Why Be Jewish?by David J. Wolpe
"All beginnings require that you unlock new doors."--Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav
In this short and inspiring text, Rabbi David J. Wolpe addresses all who seek to enlarge the spiritual side of their lives. For those considering a return to the faith of their forebears, for those drawn to conversion, Why Be Jewish? is a learned, graceful, and welcoming/i>/p>
"All beginnings require that you unlock new doors."--Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav
In this short and inspiring text, Rabbi David J. Wolpe addresses all who seek to enlarge the spiritual side of their lives. For those considering a return to the faith of their forebears, for those drawn to conversion, Why Be Jewish? is a learned, graceful, and welcoming introduction beckoning readers into the heart of this venerable and enduring religion.
“A sensitive portrait of Judaism for those who wish to know more about faith, religion, and spirituality.” The Dallas Morning News
“A clear and welcoming primer.” Booklist
“David Wolpe has written a touching, loving tone poem about Judaism, capturing the melody of its central ideas, the feeling and the experience of living as a Jew, the ethical challenge of seeing the world Jewishly and acting it out in life.” Rabbi Irving Greenberg
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Why Be Jewish?
TO GROW IN SOUL
The human soul is the candle of God.
The Secret and the Mystery
Inside each of us is a secret searching for a mystery. The secret we carry is uniquely our own. We can share it with others, but we never lose it, like the candle whose light kindles a new flame without being itself diminished. We can hide our secret, hoard it, damp it down until it is almost extinguished, but we cannot fully destroy it.
The mystery is what to do with our secret. When we are young, the secret seems something both wonderful and trivial; we play at it, expand it, and dream that it will one day matter. But it is only as we grow older that we are captured by the force of the mystery: for the secret is our soul, and the mystery is how to tend it and help it grow.
The world blares at us. Each morning as we arise we hear the screech of the headlines, demanding our attention. This is what you must hear, think, give yourself to right now. Tomorrow the issue will be different, but it is never less than urgent, never less than loud. The melody of the self, a strain so thin and delicate, has little chance to be heard. Listening takes time and silence, and in the frantic noise we lose attunement.
One solution is to close out the world. Retreat, ignore the clatter of the street. But isolation is at best a temporary solution. The world is the stage of all drama. To be healthy, a soul has to care about other things and other souls beside itself and its source. If all we attend to is our own cultivation, we are listening not to the call of the soul but the tyranny of the ego.
To believe in our secret and tend it is a beginning. The spark of soul inside each of us is unique. Out of the billions who live, who have lived, no one has shared exactly our secret; no one will ever be as close to it or understand it as we do. To lose that in the surface turmoil of everyday life is a tragedy.
A soul is both a hearty and a fragile thing. So long as there is life in us it persists, yet it is easily chilled or silenced. The mystery is to find a way to live in a frantic and fast-paced world that does not do violence to our conscience, that does not stunt our souls.
Not long ago I sat on a porch in Jerusalem. It was early, and the sun had not yet risen. The city was still. The streetlights dotting the dark began to give way to the glow of the sun sprinkling pink on the Jerusalem stone with which the city is built. The moment was exquisitely quiet; I felt as though the sun, the city, and I were secret companions.
But the silence did not last. As the light stretched through the streets, striking windows and rooftops and doors, it began to coax people from their homes. Cars pulled onto the streets, and the sounds of the city, harsh and insistent, made the rose-glow silence of an hour before seem like a dream.
Yet the silence and the stones and the soft gleam of the sun were real, and indeed they still lay beneath the bustle of the city. I had seen them; I had been there. They left a gentle mark on my memory. The question for me that dayand in a different form every dayis whether I can retain that moment of magic as I go about my work, when the sun is bright, the stones are bleached from the heat of day, and all the harsh sounds of the city surround me.
That early-morning moment represents for me the time when I can hear the notes of my soul and feel its connection to its Source. But the world is not all dawns and evenings, and it will not keep quiet so thatwe can hear the rustling inside of us. The world will present challenges to distract or dissuade us from trusting that moment: the busyness of the day, the triviality and sensationalism that competes for our attention, the cynicism of others, and the sheer difficulty of moving attentively through life. In the clamor of the day, the secret seems a fantastic invention of the night.
