Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Ethics, Hope amidst Despair and Justifying the Ways of God

Another terrific day at Hartman. We focused on different Jewish responses to crises past and present. In my elective class, on kabbalah and hasdism, we studied mystical passages teaching that imperfection has been built into the cosmic nature of the world since its origins; in an important sense, we are always responding to crisis, trying to bring healing. Three colleagues shared their favorite texts on hope—material from Torah to Talmud to Rainer Maria Rilke. Rabbi Donniel Hartman gave a brilliant shiur on Jewish ethics, reminding us that it is not enough to live by Jewish law—we are called to go above and beyond, to perform acts of mercy and kindness. As he put it, “To go beyond the measure of the law—this is the law!” And Micah Goodman wrestled with perhaps the toughest text in the Hebrew Scriptures, the book of Job, with its perpetually vexing question: “Why do good people suffer?” He offered some terrific insights, among them: Job is a story about growing up, about learning that the world is not fair; Job illustrates the principal of pluralism within the Hebrew Bible, as its message stridently contradicts the motif of reward and punishment that runs through so much of the rest of the biblical narrative; and while Job is about trying to justify the ways of God, a more “Jewish” response is to criticize God, and then take up the work of tikkun olam, of healing our broken world. Another teacher quoted Rabbi Harold Kushner on this question: “Asking the world to treat you well because you are good is like asking the bull not to charge you because you are a vegetarian.” Or, as the Talmud notes, “Suppose a man stole a measure of wheat and went and sowed it in the ground; it is right that it should not grow—but the world pursues its natural course.”

I was especially moved by a text from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, as presented by Rabbi Laurie Phillips. It speaks to the heart of all of our crises—personal, professional, and communal. Rebbe Nachman teaches that our challenge, in crisis, is to seek the positive—even if we can only find a tiny seed of goodness—and use it to transform ourselves and our world. Laurie read—and then sang—this text, and I felt a tear come to my eyes as I thought of how I have struggled with depression at times, and how Rebbe Nachman’s words offer hope and incentive to change. I will conclude with Rebbe Nachman’s teaching; feel free to comment if you would like:

Judge one and all generously, leaning strongly toward the good, even if you think they are as sinful as can be. Always look for that place, however small, where there is no sin (and everyone, after all, has such a place) And by telling them, by showing them, that this is who they are, we can help them change their lives. Even the person you think is completely rotten (and he agrees!)—how is it possible that at some time in his life he has not done some good deed, some mitzvah? Your job is to help him look for it, to seek it out, and then to judge him that way.

Then, indeed, you will “look at his place” and find that the wicked one is no longer there—not because she has died or disappeared, but because, with your help, she will no longer be in the place where you first saw her. By seeking out that goodness, you allowed her to change. You helped teshuvah take its course.

So now, my clever friend, now that you know how to treat the wicked and find some bit of good in them—now go and do it for yourself as well! You know what I have taught you: “Take great care, be happy always! Stay far, far away from sadness and depression.” I’ve said it to you more than once. I know what happens when you start examining yourself. “No goodness at all,” you find, “just full of sin.” Watch out for despair, my friend, which wants to push you down. That is why I said, “Now go do it for yourself as well.” You, too, must have done some good for someone, some time. Now go look for it, just the smallest bit: a dot of goodness.

That should be enough to give you back your life, to bring you back your joy. By seeking out that little bit, even in yourself, and judging yourself that way, you show yourself that this is who you are. You can change your whole life this way and bring yourself to teshuvah.

It’s that first little dot of goodness that’s the hardest one to find (or the hardest to admit you find!) The next ones will come a little easier, each one following another. And you know what? These little dots of goodness in yourself—after a while you will find that you can sing them! Join them one to another, and they become your niggun, your wordless melody. You fashion that niggun by rescuing your own good spirit from all that darkness and depression. The niggun brings you back to life—and then you can start to pray.

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