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Truths You Can Use

the first step hard

Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. What he didn’t say that the first step is the hardest step.

Jewish wisdom teaches this in the story of a man named Nachshon. His story begins on the shores of the Red Sea. The Israelites are on their way out of Egypt. Pharaoh and his army, however, are in hot pursuit.

What can the Israelites do? They are trapped between a body of water they cannot cross, and an army of soldiers and chariots they cannot defeat. God has promised them a miracle. But none seem forthcoming.

Moses begs God to do something. God does not answer.

The Power of One

Then, so the legend goes, Nachshon steps forward. He walks right into the Red Sea. He keeps walking until the water reaches his eyes. At that point, God parts the waters, and the Israelites walk safely across the Sea and into the wilderness.

The Sea did not part until Nachshon walked into it. Nothing happened until someone took the first step. Nachshon knew the truth Dr. Martin Luther King would later put into words, “You just need to take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

Why is this step so difficult? Why was Nachshon the only one to step forward?

Wading Through Uncertainty

One reason is uncertainty. No one knew what lay ahead. No one knew what would happen next. That uncertainty not only paralyzed the Israelites. It can afflict us as well.

I think about people who stay in lousy jobs because they do not know what else they can do. I think of people who stay in abusive marriages because it’s all they know.

Slavery was all the Israelites knew. It’s all Nachshon knew. Yet, he took the first step. And we are here because of it.

His action leaves an enduring lesson for all of us. As Rabbi Will Berkovitz put it, “We have to be willing step into uncertainty. We have to be willing as Nachshon did at the Red Sea to keep wading deeper and deeper until we risk drowning. And then maybe the sea will split.”

To receive Rabbi Moffic’s weekly digest of Jewish wisdom, click here.

A Jewish wedding ceremony ends with an strange ritual. The groom lifts his foot up and breaks a wine glass.

Why? Because even at great times of joy, we recognize that brokenness is a part of life. 

In fact, we live more fully when we acknowledge and confront the imperfections, the challenges, the disappointments life presents to each of us. A wedding ceremony I performed a few years ago taught me this truth.  

wedding brokenness
The bride was an old friend. We hadn’t talked in years, but she called to tell me that she was engaged. They had a wedding date set for the following June. Would I be available to officiate? “Absolutely,” I replied.

“But, there’s more,” she said softly. “My mom is dying. She has pancreatic cancer. She insists we not change our plans for the big ceremony in June.”

“Could I come to her hospital room and perform a wedding ceremony.” Then her mom, she said,  “would have a chance to see me get married.”

I said yes. We set a date. When the time came, I went over to Northwestern Hospital. I wore my usual office attire:  a striped button down shirt, grey pants, loafers.

Life and Death

When I got to the hospital room, I realized quickly that I had made a significant fashion mishap. The bride stood outside the room in her wedding gown. The groom beamed next to her in a tuxedo. At least twenty-five friends in suits, ties, dresses, make up, crowded the hospital room.

They stood around the mom’s bed. A hospital worker had brought in an electric keyboard and began playing. Four men brought in a portable canopy covered in flowers. The bride and groom entered to music and song.

Overwhelmed with emotion, I had trouble beginning the ceremony. We succeeded, however, in getting through it. By the end, there was not a dry eye in the room. 

When the groom broke the glass, the applause bristled with a mixture of joy and sadness, hope and pain. We knew life had just given us a rare moment of beauty amidst tragedy.

About three weeks later the bride’s mom passed away.

How the Light Gets In

The bride did not have to do what she did. She could have remained angry at life, distancing herself from feelings of love and commitment because of what happened to the person she loved most dearly.

Many people do respond to tragedy in such way. They conclude, as Shakespeare put it, that life is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Why should we take life seriously when the more seriously we take it, the more likely it is to break out hearts?

Jewish tradition, however, offers us the opposite view. We take life seriously because it is uncertain. Life’s uncertainties make it all the more precious and valuable.

When a crack appears in the vessel of our lives, we need not let it shatter the whole thing. Rather, as the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen put it, “the cracks are how the light gets in.”

To receive Rabbi Moffic’s weekly digest of Jewish wisdom, click here.

how to be superhuman

At a conference I attended yesterday, writer Carrie Wilkerson shared a profound piece of wisdom. In discussing the hard work required for success, she said, “Don’t try to be superhuman. Be human and people will think you are super.”

She captured a profound truth. When we try to be something we are not, we fail. A superhuman is not human.

The secret, however, is that we can grow. We become our best when we are our best. In other words, we become superhuman when we are super at being human.

The Story of Zusya

Jewish tradition teaches this wisdom in a profound story. It is about a man named Zusya. He was successful, accomplished, and a pillar of his community. He was married, with children and grand children. 

He was also a man of faith. He prayed and studied, gave to to the poor, and volunteered for his community.

As he grew older, however, he began to have fears. He would lay awake at night. He would shiver. He occasionally withdrew and seemed depressed.

One day he was sitting with children and grandchildren. He grew fearful. They asked him what was wrong.

He said to them, “I am growing older. I will not be in this world much longer. And I am afraid.”

The Fear of Not Being Ourself

His children and grandchildren responded, “But papa, you have lived an extraordinary life. You worked, you gave, you build a wonderful family. 

You cared about our faith. You are the patriarch of our family. You followed the example of our ancestor Moses, who served God and the Jewish people.”

Zusya replied: “When I get to Heaven, they will not say, Zusya, why were not Moses? They’ll ask me, ‘Zusya, Why weren’t you Zusya.’”

The purpose of life is not to be someone we are not. It is to be the best at who we are. And that is our gift to the world.

To receive Rabbi Moffic’s weekly digest of Jewish wisdom, click here.

(This post was inspired by a podcast by Michael Hyatt, which focuses on physical steps can take get out of a funk. My focus is on the spiritual and psychological.)

how to beat the winter blues

Last week brought the full fury of winter down on many parts of the country. Snow and cold do not only shut down our schools and slow down our cars. They sap our spirits. They drain our energy.

Scientists call this condition seasonal affective disorder. We call it the winter blues. Here are few steps for dealing with it.

1. Change your perspective: Shakespeare once wrote that “There is nothing either good or bad but makes it so. We shape our reaction to the world.

Hard as it may sound, we can try to change our perspective and see winter as a time of excitement and wonder. We experience snow. We see variety. We can better appreciate a warm fire and hot cup of cocoa.

If every day felt like spring, spring would be nothing special.

2. Keep routines: During the winter, I find it harder to get up the morning and exercise or pray or meditate. It takes more effort to go out for a meal.

But if we keep up our regular routines, we maintain balance. They help us adapt.

3. Be social: It is tempting to hole up in the winter and go to work and come home and spend as little time outside of the house as possible. Bears hibernate. Why shouldn’t we? Resist the temptation.

Friendship and community bring us happiness wherever we are. The happiest countries in the world are not those in perfect climates. They are Denmark and Norway and Sweden. Happiness and satisfaction flow out of relationships, not the weather.

4. Envision the future: The Bible tells us that without vision, the people will perish. Without a vision of better weather, we can feel trapped by the winter blues.

We can, however, use this time to our advantage. Start planning a summer vacation. Start thinking about your children or grandchildren’s athletic season.

The Ring of Happiness

Jewish legend tells us that King Solomon wore a very special ring. He looked at it in times of despair. Inscribed on the rings were the words, “This, too, shall pass.”

To those of us walking slowly on the ice, brushing mounds of snow off our windshields and feeling down as we open the curtains in the morning, let us remember that this, too, shall pass.

To receive Rabbi Moffic’s weekly digest of Jewish wisdom, click here.

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