What helps me to keep the Jerusalem dawn as the day moves onindeed what brings me to that city in the first placeis Judaism. Judaism is a life system that encourages spiritual awareness and moral passion. It forbids us to disregard the sometimes discordant music of the world but also teaches how to cultivate the song of the individual soul. It involves both the ardent thirst for the justice of the prophet and the quiet, early-morning meditation of the mystic. Judaism teaches souls to grow by paying attention to more than themselves alone.
Judaism is the mystery that the secret searches for.
The Start of the Journey
The Bible portrays the origin of Judaism in God's call to Abraham. Abraham is told to leave his childhood home, told to go "to the land that I will show you" (Gen. 12:1). The life he has known is overthrown inthat instant. Abraham has been fated to follow something grander and deeper.
God does not tell Abraham his destination, because the goal cannot make sense to someone who has not yet experienced the journey. Arrival is not the essence. The lesson that Abraham will pass on to his descendants is that the key to the journey is the journey.
The command to Abraham "Lech L'chah" (Go forth) is literally "Go, you." The Hebrew can also be read as "Go to you," that is, journey inside yourself. Moving through this world is always an expedition into the "you"into one's own soul. Abraham must be willing to leave the community that will not accept his changed spirit. But even more important, he must be willing to break with what has been inside of him until this moment.
In Abraham's time as in our own, most are content to skate along the surface of their lives. God's call in Judaism is a challenge to go deeper, which means a challenge to wrestle with difficulty. Abraham must stop looking back on the life that has been provided for him; he must change his focus and look forward to the life he is fashioning for those who will come after. He is no longer just an inheritor but a creator, not only a descendant but an ancestor, no longer a passive recipient of the ideals of others but an idol smasher. The moment that Abraham responded to God's call bysaying, "I am here," his soul burst out of the cage of convention and began its journey.
This is the model and the challenge for one who undertakes a truly Jewish journey. Quiet and complacency tempt one all along the way. But the call to depth is always there. "Go forth" has no endingnot in the world and not in the terrain of the individual soul.
Jews are called the children of Sarah and Abraham. That is not a statement of biology; it is a statement of destiny. But none can claim a destiny who will not journey.
Judaism's Central Teaching
Why is Abrahamor any human beingworthy of such a challenge?
Judaism's most important single teaching is that each human being is created in the image of God.
Historically this teaching was revolutionary. Until Judaism brought this idea to the world, different values were placed on the lives of different classes of people. Even into the Middle Ages, the wergeld (man-price) for a subject who was killed depended upon the victim's status. A serf was worth less than a landowner, and a murderer was penalized accordingly.But the Bible1 insists that the intrinsic value of each individual life is the same. God's image does not grow or diminish with income or social status. All of humanity is bound together. Judaism introduced the idea that all human beings are family, all children of the same eternal parent. Each soul bears a spark of the Divine.
What part of us reflects that Divine image? Is it in our reason, our speech, our eyes or smile? By image do we mean something physical or something spiritual?
The Divine image is the part of ourselves we cannot point to. It is not in your eyes or your reason or your sense of humor. It is what makes each of us unique, unmistakably and ineffably ourselvesunlike any other human being who has ever lived or who will ever live. It is what makes us equal, for we are all in God's image but different, for we are all unique reflections of that image.
The mystics speak of the spark of God that enters into each individual. As God is infinite, so the sparks are infinite. Each person carries his or her own spark. Therefore the central challenge in each life has nothingto do with appearance or intellect or energy or connections or wealth. The source of self-esteem and worth is not ultimately in talent or drive. The Divine spark is the decisive part of our essential nature. That spark can be fulfilled or betrayed, made monstrous or glorious.
To carry inside of us something of the Divine, to glow with embers of an eternal flame, seems too much for us to believe or to bear. So we often belittle it or toss it aside. We call it hubris to insist that we are important. We are no more than animals or collections of chemicals.
Samuel Johnson once wrote that behaving like a beast frees one from the pain of being a man. Similarly, to believe that we are nothing but a complex of chemicals frees us from the burden of being souls, of being partners with God in the betterment of the world. It would be easier to believe that we are accidental and our deeds inconsequential. Indifference takes no energy. But living as though one does not matter is to forsake one's soul.
