December 20-21, 2002
16 Teves, 5763
NOTE: In place of my normal weekly Insights, I am posting this article
that I wrote for the Savannah Morning News (printed on Sunday, December
15th), in response to the question: DID G-D HAVE A BAD YEAR? The paper
contacted a couple of Christian leaders, as well as one practicing Muslim
(and myself representing the Jewish perspective), and our responses were
published on consecutive days. For those who didn't get to read the
article in the Savannah paper, here it is [unfortunately, or more likely,
fortunately, the monstrously large photo of yours truly that accompanied
the article is not being sent as an accompaniment!] HAVE A GOOD SHABBOS,
AND SEE YOU NEXT WEEK...AS WE BEGIN THE BOOK OF SHEMOS (EXODUS).
DID G-D HAVE A BAD YEAR?
It is not easy to read God’s mind, nor to speculate how He would have
characterized the events of the past year had He been asked by the
editors of the Savannah Morning News to submit an article! Even the Book
of Isaiah, written in an age of actual prophecy when the channels of
communication between God and man were free of static (and the reality of
the spiritual dimension was felt more palpably in this physical world),
cautions us humans rather sternly against trying to second-guess the
Almighty. "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My
ways, says the Lord. As high as the heavens over the earth, so are My ways
higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts." (55, 8-9)
So a little bit of (wholesome) humility is in order as we proceed to pass
judgment on what kind of year G-d had in 2002.
Having said that, I do believe it’s worthwhile to share with you certain
traditional Jewish insights on the meaning of life. Whatever the ultimate
view from Above, we human beings down here can perhaps utilize this
wisdom to achieve spiritual growth even in these admittedly difficult (and
Here are four rather immense Jewish perspectives on existence that have
some relevance to what we are experiencing in our society, and in the
world. (If you prefer something lighter, maybe you should turn to the
comics at this point!)
1. G-d fashioned man as the pinnacle of Creation, endowing him with an
ability to choose the path of good or of evil (free will), and with the
power to either elevate or debase himself (and all of Creation with him)
through his choices. 2. G-d created this universe with all the elements of
perfection in place, but gave mankind the (awesome) responsibility of
bringing this Creation to fruition. Judaism teaches, then, that man is (in
essence) a "partner" with G-d in completing the ultimate goals of
Creation. 3. All of the trials and tribulations we experience in this
world--and even evil itself--are a part of G-d’s ultimate plan, and
are designed to bring out in us the latent potential (and greatness) to
struggle even more heroically to choose good, and to carry out G-d’s will.
4. Ultimately, G-d will lead all mankind to its intended state of
perfection (the messianic age), utilizing in the process even the evil
that men choose in order to bring about His benevolent aims. However dark
things may look at any point in history, there is a master plan (and
Master Planner)…and the concealed light will eventually be revealed
in the course of time.
Let’s now step back--if you’re still with me--and try to distill from
these lofty philosophical points a few "practical pointers" that I hope we
can all use to cope more effectively with current events.
If there is an ultimate plan (as well as ultimate spiritual meaning to our
lives), then there is no cause for despair--which Judaism teaches
is among the most damaging human maladies of all. (How can we be the
happy, productive, growing human beings G-d wants if we are sunk in
hopelessness?) Throughout our own history, the Jewish people has learned
that periods of spiritual and physical darkness give way to periods of
light and divine revelation, that cruel persecutions are followed by
miraculous salvations. This, in fact, is one of the chief lessons of the
Chanukah holiday, during which we Jews remember the cruel decrees of the
Syrian-Greek rulers in the Land of Israel in the second century B.C.E.,
and celebrate G-d’s ultimate deliverance of His people.
If we are living in exceedingly dark times (and we are), then Judaism
would remind us that it is always darkest before the dawn. If we can
strive to keep our faith in G-d and the ultimate wisdom of His purposes,
then we will be worthy to see miraculous salvations. G-d will respond to
our faith by bringing a great light of redemption for all mankind--greater
by far than the darkness that preceded it. Until that time, though, we can
respond to the unleashing of powerful "forces of evil" in this world (as
epitomized by the September 11th attacks) not with despair, but with
redoubled efforts to unleash the forces of good and compassion in
ourselves, as expressed in our daily lives.
