrigued by an integral 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 of getting well, what could be accomplished in five, ten or fifty years, together in the 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 the task 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.
What does it mean for us?
It’s a valuable example of contribution and loyalty, 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, fear, 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 to not live there.
It’s possible to make a difference.
There’s a force of goodness in the world that’s constantly flowing toward positive outcomes, guiding us toward our innate well-being, and expressing as kindness and love.
But if we attack our politicians and religious leaders, or criticize our colleagues or our neighbors, or belittle our partners, or teach our children that the world is a threatening place – and especially if we devalue ourselves – we resist that force of goodness. And if we lock ourselves away inside our beliefs – if we focus on our differences and condemn people who we don’t even know, or if we’re afraid of strangers just because they think and act differently from us – we’ll isolate ourselves, and our fear-based beliefs and perspectives will prove us right.
We’re all in this together, and we inherently want to bond with each other and to 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.
In our modern culture, we encourage independence. And yes, it’s important to be responsible for ourselves – especially our choice of thoughts, words and actions, because no one else is. But responsibility for self also includes responsibility for others. As if we’re modern-day Therapeutae, 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, when we turn chaos into gold.
We do it by letting go of negative perspectives; by giving people the benefit of the doubt; by refusing to focus on what’s wrong and instead searching till we find what’s of value.
We do it by creating the internal change that we want to see externally. It happens first in our minds, and then in our circumstances and experiences. And the reward is a better life for us, and everyone we affect.
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