Simple Wisdom: The meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests, “Try reminding yourself from time to time: This is it. What happens next, what you choose to do, has to come out of your understanding of this moment.”
The future doesn’t just happen. Two people can witness the same event, yet respond in vastly different ways.
Consider the power this truth gives us. When Moses left Pharaoh’s palace and saw an Egyptian slavemaster beating a Hebrew slave, he could have turned his head and walked back inside. Instead, he challenged the Egyptian and defended the slave. His response transformed his future.
How Do We Respond?
What determines our response? We do. It is not pre-programmed. Computers run on scripts that define a response to a given parameter. Human beings, on the other hand, have the freedom to choose.
That freedom invites tremendous opportunity. It also presents great danger. A great Pogo cartoon strip has Pogo proclaiming, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” We block ourselves from success. We get in our own way.
When Moses Got in His Own Way
Moses taught us this truth as well. In the book of Numbers, the people complain to him that they are thirsty. Moses is frustrated at this latest example of the people’s ungratefulness and seeming lack of trust in him. He asks God what to do. God tells him to speak to a rock, and water would then pour forth from it.
As he is about to do so, Moses changes his mind. He alters his response. Instead of speaking to the rock, he hits it with his staff.
This may seem like a minor act of disobedience. Yet, it suggested to the people that Moses produced the water with his staff, not that God brought it forth with miraculous power. In other words, Moses took credit for a miracle, rather than visibly giving that credit to God. Moses let himself–his ego, his desire for adulation, his impatience–get in his own way.
The consequences are profound. Moses is no longer permitted to enter into the Promised Land. He would die on a mountain overlooking it.
Like Moses we have the freedom to shape the future. Judaism does not see as inherently tainted by any original sin. The challenge is to stop ourselves from obstructing ourselves. Or, as Rabbi Yitzhak Kirzner put it, “”All of life is a challenge of not being distracted from the greatness that we are.”
By Evan Moffic
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The eternal question of religion is why do bad things happen to good people. Hundreds of thousands of volumes have addressed the questions. We still yearn for a satisfying answer.
The horrific and highly-visible impact of Hurricane Sandy raises this question anew. How can we come to grips with thousands of homeless families, a couple killed while walking a dog, a woman electrocuted in front of a fallen transformer, and other horrors?
The Bible offers two main answers. I will add a third articulated most popularly by Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
1. We did something to deserve it
The notion of reward and punishment is intrinsic to the Bible. God rewards us for good and punishes us for evil.
In the book of Job, Job’s friends offer this approach most clearly when they suggest that he must have done something to deserve his horrific condition.
The one advantage of this approach is that it can spur self-examination. It can lead us to draw upon what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik calls reservoirs of “remedial energy.” We aim to fix something, even if we are not responsible for it. Consider parents whose child dies from a tragic illness, and who then decide to dedicate their lives to helping others suffering from it.
The problem with this approach is that it simply does not ring true. What did children murdered during the Holocaust do to “deserve” their fate? What did a random person hit by a car do to warrent such a punishment? What did their families do?
Religious leaders only make themselves look naive and simplistic when they try to establish moral causes for every human suffering. It offends our humanity to think in such a way.
2. God is a Mystery
God’s ways are mysterious and inscrutable. This approach is a variation on the first. It suggests that God has a reason for whatever happened, but we will never figure out what it is.
In the book of Job, God articulates this view when he tells Job to stop asking why he is suffering. He simply has no right to ask, because he was not there when God created the world. He is merely a human being, while God is the Sovereign of the Universe.
This approach can bring comfort to some, because it acknowledges that so much of what happens in the world is outside of our control. We are mere mortals who go, as Job puts it, “from dust to dust.”
While filling the heart, this approach can empty the mind. Why would God give us a conscience if we could not challenge or question what happens around us? We may never know all the answers, but we need not stop trying to find them.
3. God works through human hands
This view does not see God as all-powerful and all-knowing. God cannot supersede the laws of nature, and the laws of nature do not follow a logical or moral purpose. Hurricanes hurt good people. Illness does not discriminate between the righteous and wicked.
How then do respond? What role does God play? God becomes real when we act in Godly ways. When we comfort the sick, we express God’s caring. When we love each other, we illustrate God’s eternal love.
Harold Kushner put it well when he said that the core question of faith is not “Where is God?” Rather, it is “Where are we?”
David Wolpe tells the story of advice given to a student beginning advanced study Talmud. (The Talmud is a series of discussions by the leading rabbinic sages between 100-500 C.E.) If you happen to fall asleep during class and are called upon by the teacher to explain the lesson, he said, you can always rely on one answer: “The rabbis disagree.”