Understanding how important we are is imperative, but it carries its own dangers. For at times we suffer from the opposite of indifference, and our arrogance carries us away. We imagine ourselves masters of all that exists and forget our own fragility and dependence.
But that arrogance is usually a disregard for the realsources of our stature and worth. In the biblical Book of Samuel, Saul is stripped of the Kingship of Israel. The reader might at first assume that it is because Saul has grown too arrogant. But Samuel, who has seen more deeply, sums up the true nature of Saul's sin: "Are you small in your own eyes? You are the King of Israel; and God has sent you on a journey" (I Sam. 15:7).
Each of us, bearing God's image, shares the predicament of Saul. It is a sin to be small in our own eyes, even if we cloak that smallness in a mantle of conceit. We are each sent on a journey. To make progress takes more than a stiff spine; it takes a searching soul.
Judaism teaches us how to balance. It reins in our arrogance; we are, after all, nothing beside the vastness of the world and the incomprehensible nature of the world's Creator. Judaism teaches us how to feel the awe, the stupefied silence that appropriately greets a glimpse of the power of the unfathomable.
But at the same time Judaism will not permit our posture to be simply one of kneeling. In the Book of Ezekiel, when God first approaches the overwhelmed prophet, God says, "Stand upon your feet, that I may speak to you" (Ezek. 2:1). Human beings bear God's image; we bow down in devotion, but we stand up in mission. To carry God's word and will into this world is not a trivial task and cannot be accomplished by remaining on our knees. Those who jeer at humanitybetray the most important thing about us: the sacredness of our obligation to ourselves, to each other, and to God. Though we are not always noble, our purpose is, and only by a combination of ego and effacement can we fulfill the proclamation of the prophet: "None shall hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain. And the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the sea" (Isa. 11:9).
What Is Spirituality?
What does it mean to be a spiritual person? Sometimes the idea is trivialized, and a spiritual person is thought of as one with a faraway look and a cryptic smile. But true spirituality is both more mundane and more mysterious.
Being spiritual cannot simply mean that we feel good or even exalted. It means more than enjoyment or celebration. Spirituality is a stirring in the depths. Spirit originates beneath the surface, though the surface experiences of life are often what enable us to explore more deeply.
One of the lessons of spirituality that Judaism teaches is that spirituality is not a solitary affair. True spirituality means a relationship with other human beings and with God. Spirituality is expressed in thebridges we forge with others from the center of ourselves. We come to a spiritual relationship by the deep and constant exploration of our own souls.
That exploration is not always smooth or easy. To be spiritual requires breakage. The Rabbis of the Talmud 2 teach that, unlike human beings, God loves broken vessels: those who are open enough, humble enough, to allow themselves to be cracked, hurt, and healed. If we are always shoring up our defenses inside, terrified of being touched, shrinking back, interpreting gestures of love as assaults, there is no place for another to enter. Openness is not only vital to human connection, it governs our relationship with the Divine as well. To be a spiritual person means to seek out others, including God, and to permit them to seek back. It means to pry oneself open, while knowing that vulnerability is not a constant condition; there will still be other times of hiding and even escape.
Spirituality reaches toward attunement with self and toward deep relationship with others and with God. Being spiritual means treasuring your secret but not locking it away, seeking always to grow in soul,and acting in a way that dignifies the specialness of being human.
Spirituality does not rest content with what our senses perceive. The invisible part of the world is alive to those who seek to see with an inner eye. The invisible reality permeates the material world; trying to separate the two is impossible. In the image of the poet Keats, it is like trying to unravel a rainbow.
The oldest and best-known homage to that invisible reality is Judaism's battle against idolatry. Judaism's constant struggle with idolatry reminds us how powerful are the images that we can see; so powerful that our ancestors often prayed to the forces of nature embodied in statues and stone. We are not free even today of the worship of the visible, the adoration of the material, the impulse to treat the products of our own hands as of ultimate importance. We see limited things, material things, as all significant. Spirituality is a constant striving to keep in mind the truth that the intangible is ultimate, that the moral world spins on the axis of what we cannot see.
