On Thanksgiving we are grateful for what we have and mindful of what others lack. It is a good time to ask — what do we really believe?
Some people believe in a God who grants good to the one who prays most or behaves best. Such people might wish to read the book of Job, or look out the window; they will discover that ease and anguish are unevenly distributed in this world and follow no discernible pattern of reward.
From Carl Jung: “If you do not acknowledge your yearning, then you do not follow yourself, but go on foreign ways that others have indicated to you. So you do not live your life but an alien one. But who should live your life if you do not live it? It is not only stupid to exchange your life for an alien one, but also a hypocritical game, because you can never really live the life of others, you can only pretend to do it, deceiving the other and yourself, since you can only live your own life.”
A boy asked his mother for another piece of cake. “No,” she answered. “You have already had three pieces.” The boy asked again, “Please, Mom, just one more piece — I promise, just one more.” Again his mother said no. The boy did not give up: “C’mon, just one more piece of cake — please, please!” Finally, the mother relented, “Ok, one last piece, but that’s it!” The boy smiled and said, “Honestly, Mom, you have no self-control.”
We go to the Internet for information. The range of reference at our fingertips is astonishing. We have too many places to get answers. But one reads, wrote Franz Kafka, to ask questions.
Where can a reader go for good questions? One place is the prayerbook. Early in the morning service is a series of powerful questions: “What are we?” “What is our life?” What is our righteousness?” At the outset of the service each morning we are invited to question the very fundamentals of our lives.
Our morning prayers offer a series of questions followed by a startling declaration: “The advantage of man over beast is nothing because all is vanity.” At first this seems to mean that since all die, human and beast, nothing really matters. But here are two other ways of understanding this statement, the second of which solves a difficult problem in the beginning of the Torah.
The Torah has been described in many ways: a love letter, a ketubah, one long poem, a mystic message of black-on-white fire, a compendium of law and story, a family diary, the foundation stone of Israel, a written assurance of God’s love. Turn it over and over, the Rabbis advise us, for everything is in it.
In this holiday season, when we recite Yizkor, Jews are particularly concerned with memory. We remember those who have touched our lives and those whose glow continues even after they are gone, as a star illuminates the earth after its destruction. We are stardust in both senses: in a literal, physical sense, and in the sense that we are the product of people’s influence, stars we knew and those we did not know, whose glow enlivens us.
Human gestures are almost always ambiguous. A man with hands raised toward the sky could be praying, cheering or the victim of a hold up. Without the context and the intention, one cannot know.
So what are we doing when we beat our chests in the confessional of Yom Kippur? Is it self-punishment, an attempt through a long day to keep ourselves awake akin to slapping one’s own face, or perhaps ritual theater?
‘What do you do,” Mr K. was asked, “if you love someone?” “I make a sketch of that person,” said Mr. K., “and make sure that one comes to resemble the other.” “Which? The sketch?” “No,” said Mr. K., “the person.”
Human attempts to peer into the future, to borrow a metaphor from philosopher J.L. Austin, are like a miner’s hat. A small area is illuminated in front of us so we can adjust our footing. Yet when we project far into the future, darkness reigns and the shadows deceive. The only way to know more of the future is to move forward; with each step the light advances and the next patch of ground becomes visible.