The Talmud is full of disagreements. Many are resolved. Some are left standing. All reflect a culture in which we use every part of the intellect to understand God’s word.
Doubt Strengthens Faith
In Judaism argument is holy. But it is not argument for the sake of argument. It is argument for the sake of truth. It is argument for the sake of figuring out what God requires of us. It is argument for the sake of realizing Paul Tillich’s insight that “Doubt is not the opposite of faith. It is a core element of faith.”
The value of sacred argument distinguishes Judaism in several ways. These ways can enrich seekers of all faith. They include
- Democracy: No one person or group has a monopoly on defining the truth. In other words, there is no Jewish Pope. Anyone with the appropriate knowledge and commitment can arrive at a new understanding of a text or law.
- Flexibility: Reasonable people can arrive at different conclusions. To remain viable, Jewish thought and practice had to make room for those different conclusions without dividing into irreparable tribes. It did so by remaining moslty unified on core issues of practice like how and when to observe holidays, while permitting great divergence on matters of belief and interpretation. In other words, unity in deed with diversity in creed.
- Civility: The sages learned early how to disagree without being disagreeable. The Book of Proverbs captures some of their thinking in its teaching: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger…. Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” What a powerful verse! The aim of argument is not to hurt your opponent. It is to find understanding and truth.
- Responsibility: We draw wisdom and inspiration from the past. Yet, we cannot rely on another person to tell us how to live. Each of us is born with a responsibility to think and to respond to God’s call with our own skills and insights. As the book of rabbinical wisdom, Ethics of the Sages puts it, “It is not your duty to complete the task. But neither are you free to desist from it.”
We have elections coming up in a week and a half. Why should we vote? Think about it: You are one person. Will your particular vote change the election?
Even in times when elections seem close, they are rarely are. A recent piece in the New York Times tells us, “The odds that your vote will actually affect the outcome of a given election are very, very, very slim.”
Should this truth dissuade us from voting? Absolutely not. It’s not my job to encourage us to vote one way or another. But I can teach, from the perspective of Jewish law and tradition, why voting is an obligation and responsibility.
The first reason comes from the Talmud. The Talmud compiles the teachings and debates of the rabbis between 100-500 C.E. One of their core teachings is dina d’malchuta dina, which means the law of the land is the law.
The Christian Gospels, by the way, drew from this teaching when they proclaimed the famous law, “Render unto Caeser what is Caeser’s, and unto God what is God’s.” We live by civic law. If we value the freedoms we enjoy, we need to participate in securing them. In other words, being a good citizen is a religious responsibility.
Religion is Public
The second reason is derived from the nature of Judaism itself. We often think religion dwells solely in the private realm. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said that “religion is what one does with his own solitude.”
But in Judaism (and in other faiths) religion also has a public dimension. It’s not something we do alone. It’s something we do with other people. Consider marriage. Even today, when religious commitment often seems to be waning, more than 80% of Americans choose to have a religious wedding ceremony.
Without seeking to impose them on others, we can also express our religious values in the policies and ideals and interests we support. Voting is the best way to do so.
You are Indispensable
The third and final reason requires a certain degree of faith. An old piece of Jewish wisdom says we should carry two slips of paper with us at all times. (Or, as one artist recently suggested, two stones)
On the first is written, “I am but dust and ashes.” The other says, “The world was created for my sake.”
They seem like opposites. The first says we do not matter. We are like a floating particle in the wind. The second says we matter more than anything else. We are the center of the universe.
Neither slip of paper expresses the whole truth. But taken together, they prescribe a beautiful sense of balance. If we thought exclusively in terms of “I am but dust and ashes,” we would do nothing. We would say: “My vote doesn’t matter. I’m just one person. Millions of others will vote.” In doing so, we would leave our civic life to the desires of others.
We need the counter-veiling voice: “The world was created for my sake. The future of this country depends on me. I need to vote.”
Not Taking Life for Granted
At its core, faith is about not taking life for granted. We recite blessings over food so that we remember how lucky we are to enjoy it. We celebrate major life cycle moments so we recognize how important relationships are to our happiness. Religion cultivate gratitude and responsibility.
Similarly, voting helps prevent us from taking our freedom, our country for granted. When we participate, we realize how critical we are. And we also recognize how blessed we are to live in this country of freedom, whose survival depends on us. To quote Abraham Lincoln, we vote so that “this government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”