Truths You Can Use

Truths You Can Use

How Faith Changes the World

“Prayer,” Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “may not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city. But prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, rebuild a weakened will.”

These words reveal a profound truth. Faith is not about power. Faith is not about numbers. Faith is about the spirit.

A Counter-Voice

This view runs counter to so much in our deeply fractured politicized world. We look for solutions in politics. We look for salvation in the shopping mall. We look for meaning outside of ourselves.

The great religious traditions offer a counter-voice. They remind us of the gifts often obscured by the surrounding fog.

Indeed, religion does not always offer something new. It helps us see what we have failed to notice.

A fabulous parable illustrates this truth. I first heard it from the late writer David Foster Wallace. Two young fish are swimming in the water. They happen to meet an older fish swimming the opposite way. The older fish nods at them and says, “Morning boys, how’s the water?”

They say nothing and swim off. A few minutes later, one of them turns to the other and says, “What in the world is water?”

Water is the blessing of life. It is the knowledge that to be alive is a gift. It is the wisdom to give thanks; to keep our promises and commitments; to leave the world a better place for having been here.

It is the knowledge that faith changes the world through the hearts and hands of human beings.

How To Make Sense of the Colorado Massacre

colorado shootings grief

In Judaism human beings are not tainted by an original sin. We are born, as Rabbi David Wolpe puts it, with “an original split.” We arrive with dual tendencies. Capable of profound acts of goodness, we can also choose horrific acts of evil.

The purpose of religion is to harness the good. It is to guide us toward a more sacred form of living. It is to cultivate what the Jewish sages called the yetzer hatov, the good inclination.

But sometimes we lose. Sometimes the cruelest and basest parts of the human heart inflict horror on the world. When this happens, we can rarely offer any sensible explanation. Pain pierces our platitudes.

Grief is the Price of Knowledge

Perhaps the most we can say is that grief is the price of knowledge. To be human is to know loss, tragedy and wickedness.

Recognizing this truth does not make it easier to endure. We often fall back on possible connections. In the case of the murders in Colorado, we talk about the fact that the alleged suspect was a loner. We talk about the influence of celebrity culture. We talk about our country’s lack of serious gun control laws.

All of these observations may be true. Yet, they do not explain. They do not comfort. They do not bring hope.

Let Your Sorrows Become Windows

How, then, shall we respond? What do we do? Alexander Schindler, one of the great rabbis of the twentieth century, wrote that our lives are full of “unexpected blows,” and “we must gather our heartaches” so our “sorrows become windows.” In other words, let our life experiences become sources of empathy and caring. Let us grow in our sensitivity and love.

We cannot cure the pain of those who were injured or lost loved ones in Colorado. Yet, we can show our support with calls or letters or assistance. I have been particularly moved by the news stories about survivors of the Columbine gun massacre and the shootings at Virginia Tech University who have helped one another learn to survive and cope.

Do Not Delay Joy

Three days ago Roger Ebert wrote a profound essay in the New York Times. In it he referenced a blog post by Jessica Ghawi, a survivor of a mall shooting last month in Toronto. Minutes before the shooter entered, she had been sitting at the table where he fired from.

She wrote, “I was shown how fragile life was. I saw the terror on bystanders’ faces. I saw the victims of a senseless crime. I saw lives change. I was reminded that we don’t know when or where our time on Earth will end. When or where we will breathe our last breath.”

This same woman was murdered in the theater in Aurora, Colorado. As we grieve, let us cherish her memory and wisdom.

Those Who Forget the Past Are Condemned To Repeat It

munich olympics jewish

A Jewish wedding ceremony is deeply symbolic. Its most famous customs comes at the end. A glass is placed on the ground. The groom raises his foot and smashes it. Everybody yells mazal tov (Congratulations and Good Luck).

Various explanations have been given for this practice. Among the most common is the idea that the breaking of the glass recalls the destruction of the great Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. That event shattered Jewish history. It led to exile from the Promised Land and 2000 years of wandering.

When we break the glass, we remember that life is not always easy. Even at this most joyous moment–a wedding, a coming together for two people–we remember the past. It is part of who we are.

An Olympic Memorial

How I wish the International Olympic Committee could recognize this truth. The past month has seen a flurry of activities urging the committee to take one minute of silence to remember the 11 Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

That event changed the world. It turned a celebration of unity into a time of hatred and indifference. It was not only the murders that shocked the world. It was the symoblism. Munich was where Hitler got started. Germany was still living in the shadow of the Second World War. Jews were beginning to struggle with the memory of the Holocaust. Israel was on the brink of the Yom Kippur War.