And if evil is a part of God’s Creation (as Isaiah taught us in Chapter
45: "I am the One Who forms light, and creates darkness; Who makes peace
and creates evil…"), then it shouldn’t surprise us to see its
manifestation (though it may never lose its power to horrify). We should
realize that it is central to our very task as human beings to work
tirelessly to uproot evil: both in society, and in our own individual
human personalities. We also must not be naďve about its destructive
purpose or potential, and we must fight back with appropriate physical
force when necessary--as in dealing with ruthless terrorists, who are
committed to their unholy path of indiscriminate violence.
We must also appreciate how these dark times (though not welcomed by us)
can ultimately bring out what is brightest, and most noble, in human
beings. It would be cruel to suggest that September 11th was somehow
spiritually "worth it" in the scheme of things, but it would also be
dishonest to deny that a new sense of brotherly spirit was powerfully felt
in this society in its aftermath. People’s sense of priorities changed,
they became more thoughtful and their appreciation of the divine image in
their fellow man noticeably increased. We all tried more assiduously to
look out for our neighbor, and to appreciate with more sincerity the
blessings we enjoy. More people attended their respective places of
worship, to commune with G-d and to find closeness in community. We have
seen evil in this past year, true, but have also seen much good born out
of it. Why should we not try to continue in this path of finding the light
in the darkness…or, put another way, responding to the darkness by
generating and radiating more spiritual light?
What happens to us in this world is, ultimately, in G-d’s hands.
And although as we said, Judaism teaches that the ultimate ending of the
human story is a happy one, the precise pathway in which that comes about
is a part of that profound divine thought-process that Isaiah cautioned us
against trying to penetrate. However, the way in which we people
respond to what happens to us is in our own hands, and is part of our
divinely bestowed gift of moral free will. This is what we should focus on
to the best of our ability.
I believe that one of the best (and most potent) responses we can make, in
addition to doing more kindness for our fellow man, is to increase our
efforts in prayer. Judaism teaches that one of the "hidden blessings" to
be found in our tribulations is precisely that they can lead us to seek a
greater closeness to G-d in prayer. True prayer is not the demand that G-d
do what we want, but the humbling experience of appreciating more deeply
how much we are dependent on Him for all the blessings in this
world--including security, peace of mind…and life itself. We elevate
ourselves, and all of God’s Creation, by using our power of free will to
choose the path of prayer.
If things are insecure in our world now, then we can respond by trying to
deepen through prayer our ultimate sense of security and trust in the
protection of G-d Himself (while, of course, never neglecting more
earthbound homeland security measures that are necessary).
Like King David, who turned even the darkest moments of his frequently
hazardous life into opportunities to connect to G-d (while, at the same
time, engaging in the appropriate practical, and military, initiatives
required by the moment), we too can convert even our physical insecurity
into greater spiritual strength.
In Psalm 27, we see how David transforms darkness into spiritual light,
inner fear into equanimity, and calamity into a call for G-d’s help in
realizing his ultimate quest in this world: to
grow closer to the Almighty, and more diligent
in following His ways.
"The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is my
life’s strength, whom shall I dread? When evildoers approach me to devour
my flesh; my tormentors and my foes against me—it is they who stumble and
fall. Though an army would besiege me, my heart would not fear; though war
would arise against me, in this I trust. One thing I asked of the Lord,
that alone shall I seek—that I dwell in the House of the Lord all the days
of my life, to behold the sweetness of the Lord and to contemplate in His
Sanctuary. Indeed, He will hide me in His shelter on the day of evil; He
will conceal me in the concealment of His tent, He will lift me upon a
rock…Teach me Your way, Lord; and lead me on the path of integrity,
because of my watchful foes…Hope to the Lord; strengthen yourself and He
will give you courage, and hope to the Lord."
In conclusion (and this itself is one of G-d’s kindnesses, that a
clergyman like myself will eventually conclude his sermons), whatever G-d’s
thoughts are about the events of the past year, I am confident that He
would be quite heartened if we would try to internalize these words of
King David as we face the coming year and its challenges. If we do, then
whatever G-d may send our way (and despite the evil some human beings will
choose), at least we will be spiritually fortified to handle it…and better
equipped to live up to our noble role of being partners with Him in
May it be a year of blessing, peace, and light for Savannah, for the
United States and for all of mankind.
My e-mail address is email@example.com
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