Lost Souls: Finding Hope In The Heart Of Darknessby Niles Elliot Goldstein
These days it is no longer just adolescents who feel that the universe is falling apart. In Lost Souls, Niles Goldstein writes of the chaos and fear so many of us experience in our public and private lives and makes it clear that we are not—nor have we ever been—alone in our angst. To illustrate the different stages we often encounter when we feel lost—whether the trigger for our disorientation and despair is the loss of a loved one or a job, or the result of an injury or depression—Goldstein interweaves contemporary stories of men and women he has met through his work as a rabbi and a law enforcement chaplain with those of biblical figures such as Cain, David and Bathsheba, Samson, Tamar, and several of the prophets. As in his last book, God at the Edge, Goldstein explores the “shadow” side of the human condition. His accounts are often disturbing, but his insights are always inspiring. What he brings us is a message of particular relevance today, namely, that a journey through the wilderness—be it emotional, existential, or geographical—is a transformative and strengthening process, even though it may not seem so at the time. In chronicling the stories of survivors who have traveled through perilous and at times unexplored territory, Goldstein not only shows us how to face the challenges of being human, he also delivers a promise of meaning, direction, and hope in our lives.
Author Biography: Niles Elliot Goldstein is the founding rabbi of The New Shul in Greenwich Village, New York. He lectures widely on Jewish mysticism and spirituality and has taught at New York University and the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. Goldstein is the national Jewish chaplain for the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and was the voice behind “Ask the Rabbi” on the Microsoft Network. His essays and poetry have appeared in Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, and many other publications, and he is the author or editor of five previous books, including God at the Edge: Searching for the Divine in Uncomfortable and Unexpected Places. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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Read an Excerpt
The sky puts on the darkening blue coat held for it by a row of ancient trees; you watch: and the lands grow distant in your sight, one journeying to heaven, one that falls; . . . and leave you (inexpressibly to unravel) your life, with its immensity and fear, so that, now bounded, now immeasurable, it is alternately stone in you and star.
Rainer Maria Rilke,"Evening"
The herd of caribou seemed to stand fifty feet tall at the shoulder, towering over the tundra like mammoths from a lost epoch. Behind it were the ragged mountains of the Brooks Range, their peaks dusted with snow from a recent storm and hammered as flat as anvils. And on the other side of the mountains, to the south, was the start of the North American continent, a vast, unbroken expanse teeming with rivers, forests, and wildlife.
I turned to face the north. The union of the midnight sun and arctic temperatures created the fata morgana, mirages that made objects even at a great distance appear enormous and exaggerated. Before me was the Beaufort Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean. At the horizon, looming like a gigantic white fortress, was the beginning of the polar ice cap, the very roof of the world. It seemed as if it were about to crash down on top of me.
I was standing on Icy Reef, a band of small islands almost three hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle that forms a fragile barrier between the Alaskan mainland and the frigid sea above it. The reef itself is just a strip of exposed rocks, gravel, and sand, no more than twenty yards in width and barely above the water line. There were logs all around me, spit out into the treeless region via river drainagesfrom the interior's boreal forests. Smoothed by the currents and bleached by the near-incessant sun, they blanketed the shore with what looked like shards of bone.
At certain points along the reef, not more than a mile or so separated what were in essence two radically different worlds. To the south was a panorama of color -- mountains, tundra, wild flowers, and animals on the mainland. To the north, nothing but the stark monochrome of the Arctic Ocean, dappled by jagged chunks of white ice that had broken off from the summer ice pack not far away. I could feel the powerful tension in these extreme contrasts. If I turned in one direction, I faced a great land bursting with vitality. If I shifted toward the other, I confronted a seemingly endless abyss of gray. It was as if, without flimsy Icy Reef standing guard between the two, these worlds would violently collide with each other, a cataclysm of south and north, earth and ice, movement and stasis that might set off a chain reaction that could destroy the entire cosmos.
It wasn't just a sensory overload -- it was an existential one, too. For me, the reef became a metaphor for the human condition. I may have been standing on a sliver of silt, but I also straddled the cradle and the grave. The overwhelming images and optical illusions brought me to the limits of my faculties of perception, but it was awareness of the paradox of my own existence -- a paradox that took concrete form in the environment surrounding me -- that carried me to the terminus of rational comprehension. I had reached the Borderline, the murky boundary between life and death.
I became confused, disoriented. A jumble of questions crammed my brain, queries that the sea and sky did not, or would not, answer:
Who am I?
What am I doing?
Where am I going?
As remote and inaccessible a location as Icy Reef was, I understood exactly where I was on the globe. What I no longer knew was my place in creation.
That feeling of being lost on the most basic level is one that seeps into all of us at some point in our lives. It transcends place and time, culture and history. Artists and thinkers have tried to capture this phenomenon, sometimes in moments of soul-searching and sometimes in bursts of inspiration. One of Gauguin's masterpieces is entitled Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? It is an enormous image of a kind of Polynesian Eden, filled with figures in various states and stages of life. It was painted, according to the artist, before he attempted suicide in 1897. The connection that Gauguin seemed to make between the often-disorienting nature of human life and nihilistic despair is clear.