Judaism is as ancient a system as exists for training our inner eye to perceive the intangible wonder of the world. Judaism makes the term spirituality really mean something, instructing us to develop our relationships and sharpen our senses and teaching us actions that deepen our souls.
Inside each soul there are chambers, and chamberswithin chambers. Most of us open the door to a few compartments of our soul and leave the rest undisturbed. Judaism impels us to keep looking and, in the process, to discover that as we open these chambers to ourselves, we are more open to God as well.
Spirituality is also concerned with shaping our actions and, through them, touching the tender part of our souls. As action and passion interact, we are slowly changed, moving closer and closer to the ideal of a true sage enunciated in the Talmudone whose inside and outside match. Spirituality means transforming oneself; a religious tradition is a system that teaches how and in what direction we should change.
A medieval Rabbi once explained prayer with a wonderful parable. When we pray, he said, we think we are changing God. Think of a man in a rowboat who is pulling himself to shore. To someone who did not know what was going on, it might appear that he was really pulling the shore closer to himself. Similarly, when we pray, it may appear that we are trying to pull God closer to us. But we are really pulling ourselves closer to God.
Judaism throws us the rope.
Science and Spirit
To believe in the potential goodness of human beings, to see them in God's image, to act with goodnessall of this reinforces Judaism's idea that we must seek to raise ourselves above the animal, appetite-driven part of ourselves and into the realm of spirit. If human beings are more than physical, if we are creatures of spirit as well, then cultivating spirit becomes our great task. In our scientific age, when we have learned so much about the nature of the world, we begin to believe that nothing that cannot be dissected or measured or seen can exist. Judaism recalls us to our deeper dignity; beyond science is sanctity. We cannot change the world and leave our souls untouched.
Science has revolutionized our lives, often dramatically for the better. It has taught us unprecedented and fascinating things. Yet it has costs. Sometimes intellectual achievements divert us from the center of our own beings. Science involves looking outward. The scientist must be separate from the object studied in order to gain intellectual mastery over it. Sanctity asks us to look within as well as without and to judge not by a scale of mastery but by a scale of reverence.
To make a commitment to the reality of the unseen is not to deride science. The Rabbis state that "the seal of God is truth" and an honest faith must be consistentwith what is true. To close our minds to evidence is to admit the weakness and narrowness of faith. True faith today, as ever, is supple and strong.
For all its power, science cannot be the meaning of our lives or tell us why to get up in the morning. Supreme at how questions, science does not answer why. That is the function of faith.
The human race has always battled with its own creativity. Technological inventions have been blessings, but they have also created mechanisms of destruction and annihilation. Without a belief in something deeper than the material workings of the world, humanity's fragile grip on goodness easily slips. All the blessings of our age will be vain if we permit science to strip us of soul. Human skill creates marvels; still, we cannot let the products of our hands divert us from the prompting of our hearts.
The Truth About Human Nature
Being in God's image is an ambiguous legacy. For although God may overflow with goodness, we imperfect reflections of God do not. We are struggling creations who seek to be better. We often fail. Falling into evil is so easy.
Judaism is powerfully focused upon goodness becauseto be good takes work. A simple exhortation to be good is not enough; both our history and the world as we find it today remind us that human beings have enormous appetites for cruelty and destructiveness.
Along with cruelty, however, we have strong impulses to goodness. Disentangling the good and the bad within us is perhaps impossible. In an instructive fable, the Rabbis of the Talmud imagine that one day the evil impulse in human beings was captured and bound. Suddenly, no one had children, built houses, or took initiative, for our drives are complex and interrelated. Ambition, sexuality, even envyall of them can be creative or calamitous.
Judaism sees human beings as the measure of all things. We have mixed within us the varied and contradictory characteristics of all creation. Judaism does not look on human beings as essentially sinful. Original sin, the view of classical Christianity since Paul and Augustine, seems to condemn us to lose the game before we begin. In this view, all human beings are born sinners, and only unearned grace can save them. In the Jewish tradition, each of us writes his or her own personal moral slate. We do not begin life with an unpayable debt. At each moment we make a moral choice. Our lives are the sum of our actions, tempered by our intention, limited by our endowments, ennobled by our faith.
