William Hamilton

Challenge and Response

“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps as much as a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it – but all that had gone before.” 

Jacob Riis’s words salute the belief that prior efforts aren’t wasted, they’re stored. It’s a vital life-lesson. It’s particularly important when we face resurgent problems. 

But this advice is less helpful when you’re reeling from a gut-punch from a new crisis. When the wind’s been knocked out of you. When the room is still spinning. Indeed, every new crisis feels like the final crisis. 

So what can help? First, you’ll need to catch your breath. Take the time, and collect the trusted friends you’ll need for this. It can’t be rushed. Regaining your emotional equilibrium has nothing to do with efficiency. 

You’ll then be well-served to look at an insight from this week’s portion of Torah. Moses reveals something profound for the first time: God wants to school us in challenge and response. “Throughout these forty years of wandering, hardships appeared to test you in order to refine your fortitude to do mitzvot” (Deut. 8:2). That is, God sought to train us to become better at responding to challenges. 

We need to be careful here. Lest this creep close to the odious notion that God only gives us what we can handle or tests, in particular, those who are most faithful. Both of these theories deserve forceful rejection. So why expose us to painful crucibles? 

Perhaps because God knew life would include them. That is, when lived fully, our lives include pain, stubborn impasses, and wrongs that make no sense. God doesn’t yearn to test us. God yearns to strengthen our responsive fiber, to build muscle memory for better containment of challenges with our responses. 

The crises don’t let up. And they always seem to show up when we’re already exhausted. Yet our loving-God sought to prepare and equip us to face them. 

This then is our People’s stonecutter legacy. In the days of the Torah, the challenges may have been co-signed by God. Ever since, our responses can be. May we look for the help of others and be ready to provide it whenever and however we can.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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