Friday, April 9, 2010

Struggling with Grace

Is it possible to be a mensch all the time? Even as we strive to always do and be good, sometimes, despite our best intentions, grace eludes us.

There are moments in everyone's life when external forces cause us great pain and we seem not be able to rise above our feelings of hurt and anguish.

Rashi, the great Jewish Biblical commentator from the Middle Ages, suggests:

Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.

What does this mean? Shall we just go along to get along, as many would suggest? Shall we assume we have no ability to change what happens to us, so it is best not to challenge it? Perhaps the secret is in the grace implied by Rashi's statement.

If things happen for a reason, as people like to say, then our acceptance of life's twists and turns allows us to walk its path with dignity and grace. This doesn't preclude us from making an effort to change life's direction or circumstances, like pursuing an education or having a child. Yet, with each decision, an outcome emerges over which we may have no control. The die is cast; we live with the consequences. We can accept the results or we can fight them.

There's an inherent nihilism to this thinking. But this wasn't Rashi's intent. His was an exhortation to be graceful, to take what happens and find a way to live with it. To live in this fashion is to not be distracted by the dissent but to move forward; to use one's time and energy for good and not fight the fights we can't win.

To be accepting of one's lot in life: that is to be a mensch.

Is this truly possible? Can anyone do this? Can I?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Broken and The Whole

I've been thinking about the portion in the Torah we read last month that describes Moses' assent of Mt. Sinai. During this time, Moses is commanded by God to inscribe His Laws, The Ten Commandments, onto stone tablets. These will be the laws by which Moses will lead and teach the people.

After 40 days and nights, Moses descends the mountain with the tablets to find the Israelites have lost their faith during his long absence and are engaging in nefarious activity. Enraged, Moses impulsively throws and smashes the stones. This passionate display of his disappointment awakens shame in the people and they are remorseful.

So Moses returns to the mountain top and asks if he can see the Face of God. What does he seek? Is he looking for a reason to be doing this work? His anger too is something to be dealt with, and knowing God will not absolve him from it. Perhaps he is looking for reassurance. Yet, it is only the fleeting vision of God's back that is allowed his view and after another 40 days, Moses returns to the people with a new set of tablets.

It is so compelling that both the broken tablets and the second whole ones are ensconced in the Mishkan, the ark the Israelites carried through the desert. Why? Why did they bother to keep the first yet destroyed set? Why would they want something that reminds them of their indiscretions?

There are many explanations for this. One is that these are both sides of human beings: we are whole and we are broken; we do mitzvot, good deeds, and we make mistakes. It's an incredibly powerful, and humbling, statement. We carry all of who we are along the path of life.

Consider here the concept of Tikkun Olam, Repairing the World. Jews believe that the world was received broken, and while it is not our job to complete the work, we are commanded to make a difference, to do our small part to fix it. Maybe that means you help teach a child to read, or you make contributions to worthy causes, or your professional life entails helping people.

Striving to make the world a better place, one person, one mitzvot at a time, is a daily reminder of the broken and whole. Today we can help someone; tomorrow, it may be we who need the help. In the giving, we also become recipients, because as we improve the world, it becomes the world we all inhabit...during the whole and the broken times.