Truths You Can Use

Truths You Can Use

Does Your Faith Warm Only You? Or Does It Light Up the World?

I came across a wonderful teaching from a 18th century rabbi known as the “Kotzker Rebbe.” He taught,

“Some people wear their faith like an overcoat. It keeps them warm but does little for others. Others light a fire when they live their faith. It warms them and brings light to the world.”

fire

What This Veterans Day Means To Me

grandpa

This Veterans Day would have been a moving and important one for my grandfather. A proud veteran he served his country for six years during the Second World War and its aftermath. He made lifelong friends and gathered a treasure trove of stories that would entertain and inspire his seven grandchildren for hours on end.

For Jews, however, this Veterans Day is special. It falls the day after the 65th  anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. On this date in 1938 police offers, civilians and Nazi officials in Germany and Austria attacked Jewish homes and stores, murdering 91 people, burning down 1000 synagogues, and damaging or destroying 7000 stores.

30,000 Jews were also arrested and placed in forced labor camps. Many historians see this date is the world-war-ii-kristallnachtbeginning of what would become the Holocaust.

A Deeper Connection

The convergence of these two days made me look deeper at their interconnection. On a personal level, one gives meaning to the other. In other words, Kristallnacht helps explain why the Second World War mattered so deeply to my grandfather.

First, serving gave him a way to express gratitude to this country of freedom. His grandfather had fled anti-Jewish hatred in Poland for the New World of America. He came here penniless and ended up becoming a fruit salesman and raising his family in comfort and freedom.

My grandfather was 26 when the war broke out. As a young doctor he could have received a deferral to attend to the home front. Yet, he eagerly volunteered and spent two years overseas. He told me he simply could not do everything he could do defeat Hitler.

America was special. The new world of freedom, and Hitler represented all of the hatred he had fled.

To Help Those Left Behind

While my grandfather’s parents and grandparents had made it to America, other members of his family did not. They had remained in Europe, and probably lost their lives during the war. Enlisting in the Army was the closest he could get to rescuing them.

It was not only his family that was threatened. The entire Jewish people felt the destructive hatred of Nazi Germany. By the end of the war about one third of the world Jewish population had been murdered. His service was an expression, in part, of his commitment to the survival of the Jewish people.

The Greatest Generation

It also expressed a commitment to building a better world. The group of Americans who served during the Second World War is known as the “Greatest Generation.” They helped defeat Nazism and came home to build the strongest and most prosperous country the world has ever known.

In speaking at my grandfather’s funeral, I noticed his sense of pride in belonging to this group. Yet, he said its true heroes were those who died in its service. Let us remember to honor them, and celebrate the living legends who continue to lead and inspire us.

To get free weekly spiritual inspiration from Rabbi Moffic, click here. 

What Does Tom and Jerry Teach Us About Studying the Bible?

What TV show would you rather watch? Tom and Jerry or Sponge Bob? One show is virtually silent and consists primarily of a cat chasing around a mouse. The other is fast-paced, funny and well-animated.

tom and jerry

An easy choice? Absolutely. I would watch Tom and Jerry every time. And I would encourage my kids to do the same. Tom and Jerry makes us think. With its lack of constant dialogue, it forces us to imagine what each character is thinking.

Simplicity Begets Creativity

Its simple framework of cat chasing mouse forces the writers to come up with ever more creative ways of telling the same story. And getting the humor demands concentration. The gags usually build up to a crescendo.

Sponge Bob, on the other hand, can be watched mindlessly. Rarely do the scenes build on one another or demand we enter the characters’ heads. The rapid changes in setting make it difficult to concentrate.

Why We Need to Use Our Brains

Why am I sharing this comparison? Because it reminds us of what meaningful learning requires. It reminds us of the skills needed for studying the Bible. As people of faith, we should read texts and experience programs that enlarge the mind.

Texts like the Bible and stories like the Exodus from Egypt are not meant to entertain. They are meant to teach. They are meant to stir the imagination. Like Tom and Jerry, they proceed from a simple framework but illustrate deeper human truths.

In a society that celebrates the mindlessness of Sponge Bob, how do we read and study in a serious way?

1. Ask questions: The Bible is not only an instruction book meant to impart information. Yes, sometimes it does so. More often, however, the lessons and stories demand engagement. Asking why would God inflict the Ten Plagues  on Egypt is more important than knowing exactly what those plagues are.

2. Read commentary: Some denominations discourage reading biblical commentaries. They encourage an unadulterated encounter with the text. I vigorously disagree. While we need to choose commentary carefully, learning from the insights of others enriches our experience of the text.

Jewish creativity often came through the literary form of commentary. The edition of the Hebrew Bible studied in most schools places the original text in the center of the page, surrounded ancient and contemporary commentaries. Each page contains a conversation spanning thousands of years.

3. Look for yourself in the text: The Bible remains holy not only because it is the word of God. Its beauty and meaning lie in the truths it reveals about ourselves. Its story is our story.

We journey toward the Promised Land but often fail to make it. We stumble and fall and find strength in God’s promise. Like Adam and Eve we are not perfect, but we bring new life into the world.

The Talmud, an ancient compendium of Jewish law and wisdom, contains the following precept. “Turn the Torah over and over for everything is in it. Look into it, grow old and worn over it, and never move away from it, for you will find no better portion.” To that we can only say Amen.

How To Pay It Forward

payitforward

Last week I conducted a funeral service for the matriarch of a large family. Meeting with her children and grandchildren, I learned about the immense acts of kindness she did for so many. They spoke about the hundreds of calls they had been receiving, from her former hairdresser to long-forgotten work colleagues.

The family members said to me, “Isn’t it sad that she didn’t get to live to hear all these wonderful memories? Isn’t it too bad that she did not know what an impact she had on others?

“I understand your feeling,” I replied. “But this is the way life. We never know all of the consequences our actions may have.” Indeed, think about it. When we help another person, we do not know if and how they may repay it. We rarely know the way the little things we do may end up becoming big things.

What does this teach us? We need to grab every opportunity to perform an act of kindness. We never know what benefits it might bring.

Pay It Forward

The hit movie Pay It Forward proceeds on this premise. Each act of kindness is “paid forward” rather than repaid. In other words, we express gratitude to someone by doing a good deed for someone else. Our one act of kindness therefore creates dozens, hundreds and even thousands more.

Two thousand years ago the Jewish sages proposed this very idea. They wrote that the “one mitzvah—good deed–leads to another mitzvah.” They did not describe how it works. They did not try to prove it through any logical formula.

They simply held that as a matter of faith, no sacred act is for nought. Every act builds on the ones that came before it. Every sacred act brings us closer to the world as God intended it to be.

In the end, what we do shapes the way we are remembered. “The best portion” of our lives, as the great English poet William Wordsworth put it, are the “little, nameless unremembered acts of kindness and of love.” To that we can only say Amen.

 

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