Some have argued that Jews are optimists and others that Jews are pessimists. I think Jews are struggelists.From the outset the Torah teaches that the world is not paradise. One afternoon in Eden is all we get and then we leave the womb to wail and walk. This is the eternal story; the very name of the Jewish people, Israel, means to struggle with God. Each generation is beset with challenges and both overcomes and succumbs.
Some have argued that Jews are optimists and others that Jews are pessimists. I think Jews are struggelists.
From the outset the Torah teaches that the world is not paradise. One afternoon in Eden is all we get and then we leave the womb to wail and walk. This is the eternal story; the very name of the Jewish people, Israel, means to struggle with God. Each generation is beset with challenges and both overcomes and succumbs.
My father’s father died when my father was 11. His mother was a widow at 34, and he — an only child — bore much of his grief alone. In accordance with traditional practice, he began to walk very early to synagogue each morning to say prayers in his father’s memory, a practice lasting for a year after a parent’s death.
The most famous tale spinner in the Jewish tradition was Rabbi Jacob Ben Ze’ev Kranz, the Maggid (storyteller) of Dubno, born in Setil, a town in the district of Vilna, in 1741. He was asked by his friend, the great scholar the Vilna Gaon, why he always answered questions with stories.
Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was a tortured soul with a brilliant mind. Although an unquestionably difficult person, he inspired love and loyalty among his disciples. And he could speak spiritual truths. Here are words of advice he offers to Maurice O’Connor Drury, a student who became a psychiatrist: “Look at your patients more closely as human beings in trouble and enjoy more the opportunity you have to say ‘good night’ to so many people. This alone is a gift from heaven which many people would envy you.
The Midrash teaches that when the Israelites left Egypt, God enveloped them in “clouds of glory.” When they wished for bread, God provided manna. When they craved meat, God sent quails. Once these wishes had been granted, the people began to doubt, saying, “Is God among us, or not?”
The point of the Midrash is that Israel could only feel God’s presence when they were receiving gifts. This is a common malady; many people pray for something and if they do not receive it assume that there is no God.
A favorite weapon in the world of scholarship is the review. Some of the sharpest words ever spoken by one scholar about another are offered not over claret in the sitting room but in the pages of learned journals where each can prove his or her essential superiority to the one who wrote the offending book.
Each Shabbat evening we turn toward the door during “Lecha Dodi” to greet the “Sabbath Bride.” This tradition harkens back to the hills of 16th-century Safed and reminds us that Judaism cherishes what we cannot see.