Harry Zeitlin
Grateful Every Day, Modeh Ani Lefanecha!

Distinguishing Between Good and Evil: Hakaret HaTov

Hodu L’ashem Ki Tov, Ki L’Olam Chasdo. Give thanks to God because He is Good, His Love Persists Forever (Tehillim 136).

One of the very few things we, with our limited minds and perceptions, can say about The Creator and His Purpose in Creation is that it is to bestow from His Goodness to one other than Himself. (Moshe Chaim Luzatto (Ramchal), Derech Hashem The Way Of God 1:1).

The unavoidable inference this generates is that everything is good, with those things which might appear evil exist only in the service of creating and revealing the good. Rather than some sort of Pollyana-ish sentimentality, this is actually the profoundest and most difficult concept to understand. But not only is it difficult to understand, it’s almost impossible for us, with our human eyes, living in an environment custom-created for our humanness, to even perceive.

The way you and I and everyone else usually experiences the world is that it is filled with challenges, disappointments, pain, abandonments. That, of course, is how we choose to read the moments which fill our lives. Living this way, we abandon our free will, our personal philosophies, our spiritual/moral and religious training to a sense of helplessness, victimhood and anarchy. Even happy events, moments of love, deep insights have surrendered their inherent positive qualities and take on the color of the fleeting moment. But not only do we not need to acquiesce, we’re refusing to accept the true nature of the universe in the attempt to be “neutral”, as if neutrality is the highest human aspiration.

The Gemara tells of Nachum Ish Gamzu, Nachum, the man of “Also this”….is good. Dismissed, perhaps, by modern scholars and apologists, Nachum was the teacher, the Rebbe of no less than Rabbi Akiva. Best known for his insight that the word Et, את, which really has no translated meaning, always implies the inclusion of something otherwise not mentioned. In other words, he saw behind the literal reality and realized that these Hebrew letters, Aleph Tav, the first and final letter of the Hebrew Alephbet, brought along with it everything from the beginning to the end, that an infinite world hides behind our apparently, or experienced, limited one (Breishit Bara Elokim Et HaShamayim v’Et Ha-Aretz God initially created Et the Heavens and Et the Earth–something beyond the physical universe was also created). Thus, no matter what appears to be the case, no matter how negative, painful, incomplete, seemingly bereft of God, is, indeed, the hidden doorway to the Good. Gamzu l’Tova, even this is good.

And, as the Ramchal among others point out again and again, the True Good is God Himself, Hodu L’ashem Ki Tov, Ki L’Olam Chasdo. Give thanks to God because He is Good, His Love Persists Forever.

This Pesach, opening in just a few hours in Jerusalem, is marked by restrictions, self-isolations and quarantines in response to the Corona Virus, certainly the most fearful danger faced by mankind in living memory. There are a plethora of advices and Torot how to deal with the opposite of what we’ve come to expect, joyous gatherings of family and friends. Many people fear the coming isolation, wonder how we can possibly overcome our sadness and sense of loss. Many, including many orthodoxly observant, will remotely share their seders with those from whom they are physically apart, using modern electronic technology/media, and perhaps this is a good solution for many.

I, perhaps unexpectedly for someone with the reputation of being The Gregarious Hermit, relish the prospect of tonight’s solo Seder. No, I have no idea and, really, no expectations other than the fact that it will be different from every other Seder I’ve ever participated in. But when I stop to consider one of the main themes of every Seder, every year, every place, circling the globe and going back millennia, Mah Nishtanah Ha-Lylah HaZeh MiKol Ha-Laylot, How is this night different from all other nights? There is, in fact, no template to rely on, to preprogram the experiences each of us, uniquely, will have.

Without the familiar to, too often, lull us into a stupor of pattern, we can not help but to be radically astonished by tonight’s Seder, by the emotions we will feel, yes, including loneliness and longing, but also with the insights surrounding us if we open our eyes and hearts. Perhaps, like many Chassidic teachings, we’ll be able to grasp our loneliness and transform it to our longing for deeper, more intimate relationship with The Infinite. And, as the Maharal from Prague, the sixteenth century Kabbalist and philosopher, points out, merging with the Infinite makes oneself infinite. The transition from slavery to Pharaoh, to become servants of the Infinite God transforms us from profoundly limited to exhilarated freedom.

I also embrace the brokenness because this, imperfection, is the one trait that every human (and every created being) has in common. It can unite us in empathy and love for all, making this a living experience of true freedom, of unlimited possibilities and opportunities, rather than a mere “commemoration” of being emancipated one, “long ago and far away”…..

Freed from our own expectations and prejudices, tonight’s Seder promises transformations previously undreamt.

Gamzu l’Tova, yes, even the travails and tragedy of our day will lead eventually (and perhaps we have more control of when it manifests by allowing ourselves to fully experience tonight) to Good, Hodu L’ashem Ki Tov, Ki L’Olam Chasdo, Praise to God Because His Loving Kindness is, indeed, Infinite.

About the Author
After almost 30 years, Harry Zeitlin returned home to Jerusalem! Growing up in Denver, CO, he began Torah studies at an early age. He also had the privilege of knowing and studying with Rabbi Shloime Twerski zt"l. He graduated from Yale College (BA 1974) with an independent degree in communications, theory-and-practice, focusing on filmmaking and linguistics. Harry had a 45+ year career as a professional artist (photography, to which he is just now returning!) and has played guitar for more than 50 years, in addition to his 30+ years as an orthodox rabbi teaching Torah across the denominational spectrum. He lived in Israel from 1982 - 1989 and returned in 2016. I'M BACK! Grateful every day! Follow his spiritual adventures. He is always available to speak, teach, present a Shabbaton or other workshop. ......or to serenade your group with his guitar.
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