It takes work for human society to be orderly, kind, and decent. More than impulse and inspiration, human society needs laws that regulate the complicated interaction of human beings. Our mixed nature, with inclinations to good and evil, needs careful monitoring and specific rules. Judaism is a tradition of law, for it is lawsometimes even when we do not feel like observing itthat preserves society and our own souls.
To be a creature of spirit does not mean casting off law. Spirit, like anything else, requires discipline and work. The master musician must spend agonizing hours practicing uninspiring hand exercises before taking up Brahms; one who would cultivate spirit must realize that discipline and law are the training ground for spirits that seek to climb. Law is the ladder on which an aspiring spirit ascends. Without law allied to our sense of sanctity, the human spirit is unmoored and dangerous.
Human beings are hybrid creaturespart angel, part brute. At any moment, we can turn in either direction. What makes being angelic so hard is that part of us will always be brute; what makes being brutish sotragic is that we are granted the possibility of being like angels.
The Challenge of Goodness
The first demand made of a Jew is goodness. Nothing else is more important, no command more central. Tied to the consciousness of God is the need to be good. A verse from the biblical Book of Leviticus reads: "You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Lord your God" (Lev. 19:10). Why is "I am the Lord your God" connected to the command? Because it is a consciousness of God in the world that lets us know that depriving the poor is wrong. We might be tempted to cruelty anyway. But something more than our momentary gain is at stake. The reminder of God's presence brings an awareness of something greater than ourselves, a hope for goodness, for sanctity. In that verse is a reminder that those whom we might seek to abuse are themselves reflections of God.
This philosophy of goodness was unique to Judaism. Before Sinai, people assumed that the gods cared only about sacrifice and prayer. They assumed the gods had the same attitude as selfish human beings,caring only for what could be done to them. In ancient civilizations, from those of the Near East to the Greeks and Romans, human beings were the playthings of the gods, to be used for their divine amusement. Judaism's originality lay in insisting that God cared even more for how we treated other human beings than for how we acted toward God.
Goodness is an acknowledgment of the Divine in another human being and of human fragility. Judaism urges us to sin against God before we would sin against another who is in God's image. God can bear our sin. We cannot injure God, but we can destroy each other. Our first task therefore is kindness toward those who are created in the Divine image: the poor, the stranger, the neighbor, and the friend.
The Torah cautions us about our behavior toward the stranger no less than thirty-six times, because it is often hardest to see God's image in one whom you do not know or understand. Again and again the people of Israel are reminded that they were strangers in the land of Egypt and so must treat the stranger with empathy and decency. Feeling the spark of God in one different from you is at the heart of the Jewish message.
At the root of proper human interaction is a consciousness of the Divine. "You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy ... do not deal falsely withone another" (Lev. 19:1,11). True piety toward God is decency toward God's creations. The first step to holiness is goodness.
After all the fierceness of human history, we have come to understand that being smart or creative or profound will not make one good. Devotees of literature and music and art have done terrible things to their fellow human beings in this world: the murderous commandants of Auschwitz went home and listened to Bach and Mozart. Philosophy alone will not produce goodness: does anyone suppose that professors of ethics are nicer people on average than professors of geology or physics? The only thing that produces goodness is a concentrated, sincere commitment to good acts. "In the beginning," wrote the poet Goethe, "was the deed."
Judaism emphasizes good deeds because nothing else can replace them. To love justice and decency, to hate cruelty and to thirst for righteousnessthat is the essence of the human task.
Pleasure and Desire
Why is it so hard to be good?
We are physical creatures with bodies and powerful desires. Religious traditions are often afraid of human appetites. They are afraid because human desire isso unpredictable. A considerate, kind man who for thirty years raised a family runs off with another woman. A caring, careful woman cannot stop herself from gambling away her savings. Why do people succumb to destructive and even vicious impulses? Why do people want things they should not have and pursue those things with such fervor? There are many reasons, some of which we know, some we have yet to discover. Even when we do know, the uncovering of a cause does not always yield solutions. The question for a tradition is not only why but, given our mandate to live together, what should we do?
