In life the everyday mixes with the eternal. Is it holy to sit on a committee or sacred to oversee synagogue budgets? This problem disturbed the great English constitutionalist, Walter Bagehot. In a memorable passage he writes: “There seems to be an unalterable contradiction between the human mind and its employments. How can a soul be a merchant? What relation to an immortal being have the price of linseed, the fall of butter, the tare on tallow, the brokerage on hemp? Can an undying creature debit ‘petty expenses’ and charge for ‘carriage paid’?”
The great question of why God permits evil is usually treated in Judaism less as a “why” question than as a “what” question: Given the evil in the world, what do we do about it?
We can wonder about God’s role, but it is ultimately inscrutable. We cannot know. Imagine how little a 2-year-old understands an adult. He cannot even understand what he does not know. The Jewish tradition conceives of the gap between humans and God as far greater than that between an adult and an infant. So how, ultimately, can we understand?
The Rabbis of the Talmud valued work. Hillel was a woodchopper, Shammai the Elder was a builder, Abba Shaul was a gravedigger. Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon said: “Great is labor for it honors the workman.” Both sages would purposely carry burdens on their shoulders because they wanted their students to see that manual labor should be respected. Later Rabbis carried on the traditions in professions as well: Maimonides was a renowned doctor, Abravanel, a statesman and financier.
Historian David McCullough tells a story that Abigail Adams received a letter from her sister about her son, John Quincy Adams. It said he was a very impressive young man but that, alas, he seemed a little overly enamored with himself and his opinions and that this was not going over very well in town.
As we come to the darkest part of winter we light candles. Some might think this is about optimism. It is not. It is about hope.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us that “optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the faith that, together, we can make things better.” The Jewish people have long since lost the easy optimism that assumes the world is constantly improving. We have seen too much, and with saddened eyes understand how tragic the world can be.
Why does the Torah suddenly tell us of the death of Deborah, Rebecca’s childhood nurse (Genesis 35:8)? Deborah dies in the course of journeying with Jacob and Rebecca, and the family buries her at Beth El. We are told absolutely nothing else of her in the Torah. So perhaps the account of Deborah’s death is intended to teach us about Rebecca.
Last week I sat in three airports and could not escape the tinny, insistent sound of the television. It reminded me of one researcher who claimed that we are always dreaming, but because of the stimulus of the day, dreams can only peak through at night. The noise of the world shuts out our dreams.
Science favors the collective, the species. We are analyzed by groups, the behavior of crowds, evolutionary patterns, economic cycles. Swept up in the net of the social and natural sciences, the “I” seems to disappear.
Here the American and Jewish traditions join hands. A human being is a singular creation in the Bible. The first thing we are told about creation is that each person is in the image of God. When the great American poet Walt Whitman writes that he celebrates himself and sings himself, the accent is not only of the new world, but the biblical heritage.
A few weeks ago I had brain surgery to repair a breach that opened from brain surgery seven years ago. The experience gave me an insight into the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac (Gen. Ch. 22).
Commentators ask God how could have instructed Abraham to sacrifice his son, or why Abraham acquiesced. More rarely do we wonder about Isaac. Most assume that when Isaac survives he is traumatized and damaged. Some note that he and Abraham never speak again after this experience. How could he undergo such an ordeal and not be devastated?