The great 19th century psychologist William James had trouble getting out of bed one morning. Describing his struggle he wrote,
The warm couch feels too delicious, the cold outside too cruel, and resolution faints away and postpones itself again and again just as it seemed on the verge of bursting the resistance and passing over into the decisive act. Now how do we ever get up under such circumstances?
What eventually got him out of bed? “We suddenly find,” he writes, “that we have to get up.”
What sparks that feeling? It is not just the need to make a living and get to work. It is not even the sound of screaming kids or an alarm clock. These can assist in waking up, but they do not give us the critical push.
Are We Here To Be Depressed?
The critical push comes from a sense of purpose. It comes from a knowledge that what we do matters. That we have minds, hearts, hands to do something that affects the world. Lacking that sense of purpose leads to what Emile Durkheim called “anomie,” the feeling that nothing we do matters at all. Life becomes an ongoing depression.
The best way to find our purpose is to figure out what we believe in. Every part of us was created in a certain way for a certain reason. We are here for a purpose. We need to align ourselves with that purpose.
Whatever We Have Is Enough
Indeed, one of the morning prayers in Judaism thanks God for every part of our body. Every part of ourselves works to serve the purpose for which we live.
We say this prayer whatever condition we are in. It is not about the exact health of our bodies. It is about the way we look at ourselves. What can we do with what God has given us?
Beethoven, for example, couldn’t hear at the end of his life. Still, he gave us the ninth symphony, one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever conceived.
If We Are Alive, We Have a Purpose
As long as we are alive, we have a purpose. It is easy to become distracted from it. It is not always self-evident.
Writer and blogger Michael Hyatt tells the story of a conversation he had with a beloved pastor. The pastor had recently celebrated his 80th birthday. In the midst of their conversation, the pastor turned to Hyatt and asked him with a note of uncertainty in his voice, “Michael, do you think I have anything left to contribute? Are my best days over?”
Even if we are not 80, we can feel this way. Bruce Springstein sings of it in his song “Glory Days,” which tells of a man’s pining for the high school days when he was a great athlete. It was a time before divorce, difficulty and despair. The song echoes a feeling that our best days are behind us.
Miles To Go
When we have faith that we are here for a purpose, however, we know our best days lie ahead. If we are alive, we have not yet fulfilled it. If we have not yet fulfilled it, we have more work to do. Or, as Robert Frost famously put it, I have “Miles to go before I sleep. Miles to go before I sleep.”
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Protecting our planet is not just a scientific or political issue. It is a religious, spiritual imperative. We find this truth embodied in three core Jewish values.
1. The first is captured in the Hebrew phrase l’dor v’dor: the imperative that we pass on our earth “from generation to generation.” This imperative goes back all the way to Adam and Eve.
The Bible tells us that God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden to “till and tend.” The Hebrew words have specific connotations. The Hebrew word for “tend” is used Jewish law to imply a legal sense of guardianship.
In effect, God has made us trustees of the earth. Part of our obligation is to keep it in good condition for the benefit of future generations.
2. The second critical value is bal tashchit. In Hebrew that means “do not destroy.” It is a religious value that also goes back to the Bible.
In the book of Deuteronomy, the Israelites were specifically commanded not to destroy the fruit-bearing trees of an opposing city when in battle. The sages saw this law as an example of a broader imperative. They extended it to peacetime as well as war, other objects as well as trees.
The broader imperative is this: We don’t have a right to destroy anything of potential human benefit, even if it is our own property.
Why I Never Throw Anything Out
How might this work in our lives? Let’s say we are moving, and we have a usable table and chairs that we don’t really need any more. We might think we can dispose of it as we would wish.
Jewish law, however, tells us that we may not. We are obliged to seek its further usage—by giving it away or selling it—rather than destroying it. To destroy it would violate our role as stewards of what ultimately belongs not to us, but to God.
3. The final critical value is shomrei adamah, which means “guardians of the earth.” As human beings, we are endowed with great power. Unlike other animals, we can manipulate nature. This has enormous benefits: technology, buildings, civilization. But it also has dangers: war, pollution, disease.