Different traditions offer distinct answers. Centuries ago, the Buddha decided that desire makes us unhappy. If we did not want, we would not feel frustration and longing. Extinguish desire, destroy all attachment and wanting, and there will be no more unhappiness. He devoted himself to teaching his disciples how to want nothing.
Other traditions, acknowledging the persistence of desire, have tried to blunt or sublimate it. Some counsel minimizing sexuality, for example, or replacing sexual desire with hunger for God. Some made a religion of pleasure itself, counseling that all evil came not from pleasure but from restricting our hedonistic impulses.
Judaism took a different route (although individual Jews have tried all these strategies). One should tryneither to wipe out desire nor to redirect it entirely. Pleasure is permitted, even promoted. But Judaism also asks that it be disciplined and sanctified.
What does it mean to control pleasure? "Indulge yourself in all things permitted to you," says the Talmud. Do not shun love. Physical desire and pleasure are a great gift; they are both the pathway to and the expression of deeper intimacy. The very first commandment in the Bible is "be fruitful and multiply." The Jewish tradition does not celebrate the celibate life as an ideal. Like other pleasures, sexuality has the potential to be holy. Desire should not be destroyed; it is part of what makes us human. But our impulses cannot be indiscriminate. We have to channel their expression.
The Jewish encouragement of pleasure extends to almost all areas of life. No observant Jew could be like Mahatma Gandhi, who went on long fasts, sustaining himself on liquids for weeks or months at a time. On the Sabbath, every Jew is commanded to eat three good meals. Dining well is part of celebrating the Sabbath. Food, too, is a gift from God.
Everyone who has ever dieted knows that discipline is a difficult but ultimately rewarding path. The person who decides to eat nothing usually fails, even if the diet briefly succeeds. When we try to refrain from everything good and then do fall, we fall heavily. How often do those on a strict diet slip slightly andthen watch the whole regimen collapse? The calm, slow wisdom of moderation is the Jewish path. People are not all good or all bad; they are not all body or all soul; their appetites are not constant. A wise life is balanced. Balance has less sparkle than extremism, but balance endures.
The paradox of pleasure is that seeking too much of it brings pain. Gluttony does not multiply the pleasure of food; it destroys it. Controlling pleasure increases it. Judaism helps to channel us into pathways of growth that are steady and permanent. A wise life of spirit is lived in equilibrium. "There is a time," says the Book of Ecclesiastes, "for every purpose under heaven" (Eccl. 3:1).
The Jewish path means living richly and yet being one's own master. Judaism allows us to rejoice in this world, to sample its pleasures, without losing our spiritual center.
With its achievements and its anguish, the past is the scaffolding on which our lives are built. In redeeming the past, the future becomes charged with hope. Repentance is the mechanism for rebalancing lives that have been distorted by mistakes or by sin.
We may try to live a life of sanctity, but our owndecisions hinder us. Judaism takes our souls seriously, so it takes our sins seriously. Not every misdeed is a sin, but equally, not every sin is a "mistake." We are in God's image, and just as we celebrate the nobility of our virtues, we must acknowledge the gravity of our wrongs. There may be reasons for them; sometimes they are actions of appetite, sometimes reactions to our anxieties or to our past, but reasons do not erase responsibility. Even if we blame our past for what we feel, we can blame only ourselves for what we do.
Yet once a sin has been committed and a soul blackened, is there recourse? Words cannot be unspoken, nor deeds undone. Harm cannot always be repaired.
The heavy weight of misdeeds lies on every feeling heart. "There is no one so good that he never sins," says the Bible in Ecclesiastes (7:20). The certainty of sin is universal, and the possibility of repair unsure.
Judaism insists we can overcome the past. The Hebrew word teshuva means both "turning" and "answer." Turning from sins we have committed, we answer the persistent question of each soul: How can I change and unburden myself of my past?
Teshuva means acknowledging one's sin, regretting it, seeking to repair it, and resolving not to repeat it. We change the past by making our sins markers to a new place. Before we had "turned," our sins werestones on our souls. Now, having done teshuva, our transgressions become the catalyst for a renewed self. Each sin becomes a stepping-stone. The past is recast, because it leads to a new place.