The ramifications of Munich continue to this very day. The hundreds of millions of dollars in heightened security comes directly out of the environment of fear that began at Munich.

Consider the terrorists targetting of civilians that culminated in 9-11. That started in Munich. And consider the Israeli and now American policy of targetted assasinations of terrorists. That started after Munich. That tragic day looms in the background of our world.

Why, then, would the International Olympic Committee would refuse to dedicate a moment of silence to the athletes’ memory? I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt and not conclude that it’s antisemitism, external pressure or indifference. But it may well be.

The Power of Symbols

What I do know is that symoblism matters. Memory cannot change the past. Yet, it can shape the future. When we refuse to remember, we forget. When we try to deny the past, we often repeat it.

Memory can create hope. Memory can create change. And as the families of the Munich athletes can attest, memory can comfort and console.

As prepare for two weeks of international competition–of a coming together that honors the best in the human spirit–let us remember those who were murdered as they sought to honor that spirit. Perhaps you will find inspiration, as I do, in the prayer of memory by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:

Almighty God:
We, the members of this holy congregation,
Join our prayers to the prayers of others throughout the world,
In remembrance of the eleven Israeli athletes
Brutally murdered in an act of terrorism,
At the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich,
Because they were Israelis,
Because they were Jews.

At this time in the Jewish year,
When we remember the destructions of our holy Temples,
And the many tragedies that have befallen our people throughout history,
We mourn their loss
And continue to protest against those who hate our people.

We pray to You, O God:
Comfort the families and friends of the Israeli athletes who continue to grieve
And grant eternal life to those so cruelly robbed of life on earth.
Just as we are united in grief,
Help us stay united in hope.
As we comfort one another under the shadow of death,
Help us strengthen one another in honouring life.

The Olympic message is one of peace, of harmony and of unity,
Teach us, Almighty God, to bring reconciliation and respect between faiths,
As we pray for the peace of Israel,
And for the peace of the world.
May this be Your will and let us say: Amen

How to Discover the Meaning of Your Life

“The most important challenge is not learning how to live after death. It’s learning how to live after birth.” Steven Carr Reuben

meaning of life

Cats don’t ponder it. Elephants don’t wonder about it. People, however, fret it about it. Why are we here? What are we to do with our lives? We ask these questions of life in general, and of our lives in particular. We do not live by instinct. We live with questions.

And it is through asking certain questions that we can arrive at AN answer. It will be AN answer  (not THE ANSWER) because we differ from one another in skills, temperament, interests and backgrounds. Yet, the search for an answer unites us as human beings.

Discovery

Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote the classic text on this search, Man’s Search for Meaning. Dr. Frankl said that we do not decide the meaning of our life. Rather, we discover it.

“We discover meaning in life,” he writes, “by doing a deed; by experiencing a value; and by suffering.” These three are not indivisible. In fact, they often coincide.

A Life of Meaning

Consider the story of Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, an extraordinary leader who passed away a few years ago.

He was the President of Hebrew Union College, a Jewish seminary, for 25 years. Dr. Gottschalk told the story of how he grew up in Oberwessel, a small German town. He was eight years old when Nazi storm troopers burst into his school room and shouted for the Jewish students to leave.

Soon thereafter came Kristallnacht, “the night of broken glass.” Synagogues were destroyed and Torah scrolls burned.

The next morning, Dr. Gottschalk’s grandfather took him to the stream behind their desecrated synagogue to retrieve the torn fragments of the congregation’s Torah scroll. ““Alfred,”” his grandfather said, “Someday, you will put the pieces back together.””

In that moment, an eight-year-old boy found his purpose. He transformed an experience of suffering to a life of deeds grounded in service. (I am grateful to Rabbi Richard Block from whom I heard the story of Gottschalk’s life)

A Dream Not Yet Realized

We do not always need to suffer, as Gottschalk did, to find meaning. But we do need a yearning, an unfulfilled desire, a dream not yet achieved.

A story is told of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin, the leader of a famed 19th century seminary. As a boy he was an indifferent student. One day he decided to abandon his studies and enter a trade school. He announced the decision to his parents, who reluctantly acquiesced.

That night the young man had a dream.  In it an angel held a stack of beautiful books. Whose books are those, he asked. “They are yours,” the angel replied, “if you have the courage to write them.” That night changed the young man’s life. Reb Chayim was one the way to discovering who he was meant to become.

The meaning of our life is not waiting to be found. It is created by what we do.

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