Shabbat VaYeshev: Do You Believe In Your Life?

Do you believe in your life? Enough to lose it?

The media reports that people are frightened. More and more, the ordinary activities of daily life seem to be places in which a mass shooting might occur. “When I drop off my child at school,” “when I go to the mall,” “when I am at work,” “when I go into a cafe to grab a coffee, I realize, it could happen there.”

An article describing the rising fear Americans feel about random gun violence goes on to consider ways we might cope with this anticipatory, more and more general fear.

“I think awareness of your own fears is the only way to go and to do the things that are soothing and comforting and distracting to do, and to do things that bring meaning to your life and bring comfort to other people,” said Dr. Sherry Katz-Bearnot, assistant clinical professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. “It’s what your grandmother said: Keep busy.” (“Fear in the Air, Americans Look Over Their Shoulders”)

Our Jewish ethical tradition holds that we can do better than that. We cannot just “stay busy” if our lives do not have value to us; busy nonsense does not calm the storm of existential terror. And we cannot simply stay in bed and pull the covers up over our heads.

We Americans are beginning to experience what other peoples in our world have already learned: there is no guaranteed safety. On any day, life may end for any one of us. We are accustomed to as, as an idle conversation starter, “what would you want to do if it were your last day?” But we do not live our lives that way, because it’s not possible. 

There is a different question we should be asking ourselves. In a world in which my choices might end with my death, do I believe in my choices enough to stake my life on them?

In Israel during the second intifada of 2001-2003, I witnessed the way people behave who are used to random violence in their everyday lives. Average Israelis, many of them opposed to the policies of their government that had caused the uprising, and had no necessary connection to politics, were aware that their daily choices were existential choices. Israeli social culture has evolved, over more time than just the last decades, a common awareness that life, itself, is not a supreme value, but a relative value, to be used to demonstrate one’s convictions about how life should be lived. Israelis do not stay home and cower; they live with a heightened awareness that where they live, how they live, will cost them their lives.

In America in these dark days, we are surrounded by random violence by the armed and angry, and heinous cowardice on the part of our elected officials. The choice to live as we wish and be safe is not now, if it ever was, available. Many of us average Americans have had no direct part in what makes the gun wielders angry, but we may be killed. 

Your life as you live it, with its commitments, expectations and desires, is going to require you to walk into a world of random violence today. Do you believe in what you are doing today, this and every day, enough to say “I may be cut down before I can finish, but I am building a meaningful life day by day”.

In our parashat hashavua for this week, people suffer and sometimes die, sometimes because of choices they have made and sometimes as a result of another’s whim. May our lot be with those who are privileged to be aware that our lives are made valuable by our conscious choices, and may we believe in our lives.

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Shabbat Bereshit: We’ll Keep the Light On

The earth was formless and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep (Bereshit 1:2)

First comes darkness, then light.  (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 77b)

At the beginning, there is darkness. This is not only true of the account of Creation as we find it in the Book we call Bereshit, known in English as “Genesis”. It is true of life, as well – our own, as we are conceived, and of much of the rest of Existence.

Darkness is a challenge to those of us life forms which depend upon our eyes to navigate. In the light, we orient ourselves by looking around; we judge our surroundings by visual cues; we can assess threat or safety at a distance, and signal the same. But in darkness we wander, disoriented, perhaps even lost. We seek to relieve it by finding a source of light, and the relief you have felt when you realized that the batteries were still good in the old flashlight is recognizable to us all.

These days of our lives are meant to be so full of joy, as we have just come through our Days of Awe, our fall Sukkot harvest festival, and our yearly blowout with our beloved Torah. But there is increased violence here at home; today there are reports of more than one random shooting in a public place. And there are terrible reports coming in from Israel, where one act of violence after another has led to speculation in Israel’s newspaper of note of a third Intifada. And there are other sadnesses: medical workers come under attack in a bombing raid. Refugees face indifference, and worse. A homeless man begs on a street corner near you.

Here is the real challenge to our lives and the way we live them: do we really believe that the things we do bring light to this world of ours, which so desperately needs it? Jewish tradition urges us not to underestimate the power of the choices we make, and the acts by which we are known. Every small spark of kindness can add to the light in this world by which we find our way out of this terrifying darkness. But the challenge is to stay focused upon the power of a small act, when one might give in to the impulse to believe that there’s no use, that it doesn’t matter.

On this Shabbat, consider your own morale and your purpose in the world. Do you perhaps wonder about whether you can really make a meaningful difference in the misery you see all around you? If so, remember this: your own personal ethics either stay with you under this kind of stress, or they need an upgrade. To turn away and say that there is nothing you can do is to misunderstand your purpose in the world. As another teacher put it:

“Let there be light” was the first statement in Creation, because “light” is the true purpose of existence. To bring light is our purpose: that each of us transform our situation and environment from darkness and negativity to light and goodness. Through the study of Torah and the fulfillment of mitzvot, we strengthen the light of creation. 

It’s getting darker. It’s getting colder. And this is when you need the most support for your own ethical choices and your confidence in them. Refuse to give in to cynicism. Get that free upgrade by lending your presence and getting strength from your religious community. This is the village that devotes itself to keeping the light on – through davening, study, and the kindness that can be shown only through social justice work.

Rabbi Hayim of Tzanz used to tell this parable: a man, wandering lost in the forest for several days, finally encountered another. He called out: brother, show me the way out of this forest! The other replied, but I too am lost. I can only tell you this: the ways I have tried lead nowhere. They have only led me astray. Take my hand, and let us search for the way together. Rabbi Hayim would add: so it is with us. When we go our separate ways, we may go astray. Let us join hands and look for the way together.