To be a faithful Jew means to scour one's soul, seeking to force oneself deeper. Teshuva is a hard test; we must not only examine ourselves, we must ask forgiveness from those whom we have hurt. Without confronting those who have suffered by our sins, we cannot do teshuva. Repentance must move through us and into the hurt eyes of another human being. We may feel kind and good, but only interchange with others will show if our self-perception is accurate. Without the courage for that confrontation, teshuva remains incomplete.
"Though your sins be scarlet, they shall become white as snow" promises the prophet Isaiah (1:18). Sins themselves become transformed when they change our lives. Teshuva teaches how to integrate even our sins into the work of art each of us seeks to create from life.
We seek teshuva because in the Jewish tradition the aim of life is to grow in soul. That is why an old rabbinic saying asserts that a repentant sinner stands upon a height that not even the greatest tzaddik (righteous person) can reach. The growth that is required to acknowledge one's sin, to seek to repair it, and tochange one's ways is enormous and impressive. With each of those steps, the individual climbs higher and reaches toward holiness.
We sin for many reasonsfear, insensitivity, cruelty, a hunger for pleasure. But true teshuva comes not from fear or from the desire for pleasure but from something deeper. True teshuva comes from a wellspring of joy. That may sound strange considering the terror and worry and anguish that consciousness of our sins sometimes causes us. But the end of a soul aligned with itself, with others, and with God is a feeling of great joy. The reward of sin is immediate and obvious, otherwise we would not sin. The reward of teshuva is gradual but lasting.
Teshuva is the soul's homecoming in this world. The pain of sin has been transfigured to joy, and the past has become a path back to God.
Deeper than pleasure is joy. Joy is a satisfaction of the soul, a combination of gratitude, safety, and calm exultation. Growing in soul enables us to taste joy.
There are those who, knowing little of Judaism, believe it is a tradition of suffering, guilt, and unrelieved remorse. But constant mourning is the sign of an ailing soul, one that needs healing. Joy is the naturalcondition of a human being relating to the Creator of the universe. Judaism is not a tradition of tragedy, and all the dire events of Jewish history have not changed its core of joy.
"Worship God in gladness" writes the Psalmist (Ps. 100:2). That advice was echoed powerfully by the later Jewish tradition. Most of the prayers and songs of the Jewish tradition were written with joy and are offered up with hopeful and trusting hearts. Judaism has seen more than its share of calamity, and anyone could excuse generations of Jews if their world view was morose and pessimistic. Yet for all the expressions of pain and sorrow that exist in such abundance in the Jewish tradition, the prevailing view is found in the words of a talmudic Rabbi: "There is no sadness in the presence of God."
A Live Mind
A paradox of joy is that it cannot be had by seeking. One who schemes to be joyous ends up depressed and empty. But for human beings, happiness often results from a full and challenging use of the gifts we are given. In Judaism no gift is taken more seriously or exercised more strenuously than that of the human capacity for imagination and thought.
Judaism is a tradition with profound respect for thehuman mind. All religious traditions tell stories and legends about God, and these reflect their own scale of values. Judaism tells tales of God studying.
Jews are one quarter of 1 percent of the world population. Yet they make up almost 30 percent of the world's Nobel Prize winners. Such achievement is not bred in the genes. It is a product of centuries of insistence on the gift of the human mind. The great heroes of Jewish spirituality always include scholars and sages.
Made in the image of God, we are obligated to cultivate and not neglect the great gifts we are given. The human mind is first among the marvels of this world. From a small room, it can comprehend the constellations thousands of light-years away; it can make marks on a page that will inspire other minds centuries later; it can spin stories and create equations; it can plot and muse and hope and realize frenzied dreams. What person who understands the blessing he or she was given would ever disdain it?
Judaism also encourages study, because while the problems of life are new to each individual, they are not new to humanity as a whole. All the deep dilemmas we will face in our lives have been faced before, and others can help us understand how to meet them. For almost four thousand years the Jewish tradition has grappled with the most difficult questions of lifequestions of relationships, of families, ofillness and death, of dreams delayed and lives unfulfilled, of making success meaningful, of living with others, of living with loneliness. No human problem is new or alien to Judaism. Within its texts and teachings lie thousands of years of wise guidance.
