Rabbi Rami Shapiro illuminates power of compassion during dark times


Chautauqua’s Interfaith Lecture Series is known for its powerful messages, but it is rare that these messages are shared through the power of collaborative song. Rabbi Rami Shapiro brought nearly every Chautauquan into harmony during his lecture.

Shapiro, an award-winning author or co-author of over 36 books and co-director of One River Foundation, delivered his lecture, “Seeing the Face of God in the Shadow of Our Dark Night,” on Thursday, Aug. 4 in the Hall of Philosophy. 

Expanding on Week Six’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme of “Embracing the Dark: Fertile Soul Time,” Shapiro spoke on how to find the divine through compassion in the midst of the wilting world.

“We are in a very dark, terrible time. Don’t worry — it’s going to get more dark and more terrible,” Shapiro said. “There is a way to navigate it, but no way to avoid it. I’m going to teach you how to navigate it.”

Most forms of spirituality bring forth difficult and painful practices for people to connect to the divine; some argue the best practice is through singing, chanting and creating music. So, Shapiro invited Chautauquans to sing a song by Menachem Nachum Twersky, an 18th-century Hasidic mystic from Chernobyl, Ukraine.

This song repeats the lyrics “I am alive” four times to delight in the notion of being alive.  

“It’s just this amazing thing that you exist,” Shapiro said. “… We’re each a unique part of oneness, and that uniqueness has to be celebrated.” 

The next few verses include the lyrics, “And who is this aliveness I am?” Twersky and other mystics believed it was important to recognize that there lies more within a living being than what one may perceive. 

“Who is this aliveness that is me at the moment?” Shapiro asked. “His answer is the holy blessed one, the Divine.”

This idea continues into the last section of the lyrics with the line, “if not the holy blessed one,” reminding everyone that they are an extension of the divine. 

“Every religion has this understanding of this greater divine reality,” Shapiro said. “But this divine reality is not separate from you. It’s not ‘Our Father who art in heaven.’ It’s this reality that is everything.”

It is Shapiro’s belief that everyone is comprised of parts of God, but no one person is entirely God. He used the metaphor of waves in an ocean to illustrate this idea.

“Every wave is an expression of the ocean, but not the full expression of the ocean,” Shapiro said. “No wave is all of the ocean, but the ocean is all of every wave. That’s what we need to remember when we engage with life.”

Describing the current moment as a “global crucifixion of humankind,” Shapiro believes the dark night that humans are enduring impacts all Earth’s life forms. Although it ebbs and flows, this particular darkness may smother the world if humans do not act. 

“Praying for light in the middle of the dark isn’t going to do any good, because the dark time is inevitable. … It’s part of the evolution of the universe,” Shapiro said. “It’s not the first time we’ve been through it. But it may be the one that is most fraught, in the sense that (humans) could do so much more damage than we’ve ever done before.”

Even though the divine is vested within all beings, Shapiro said religious denominations throughout history have engaged in a multitude of power struggles.

“We’re in this dark time, and our religions feed it. They don’t liberate us from it. They thicken the darkness with their teachings,” he said. “The religions I’m talking about are parochial, and parochial religions are always about themselves.”

Some religious myths written by humans have caused anger, Shapiro said, and more division than unity. Shapiro called for these practices, which fuel the destruction of the Earth, to end through the transition into a new understanding.

“Perennial Wisdom is a completely different understanding of what religion is about, and supports a very different myth from the Bible,” he said. “Perennial Wisdom is global. Every religion has its version of Perennial Wisdom.”

Understanding that humans were placed on Earth to serve rather than rule is the core of this wisdom. Humans are supposed to be “the midwives of divine creativity,” Shapiro said. 

He provided the four points of Perennial Wisdom, with the first being that everything is a manifestation of the divine. Most people wonder if God exists, but Shapiro said God is existence itself. 

Point two is the principle that human beings have an intrinsic capacity to awaken their true nature of God through spiritual practices. 

When one understands that the divine envelops everything — other beings and oneself — point three says they must engage with others using the teachings of the golden rule. 

“The fourth point is awakening to your own divinity and the divinity of everything else, and living life according to the golden rule so that every encounter is a blessing to the one you’re encountering,” Shapiro said. “Those two things comprise the highest calling of every human being. That’s your mission.”

These facets of Perennial Wisdom can work like a telescope during the night, finding the smallest of light granules in the depths of the darkness.

“How we manage the dark night (presents) two choices,” Shapiro said. “… You can go down with the ship, angry and aggressive and violent, which is what we’re doing now, or you can go down with compassion, with an expanded sense of consciousness that realizes going down is just part of coming back up.”

He said working through catastrophe with compassion and empathy strengthens the possibility that “the collapse yields to another rebirth.” 

Teaching a simple practice of Perennial Wisdom, Shapiro explained the implementation of the “philosophy of the face.” He guided Chautauquans to see every face — of humans and all beings — as their divinity. 

“If you truly see the face of another … then you’ll awaken to your own,” Shapiro said. “Then you can only treat that person as a blessing. You can only make that meaning when guided by the golden rule.”

To practice seeing the light of the divine aliveness, Shapiro instructed the audience to look to their neighbor and say, “I place the divine before me always,” while turning to another neighbor to say, “You are God.” 

This exercise honors the uniqueness and the divinity vested in every being, but not the separateness. The individuality of each being contributes to the whole of existence and therefore God, he said.

While the darkness of the moment continues to ravage reality, Shapiro said it is not a matter of escaping, but living through it with compassion.

“(The dark night) is the fierce burning love of the Divine Mother who is burning away all the dross in human civilization, all the dross in your life,” Shapiro said. “Everything you cling to is going to melt away to nothing. … You’re going to cling to it, and you’re going to fight it all the way, but ultimately you will lose.”

Closing with Twersky’s song, Shapiro reminded the audience that their holiness and oneness is a powerful force during trying times. 

“It’s about living through the darkness with compassion, with love, with the divine consciousness and seeing that the collapse is part of the process,” he said. “This is what it is to be reality.”

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The author Alyssa Bump

Alyssa Bump is a life-long Western New Yorker, but this is her first season on the grounds of Chautauqua. She is eager to recap the Interfaith Lecture Series while broadening her perspective of the human experience. Alyssa is a senior at SUNY Fredonia, majoring in journalism and public relations with a minor in professional writing. As editor-in-chief of her college newspaper, The Leader, Alyssa focuses on becoming a compelling storyteller and an innovative leader.