Spiritual thinkers also ask the kinds of questions that can drive some of us to self-destruction. In one of the classic texts of rabbinic literature, The Sayings of the Fathers, we find the following: "Where have you come from? Where are you going? Before whom will you have to give an accounting?" The answers that Akavia ben Mahalalel offers are designed to lead us toward humility and away from sin, but the very fact that these unsettling questions are raised suggests how essential they are to our inner lives. Not only do we have a right to these questions -- we need them. To stretch our minds, expand our horizons, and enlarge our souls.
Many of the most important figures in the Bible ask themselves the wheres, whats, and whys of human existence. The triggers for their questions, and the roots of their bewilderment, are many and varied. Some people become lost as a result of their misdeeds, their straying from any sense of a moral compass. One of the great and tragic tales in the Torah involves Cain and Abel, the first two children of Adam and Eve. Before culture, before civilization, there was only the battle for subsistence. Cain, the first child, is a farmer, "a tiller of the ground." (Genesis 4:2) Abel is a shepherd. In a seminal act of religious expression, the brothers present offerings to God: Cain offers a gift of fruit, Abel the firstlings of his flock.
God rejects Cain's offering and accepts Abel's. Many contemporary readers of the Bible have been perplexed, even angered, by this episode. Why would God do such a thing? Why would the Creator of humanity set up a situation so pregnant with potential for jealousy and violence between siblings? For some commentators, the answer can be found in the story itself, when God says to Cain, "Why has your face fallen? If you act rightly, will it not be lifted up? But if you do not act rightly, sin crouches at the door, and you are that which it craves. Yet you may conquer it." (4:6:7) God seems to intuit the dark heart that lurks within creation's first son, the homicidal impulse that is about to erupt east of Eden.
At least, that is the standard explanation as to why God chooses the offering of one son over that of the other. And as an apology for Scripture, it works: Since Cain hasn't mastered his baser emotions, the rejection of his gift to the Almighty becomes his fault, not God's. Soon after this divine rejection, Cain exchanges words with Abel. We don't know what is said between them, but immediately afterward Cain murders his brother in a field. When God inquires into the whereabouts of Abel, Cain asks his infamous question: "Am I my brother's keeper?" (4:9)
Again, the standard interpretation of this question places full responsibility on Cain and completely exonerates God of any accountability. Cain's retort is usually viewed as sarcastic, implying that he understands all too well that what he did was wrong and that he is trying to hide his guilt. But there is another way to interpret this question, one that views it as an expression of genuine confusion. Perhaps Cain is really asking, Am I my brother's keeper? Far from being sarcastic, he is truly bewildered about his role in the world and the way he is supposed to relate to others, particularly to those in his own bloodline. This take on the classic story of sibling rivalry makes it much more complicated than it appears on the surface, and in some ways is more true to the human experience. With this reading, Cain does not break the moral code; he isn't even aware that there is one. His question is less an expression of sarcasm and defensiveness than one of heartfelt confusion, dismay, even pain. Cain is still a killer, a young man who veers out of control. But his heinous crime should be seen as the end result of a series of events in which God plays a role as well.
Most of us, it is probably reasonable to claim, agree that murder -- the killing of innocents -- is wrong. But what about all of the other, murkier moral dilemmas that arise in our lives? And what did people do before civilization, before the moral absolutes revealed at Mount Sinai? Does Cain lose his moral compass, or is he never given one? Is God as much at fault as Cain is? As all of us know, there are times in our lives when we feel lost in this way, in desperate need of divine guidance. God punishes Cain for his actions. The "tiller of the ground," a man rooted in his own land, is condemned to wander the earth. Rather than bringing life out of the soil, Cain deposits into it death and decay and will no longer reap its bounty. Yet even in the punishment there is a kernel of compassion. God places a mark on Cain to protect him from those who might seek his destruction. Is it out of guilt, or merely part of some mysterious master plan? In another twist of tragic irony, Abel, the nomadic herdsman, finds his permanent resting place -- much as the sedentary Cain has now been cast into an existential wilderness. Everything about this episode suggests tensions and ironies, perplexity and disarray. Though there is a moral order, as well as a personal responsibility we all share for others, it may be up to us to discern just what it is. And while redemption will come, it may not arrive until our long and circuitous journey into the night nears its conclusion.
Meet the Author
Niles Elliot Goldstein is the founding rabbi of The New Shul in Greenwich Village, New York. He lectures widely on Jewish mysticism and spirituality and has taught at New York University and the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. Goldstein is the national Jewish chaplain for the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and was the voice behind “Ask the Rabbi” on the Microsoft Network. His essays and poetry have appeared in Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, and many other publications, and he is the author or editor of five previous books, including God at the Edge: Searching for the Divine in Uncomfortable and Unexpected Places. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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