I was chatting with my eldest granddaughter, whom I call # ONE, about life. What else? I said to her that there are very few things we can control in our lives. Events that come upon us, overwhelm us, frighten us. But here is one thing we can control, and that is how we respond to those events-especially the most hurtful.
There is one letter that can make the biggest difference in our lives. That letter is “e.” When we change the letter “i” in bitter to “e” in better, we have made the most important decision we can make for ourselves: we will not let suffering make us bitter. We will choose to be better for it.
One of the most important commandments given to us by God is to choose life.
“Today, I call heaven and earth to witness against you: I am offering you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19–20).
I understand that as consciously choosing to be a better person. To live a better life- a more ethical life- for myself and for those who come after. Judaism gives us the opportunity to try and also to fail with the understanding that “Choose life” means trying again. Choose life means finding the “better” not succumbing to the “bitter.”
We were given the blessing-for some it feels like a curse-of free will when Adam and Eve were removed from the Garden of Eden where everything had been done for them. They had to learn how to make decisions. They had to learn that they had to make decisions. As do we. We are not at the mercy of “God’s will,” where we throw our hands up in the air and say that all is decided for us. That is an excuse for stasis or worse. If, as a culture, we left everything up to God, we would never recover from floods or drought, volcanoes or earthquakes. We would never have had the courage to fly, to go to the moon and beyond searching the universe, and perhaps find God.
We decide how we will view our lives. We make that conscious decision because we can use our imagination, we can revisit the past. We can look back and embrace the memories that raise us up, lighten our burden, and envelop us with love. We can acknowledge anxiety, depression, anger, and hurt in our lives and make a conscious decision to change. We can envision the person we want to be and move towards that ideal. We can choose to repent, to forgive, to accept, to love. We can choose to embrace our imperfections and frailties, but we must at least accept our imperfections so we can truly believe that we are still lovable and loved—in spite of our frailties. Then we can embrace the imperfections of others, especially those we love.
Our feelings towards the past, present, and future are critical for the development of our soul and its relationship to God and the universe.
I read a commentary on the book Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) that changed my understanding of its message; this commentary speaks to choices in life. I had always pictured the author of Ecclesiastes, “the Preacher,” as an elderly man with unruly grey hair, sitting on his high back chair, cane in hand, pontificating on the futility and unfairness of life. I was left with a sense of sadness when I finished the book, because the Preacher seemed so bitter. And based on other explanations I have read, I thought this was the only way to read the book. But this interpretation gave me a whole new perspective.
The commentator wrote:
“The sad but gentle Preacher brings this advice to us: The enjoyment of life is itself God’s gift. Let us therefore enjoy every minute of life. We must know that for everything there is a proper time. Take advantage of youth, while we have it. And, above all, reverence God and keep His commandments.”
We must also come to know that life is God’s own gift to us, that we should remember that the days of our lives are few and that God approves of us being happy.
A long time ago I read a short essay by George Steiner about the Holocaust. I can’t remember the title but he wrote something that has stayed with me in the recesses of my memory because it is too painful to carry all the time. He wrote eloquently about the 6 million souls ripped from our people for no other reason than that they were Jewish, but he forces us to see the even greater devastation done to us. The loss of the future children of those 6 million. Those six million could not choose life for them and their seed.
The Holocaust led him to question having children. He questioned our right to bring Jewish children into an anti-Semitic world, Yet after every tragedy we do bring Jewish children into the world. We choose the better despite the unrelenting bitter.
In Messengers of God, Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, takes us on a journey through the trials and tribulations of Job. Wiesel is angry with the ending of the story: Job’s immediate surrender to God after God rebuked him. Why did Job not demand an answer from God for all the pain and suffering? What of justice for his children, taken from this life through no fault of their own? And yet, Job agreed to live, again.
As Wiesel points out:
“Therein lies God’s true victory: He forced Job to welcome happiness. After the catastrophe, Job lived happily in spite of himself.”
Kierkegaard wrote: “It takes moral courage to grieve; it takes religious courage to rejoice.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks took from that: “It is one of the most poignant facts about Judaism and the Jewish people that our history has been shot through with tragedy, yet Jews never lost the capacity to rejoice, to celebrate in the heart of darkness, to sing the Lord’s song even in a strange land.
Yom Kippur is upon us. A time for introspection. A time to begin, again. A time to choose. Will we be bitter children of God, or better?
Excerpts from this post come from the book “Back to the Ethic: Reclaiming Western Values”