As the New Year approaches we are reminded again of the scourge of loneliness. It is the first thing that the Torah deplores: “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). We are creatures of connection, needing one another to get along in this world.
That does not make being with others frictionless or always easy. The philosopher Schopenhauer compared people to porcupines, who move together for warmth, yet as they come closer their quills stick one another so they move away, and feeling cold, only to come close together again. Many people will identify – it is sometimes hard to be with people and yet harder to be without them.
The pandemic has created too much isolation. Fully conscious of the complexity of the human condition, as the New Year dawns, let’s resolve to reach out to one another and be in touch with those who have lost or are alone. We need to find our way back into each other’s lives once more.
When we see a beautiful building, we don’t see the girders that shape it underneath. They are not considered picturesque. When we see a beautiful person, we do not see the bones. The skeleton is not considered lovely. As Jean Kerr wrote, “People say that beauty is only skin deep. What do you want – an adorable pancreas?”
Yet the scaffolding of life is essential. There is no outer beauty without the structure to support it. This is true in religious life as well. People may respond to the majesty of the prayers but think committee meetings and building maintenance and volunteer work are drudgery, far removed from the exalted sphere of spiritual uplift. Yet they are the structural beams that hold up the synagogue. The committee meeting may be arduous and overlong, but what do you want – an adorable pancreas?
Here is to all those who do the work. Not those who stand on the bimah speaking or singing, but who cook in the kitchen, who sweep the floors and put out the flyers and fix the zoom, who calculate the dues and type up the letters and put out the kiddush and serve the food. You are the backbone. To those who really look, you are indeed beautiful.
Traveling at Home
There is nothing like travel to remind us how often proximity makes us intolerant. In another country, when we see a custom that is different from our own, we think, ‘well they have different assumptions and ideas here.’ When we see that our fellow citizens differ from us, we rage against their idiocy, unable to imagine how they could not agree with our own views.
The Rabbis had a wise principle: “The frequent takes precedence over the rare.” So a holiday that comes all of the time, like the Sabbath, takes precedence over holidays that come once a year. According to the same principle, we should be kinder to our family than to strangers.
Yet often we do precisely the reverse: distance activates our empathy. Our country and our lives would be better if we could imagine our fellow citizens as foreign, our family as strangers — only for the purposes of giving them the space to be different. Love those who are like you when they are unlike you. Have the heart of a traveler at home.
Why Don’t We Bless One Another?
At the end of Genesis and the end of the Torah, Jacob and Moses offer extended blessings. We take this in stride – after all, they are biblical titans, and obviously they have both the power and the disposition to bless. Why do we feel so shy then about blessing one another?
It is not because we are inadequate. After all, when you bless someone you are a conduit, not a source. The blessing does not come from me, but through me. You need not be a perfect person (as if there were such a thing) to bless another person. I am passing on to you what is not mine without losing it myself, a candle igniting a second candle, none of them the source of fire.
On Friday nights Jewish parents bless their children. Yet everyone can offer this boon to others; a blessing is a wish elevated by intangible power. May God bless you with the courage to offer blessings.
Two Dreams, Two Miracles, One Meaning
Joseph has two dreams – one of sheaves and one of stars. The first is a dream of material and the second a dream of spirit.
We read the Joseph story on Hanukkah, which tells of two miracles: the miracle of the military victory and the miracle of the oil. The first is a material miracle – as the al Hanissim prayer puts it, the strong were given into the hands of the weak. The second is a spiritual miracle.
Judaism is a tradition of balance. We do not ask people to commit to lives of pure spiritual yearning, fasting, isolating themselves and disdaining the goods of the world. At the same time, we have Shabbat, a day each week when one is not supposed to spend money or engage in business, because it is too easy to be captured by the purely material. We are composite creatures, needing both to thrive in this world as images of God. As we light the candles, let us be grateful for the goods of the world and for the flame of spirit. Happy Hanukkah!
A Thanksgiving Prayer
The first words I say in the morning, in accordance with the Jewish tradition, are Mode Ani, “I thank You.” I walk out of my house and am greeted by the dawn. I step from a house I didn’t build in clothes I did not sew into a day I did not create with a life I was given. Thank you.
