I know of many descriptions of the Jewish people: talented, beleaguered, stiff-necked, enduring — but rarely “joyous.” Most people don’t say — “Jews, now there is a happy people!” Our holidays reinforce this. On Pesach we celebrate leaving slavery — to go to a desert. On Purim we rejoice because we were not killed. Not exactly gleeful.
There are some colorful anecdotes about “helicopter parenting,” the practice of parental hovering to monitor children’s every movement. Colleges complain that when students matriculate, they are often lost — they don’t know how to budget their time, handle disappointment, cook their own meals, and even laundry defeats them.
When asked if he wanted the King of Rome one day to replace him, Napoleon declared, “Replace me? I could not replace myself! I am the child of circumstances.” That idea was dramatized by Stephen Vincent Benet in his story “A Curfew Tolls,” in which an Englishman residing on the Mediterranean coast of France meets a retired, frustrated French artillery major. It turns out to be Napoleon, born a few decades too early to conquer.
In Vasily Grossman’s vast, magisterial novel of World War II, “Life and Fate,” he pauses for a moment to speak of the power of music:
“People in camps, people in prisons, people who have escaped from prison, people going to their deaths, know the extraordinary power of music. No one else can experience music in quite the same way. What music resurrects in the soul of a man about to die is neither hope nor thought, but simply the blind, heart-breaking miracle of life itself.”
After the opening declaration of the Ten Commandments, “I am the Lord your God,” we get action. All the commandments mandate some behavior: keeping the Sabbath, honoring parents and so forth. Then comes the final commandment — “Do not covet.” This is not a behavioral prescription. How can the Torah tell us what to feel?
There are times it appears that to be successful one needs to be a harbinger of catastrophe. Optimism is the besetting sin; we like our Jeremiahs, our Cassandras, and we are forever opening Pandora’s box.
Moses was born into trouble, placed in a basket to save his life. Pharaoh’s daughter “beholds” the child crying; noting that she saw and did not hear him crying the Rabbis conclude that the baby cried silently. Moses learned early what it was to fight, to have to hide, to be scarred by the world.
From historian David McCullough: “Once upon a time in the dead of winter in the Dakota Territory, Theodore Roosevelt took off in a makeshift boat down the Little Missouri River in pursuit of a couple of thieves who had stolen his prized rowboat. After several days on the river, he caught up and got the draw on them with his trusty Winchester, at which point they surrendered. Then Roosevelt set off in a borrowed wagon to haul the thieves cross-country to justice.