Sometimes our answer may be different from those of our ancestors. Our world has changed in many ways. But human nature has not changed. Our tragedies and joys beat inside of us as they did in the hearts of those who went before. If we listen to their stories, our own paths can be made smoother and kinder.
Why do Jews place such value on study? Because in the Jewish tradition, God was revealed through words. We can glimpse God in other human beings, in the marvels of the world, and in the depths of one's own soul, but what shaped the history of Judaism was a book. Judaism is an astonishing testimony to the magical power of words, transmitted through generations, to alter lives and change history.
Shaping a Self
We are too arrogant and too humble. We pride ourselves on things for which we deserve no credit: our intellect, our appearance, our natural endowments.We arrogantly claim praise for gifts we were simply lucky to have received.
Yet we are too humble in dodging responsibility for our own behavior. We claim that our circumstances alone created us, but such insistence is almost always heard when we have done something wrong, not something praiseworthy. Do well, and it is our merit; fail, and curse fate.
"Everything," says the Talmud, "is in the hands of heaven except the awe of heaven." It is true: we do not create our circumstances in this world, but we do fashion our response. Each individual crafts the moral story of his or her life. The clay is given; the shape of the sculpture is ours. Against our will, notes the Talmud, we are born; against our will, we die. But the tale told within those brackets is not fated. Ability is inherited, but a self is formed from choice, from effort, and from faith.
More than anything else, we shape ourselves through our deeds. Most modern advice does not take realizing ourselves through deeds very seriously. We are besieged by books and lectures on how to make ourselves happy, rich, and self-realized. The authors promise great deeds will follow once we are properly attuned. Deed will follow enlightenment.
But focusing on the self alone can be spiritually deadening. To grow in soul is not only to plunge insideourselves. We do not always need to be filled up inside in order to give; sometimes it is in the act of giving that we are filled up. Spirit contradicts the laws of physics: in being expended, it grows greater.
Large spirits grow larger through love, and love is real only through deed. A love that is only feeling, that stays inside, becomes a solitary entanglement of soul. True love involves an expression of emotion, an outpouring of soul. For in focusing on others, we are returned to our deeper selves. Like all deep acts, love teaches us about ourselves in the process of caring for and serving the other.
Judaism does teach how to explore the self through prayer and meditation and introspection. But it is primarily a faith of deed. For the world needs more than our self-exploration. It needs our action. Sometimes it may seem that action takes away from a focus on our own souls, but at times the only true way to find ourselves is by not seeking.
Living as a Jew means being different, and being different takes courage. But there is no training for the soul that is as important and as bracing as a schooling in courage.
Taking faith seriously means that it will touch you and change your life. That is threatening, both to our own complacency and to the settled attitudes of those who know us. We are told our faith is not supposed to be "too serious." But religion that does not touch our lives is a hobby, not a faith. How can we take the ultimate questions of life lightly? Faith and fate and destiny need not be solemnfew traditions are as hospitable to humor as Judaismbut they are serious.
What if Judaism begins to seep into your soul? What will others think of you? The answer will vary, but some will be dismayed. Many will not understand. Some will respect your conviction and recognize the courage required to take a stand of enlightened faith in our age, in our land.
Whatever reactions you encounter, one conclusion is clear: it is a foolish life that is lived in the minds of others. The attempt to fine-tune the perception of others is draining and futile. Ultimately, inside our own souls we know if we have lived with courage or cowardice. Let others choose for themselves.
To live as a Jew is to cast your destiny with a numerically small people, a people that is no stranger to change or challenge or disdain. It is a people that has long realized that the opinion of others cannot always be relied upon and that ultimately only the bearer of a soul can know its secret workings.
If you live in this world and are not merely passing through it, you will have to listen to what stirs your soul. The journey itselfexhausting, exhilarating, and wondrouswill begin to enchant you, and courage will carry you past the objections of those who will not understand.
When God called to Abraham, Abraham responded with a single word, hineni"Here I am."
Copyright © 1995 by David J. Wolpe All rights reserved. Distributed in Canada by H. B. Fenn and Company Ltd.
Meet the Author
David J. Wolpe is widely known for his acclaimed books: Teaching Your Children About God, In Speech and In Silence, and The Healer of Shattered Hearts. Ordained in 1987, he is Assistant to the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
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