With each challenge and difficulty that arises in the day, I try to be mindful that things that seem unbearable now may later be important; I’ve lived long enough to remember how we treasure people and things in retrospect. Even moments we wish would end can leave us with a taste that we savor.
To be grateful is not to be naïve; to be grateful is not to be unable to confront deficiency or injustice or anguish. It is to recognize how abundant are the blessings of this world and how easy to overlook. It is to say, with the poet Yeats, in a moment of open-armed embrace of life: “We must laugh and we must sing, We are blest by everything.” Happy Thanksgiving.
More Than One Way to be a Slave
Pharaoh “intensified the labor” of the Israelites. The tyrant’s motivation was deeper than random cruelty. In ‘Mesillat Yesharim,’ Path of the Upright, his famed book on ethical conduct, Rabbi Moses Luzzato writes that this was a measure to circumvent the possibility of rebellion. The Israelites would just be too busy to think and plan.
He goes on to say that the same principle applies in our own lives. Without the time to reflect on our souls, on our conduct, we are easily led astray and cannot break the bondage of the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. Who has not done things in a hurry that they wish they had done deliberately and therefore better? We all speak or act in haste, even though while we do it a part of ourselves whispers, ‘this is not wise.’
Judaism builds pauses in our lives: daily prayer, blessings and Shabbat. Such times enable us to cool our tempers, consider our paths and operate from insight rather than impulse. As Rabbi Luzzato teaches, there is more than one way to be a slave.
The Secret of Memory
A peculiar event marks the life of one of America’s greatest philosophers and writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was married only a year and a half when his wife, Ellen, died of tuberculosis. Thirteen months later, we have a cryptic entry in his journal: “I visited Ellen’s tomb and opened the coffin.”
He never tells us what he learned by this, and throughout the journals that he devotedly kept through his life, the incident is not mentioned again. But Emerson did carry one lesson with him that may have been influenced by peering into his wife’s grave. He wrote, “The first and last lesson of religion: the things that are seen are temporal; the things that are unseen are eternal.”
This was the preeminent teaching of Israel to a pagan and materialistic world: You may worship the products of human hands, or the visible forces of nature; you may mummify the dead, as if they live only when you can see them. But behind the tangible lies something infinitely greater. The revolutionary declaration of an ancient people became the accepted wisdom of the world.
The Secret of Memory
Renowned historian Yosef Haim Yerushalmi once noted that the Jewish people were the first in history who saw memory as a religious obligation. In his aptly titled book Zakhor, “Remember,” he traced the ways in which Jews recorded and reconstructed the events of their history.
The more we learn about memory the more we realize it is not a tape recorder; indeed we do not even use the same ‘storage systems’ for different kinds of memory. The way you recall breakfast is not the same as the way you recall a childhood incident, although it may seem the same. Scans of brains show different parts and patterns involved in different recollections.
For Jews the obligation is not to record what happened alone but to integrate the lessons of the event into our lives. We are enjoined to remember so that we will act differently than if we were ignorant of the past. To be a Jew is to bear witness even to events one has not personally seen; to remember that which we did not personally undergo; to change our lives because of the trauma and the triumph and the sanctity of those who came before us.
How did Abraham first come to God? The Torah does not say, although the Rabbis offer stories to explain.
One imagines that Abraham was like a man who spots a palace in flames. He cries out, “Is no one responsible for this palace?” From an upper window the owner peeks through to declare he is responsible. The palace has an owner.
Similarly, Abraham, seeing the world in flames, cried out “Is no one responsible for this world?” God came to Abraham in response to his cry.
The twist to this midrash is that the word for “in flames” is doleket. Doleket can also mean full of light. Perhaps Abraham saw the world as a blazing fire, or as a brilliant light; as a cauldron of injustice, or as a palette of beauty. Did he think so terrible a world must have a caretaker — or so magnificent a world must have a creator?
Do we come to God from tragedy or from joy? When we see the injustice and pain of the world or when we see its beauty and majesty? The midrash suggests that we do both.
As did our ancestor Abraham.