With our enormous power comes significant responsibility. Foremost among them is sustaining our world. That means we have the responsibility to do what we can to conserve energy. That means we have the responsibility to speak out for laws that curb waste and pollution.
A Child Will Lead Us
In so many ways, our children are leading us in this area. I was amazed and inspired by a student at my synagogue. Compelling by this issue, she implemented a recycling program in her high-rise building.
It was an enormous undertaking. She had to get other residents on board, work with the management company, order recycling bins, coordinate the pick-up, and make sure it became self-sustaining. She did it.
Ultimately, a Jewish view of environmental responsibility demands action and humility. We know that the world is not wholly ours to bend to our will. Rather, it is something given to us in trust for future generations.
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Running the Boston Marathon is a dream of mine. It’s the nation’s oldest marathon, a symbol of endurance in the city of American freedom. Yesterday terrorists turned that symbol and city it into a day of desperation and death.
We know how to cope with tragedy. We survived 9/11. But that truth does not help us make sense of it.
Running a marathon is not easy. It demands certain qualities of character. Those same qualities can help us today. They give us perspective and coping tools for the days and weeks ahead. They include the following
1. Persistence: The strength to run a marathon does not come instantly. It develops through rigorous training day after day.
We have to persist in living. It’s a lesson Israelis, who today celebrate 65 years of independence, know well. Life demands caution and awareness, to be sure, but not abandoning the race. Even when we feel like quitting, we persist in living. We persist in our daily routines.
2. Replenishment: Runners need to stop for water. Their bodies demand it.
As runners in life, we need time to grieve. We need to replenish ourselves with friends, family, and prayer. The explosion struck not only Boston. They reverberate even here in Israel.
Before we head back with persistence, let us take time to replenish. Our heart and souls need the nourishment.
3. Endurance: A sprint is different than a marathon. A sprint requires a burst of energy. A marathon requires pacing, careful breathing and focus. So does coping with tragedy.
4. Hope: A favorite Hasidic story always brings me comfort in times of tragedy: Rabbi Nachman of Braslov told it two hundred years ago.
He once saw a man whose house had burned down. The man had been crying terribly about his losses.
Now he began looking through the rubble, finding bits and pieces of wood or metal to start rebuilding. One by one he made a pile of pieces.
Rabbi Nachman said, “See how he is collecting pieces to rebuild. So it is with our spiritual lives. Even when we think there is no hope, we are already collecting pieces to rebuild.”
God will give all of us–the victims and their families, and all who mourn with them–the strength to pick up the pieces and rebuild.
Rabbi Moffic’s New Book, Wisdom for People of All Faiths, is available now.
The standard Jewish toast is L’Chayim, to life! Yet, during its last 65 years, the Jewish state of Israel has experienced a disproportinate share of death. 25,578 people have died as a result of war and terrorism.
This fact headlines the newspapers today in Israel. It is Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day, where fallen soldiers are remembered in ceremonies around the country.
What is Unique About Israel
This day in itself is nothing unusual. Most countries have a Memorial Day. Yet, as we the sun sets on Memorial Day, the country begins Independence Day! Streets fill with people preparing to watch fireworks and celebrate their freedom and independence in a sovereign nation.
Why the rapid transition? Is it psychologically healthy? Shouldn’t we have room to mourn our losses before celebrating our victories?
The rapid shift proclaims an audacious message. Only when we acknowledge death can we fully appreciate gift of life. Remembering our loved ones reminds us of the imperative to live.
The Courage to Rejoice
In this regard, Jewish tradition echoes beautiful words of playwright Thorton Wilder, “All that we can know about those we have loved and lost is that they would wish us to remember them with a more intensified realization of their reality. What is essential does not die but clarifies. The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude.”
In other words, we remember by living. Our lives proclaim the faith that those we loved live on through us. Or, as Kierkegaard put it, “It requires moral courage to grieve; it requires religious courage to rejoice.”