Truths You Can Use

Truths You Can Use

What Nelson Mandela Taught Us About Ourselves

In late June 1997 Rabbi Cyril Harris received an important phone call. As the chief rabbi of South Africa, Harris had been an outspoken supporter of the anti-apartheid movement. The phone call was from his long-time friend, Nelson Mandela.

Mandela called to ask Harris to keep an important secret. Mandela was getting married on July 18, his 80th birthday. The date was not yet public. Mandela told Harris he knew that the rabbi could not attend because it was the Jewish Sabbath. So, Mandela asked, would you be available to my home and the week before and give us a special blessing?

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Harris later noted this was one of many times in which Mandela displayed tremendous empathy and understanding. What drove this modern-day Moses? How could we withstand decades of imprisonment and emerge with a commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation.

Mandela’s Secret

Mandela’s secret, I believe, is that he knew and lived the truth expressed by philosopher Frederic Nietzche, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Mandela had a why. He lived to achieve a free and democratic South Africa. He would do whatever was necessary to achieve it. He suffered. He forgave. He negotiated. He challenged. He did not give up.

A Modern Moses

Mandela was like Moses not only in the way he led his people to freedom.  Just as Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s palace, Mandela came from an African royal family. Like Moses, who had to flee Egypt for the wilderness of Midian, Mandela was in exile from his people, imprisoned for 26 years on a remote Island. Like Moses, Mandela also faced internal tensions and struggle over his legacy.

Moses left us with a renewed religion and people. Mandela leaves us with hope and possibility. He leaves us an example of vision and conviction inspiring a people to change the world. His legacy is not esoteric. It is immensely practical and applicable to us all. Here are three examples:

1. Look for the best in everybody: Mandela writes in his autobiography about a vicious prison guard who turned to him as he left and, for the first time, treated him like a human being. The guard said to him, “I just want to wish you people good luck.” Mandela looked for the sincerity and humanity even in those who hurt him.

2. Be generous:  As a lawyer, Mandela helped his fellow prisoners—included the white ones who despised him—when he was on Robbin Island. He even helped the prison guards. Mandela knew giving knows no boundaries, and one who gives often receives even more.

3. Forgive: Any student of history know the cycle of violence. One group is persecuted. Then they gain power and inflict horrors on their former persecutors. That cycle threatens Syria at this very moment.

Mandela prevented it in South Africa. He had the vision and influence to create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that acknowledged the pain of apartheid while preparing a peaceful way forward.

It is one of the most remarkable projects of our time. And his was one of the most remarkable lives of our time. Nelson Mandela gave us insight into the best within ourselves.

May his memory be a blessing. 

To Inspire Yourself and Discover More, check out Rabbi Moffic’s free weekly digest of spiritual wisdom

Shop for Your Spirit on Cyber Monday

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A seeming paradox defines Thanksgiving weekend. On Thursday evening we express gratitude for everything we have. The follow days we rush out to buy what we do not yet have!

Be that as it may, some things we can buy can also nourish the spirit. Here are a few:

1. Books: Jews have been called “The People of the Book.” We believe that books reveal sacred truths that connect us with God and enhance the holiness of everyday life.

A couple of books to consider if you do not own them: God in Search of Man,  by Abraham Joshua Heschel, explores the experiences of awe and amazement by which God reaches out to human beings. “Indifference to the sublime wonders of living,” Heschel wrote, “is the root of sin.”

Another more recent book is The Great Partnership, by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Sacks, an Orthodox Rabbi, challenges the idea that science and religion inevitably clash and contradict each other.

He argues that the insights of each discipline can enrich the other.

2. Travel: Experiencing a different culture and landscape enhances our spiritual awareness. We see the way others relate to God and the universe, and begin to understand both the remarkable diversity and similarity between different faiths.

3. Experiences with friends and family: A focus on acquiring things–even the newest iPad or sports car–does not bring happiness. Rather, as numerous studies have illustrated, such a focus creates greater unhappiness. It constantly reminds us of what we do not yet have.

A focus on doing things with family and friends–a meal out or a visit to the beach–can create lasting happiness. They remind of us what we have rather than what we desire. They focus on what we share rather than what we lack.

4. Gifts for others: Paradoxically, when we spend money on others, we gain. Giving deepens relationships in a way that makes us happier in the long run.

Point in fact: As a rabbi I’ve noticed that students at my temple derive enormous satisfaction from the community service we ask them to do. They see how lucky they are, and find meaning in helping fellow human beings.

While getting presents is great, giving them away is even better.

To Inspire Yourself and Discover More, check out Rabbi Moffic’s free weekly digest of spiritual wisdom

 

Lighting Candles for One Another: A Thanksgiving and Hanukkah Message

Friends, I delivered the following sermon at a community interfaith Thanksgiving service. Wishing each of you a wonderful holiday, Rabbi Evan

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The greatest Rabbi of Jewish history was named Moses Maimonides. Maimonides wrote a classic work of Jewish philosophy known as the Guide to the Perplexed, as well as a book of Jewish law known as the Mishneh Torah, the Second Torah. In addition to his rabbinical duties, Maimonides was a renowned physician, caring for the Sultan Egypt.

As a doctor and rabbi, Maimonides saw the Bible through a scientific rational framework. He struggled to make sense of instances—like the parting of the Red Sea in the Book of Exodus, or the Talking Donkey in the Book of Numbers—that violated the laws of nature. His answer was that some of these supernatural events were built in—preprogrammed to use a computer term—into the world. God wrote them in the computer code of creation.

I Believe in Miracles

Yet, Maimonides did not give up on the idea of miracles. A miracle for Maimonides did not have to be supernatural. Miracles can be a part of everyday life. Miracles depend on perspective. He had early insight into an idea Albert Einstein later expressed:  “There are only two ways to look at the world. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

I would add: greater happiness and satisfaction come from the latter. How do we cultivate that perspective? How do we live so that we might proclaim, as did Rabbi Sobel in the text from psalms, “This is the Day God has chosen; let us rejoice and be glad in it?” Continue Reading This Post »

A Synagogue Remembers: 50 Years After the Death of JFK

A synagogue service after the death of JFK

A synagogue service after the death of JFK

Many people remember where they were 50 years ago. In Highland Park, Illinois, many came to Congregation Solel, where I am now the rabbi.

In memory of our late President, I ventured into our synagogue archives, and found the following, which I hope will move our hearts, minds and souls.

Death is a Mystery

“The death of President Kennedy is a turning point in your life and mine. We shall never be quite the same as we were before November 22nd, and we must not. No notion of ours is quite so secure, no hope so firm, no knowing so resolute…

The mystery is not resolved in time. That is the nature of a mystery. Problems are solved at last, even great scientific puzzles. But mysteries only deepen. The meaningless death of the young prince cannot be explained or explained away. It continues to be the religious fact that it was at first, more awful and more mysterious every day.”

–Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf

Words Are Not Enough

“Dear God, we know the words are not enough—but let our coming together in common grief to pray for John Kennedy, bring us to a new dimension, a dimension beyond ourselves.

Help us to continue to reach out to one another, and in so doing, come to that state of selflessness that is the truth of love… Free us, O God, from the prison of ourselves—and show us that this inner freedom will be an ecstasy of the spirit, a miracle of the soul. Teach us, that in our souls there lives the need to love.”

–Personal Prayer Delivered by Congregant Irving Hanig

May our late President’s memory always be for a blessing.

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