When I was 9, my father took me from Harrisburg, Pa., to Baltimore for my first live baseball game. The Orioles won, 6-2. (I remember that Elston Howard hit a home run for the Yankees.) We drove back home and I slept the entire way, shocked and muddled when we pulled up in front of the house.
The Book of Job is sunk in sorrow. It tells the troubling story of a man tested by every misfortune, including the egregious speeches of his friends, who manages nonetheless to keep faith. Job refuses to turn away from the God who has turned away from him.
Our ideas of God are expressed through metaphors. Since we cannot begin to know what God is, we try to imagine what God is like — a King, a rock, a father, a fortress, a protector. As we expand our images so we expand our conception of God.
When the Torah reading is completed in most synagogues, the scroll is held aloft and the congregation chants, “This is the Torah that Moses placed before the children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 4:44). Ashkenazim add “at the Lord’s bidding through Moses” (Numbers 9:23). In Sephardic synagogues, the scroll is generally raised before, not after, the reading.
The mystics speak of tzimtzum, withdrawal or contraction. God, who fills all, contracts into God’s self to allow space for the world to be created. Tzimtzum is a concept in theological physics, teaching what it means to limit oneself to enable creation.
The law of life is limitation. Our world is infinitely rich but our lives are not endless, so we have to decide what to cherish, what to discard, what to bypass, what to hold close. You can devote your life to a person, a cause, a craft, a quest, an institution, a dream, but you cannot do all at once. As Job says, “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle” (Job 7:6).
One way to judge priorities is to fast-forward: at the end of life, what would you be proud to have done? Writing a premature eulogy that turns into a life agenda is a useful exercise.
In Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” General Kutuzov exasperates his comrades by refusing to take action Napoleon. “Maneuver,” they urge him, “outflank, attack!” But the general, except for ordering an occasional retreat, insists on doing as close to nothing as he can. Napoleon, on the other hand, is a frenzy of activity. As a result, his supply lines are overextended, and the Russian winter devastates his army. Failing to lure the czar’s troops into a decisive confrontation, he is forced to withdraw, beaten, back to France. Tolstoy summarizes Kutuzov’s philosophy as “the less you do, the less you err.”
Moses says to the Israelites, “When you enter the land that I am giving you” (Numbers 15:2). Yet he is speaking to a generation that will not in fact enter the land. They will die in the desert. Rashi tells us that he is giving an assurance of eventual entrance, but what assurance can there be to those who will not live to see it?
Years ago I heard a story about the remarkable Ben Hecht, creator of the screwball comedy, writer extraordinaire, acrobat, violinist and passionate defender of Jews in World War II and Israel. When the state was founded, Hecht found himself in the office of a Jewish mogul raising money for Israel.