Making faith available

Cold-blooded killing of law enforcement personnel in Dallas.  Maddeningly reprehensible killing of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana by police officers.  Anger and bloodshed soak the streets of our cities.  Villains and victims become known with each passing day.  How can hope be credible?

“All the congregation of Israel complained the next day (memacharat) against Moses and Aaron” (Num. 17:6).  This is how the community responded the day after the rebellion of Korah is put down by Divine public condemnation.  The people rose the day after with rage in retaliation for the demise (Num. 16:32-34) of even those deserving punishment.  What puts a stop to this infernal escalation of anger and violence?  Not an earth-jolting reprimand, but a fragrant and gentle message.  “It was on the next day (memacharat) that Aaron’s staff had blossomed, blooming with a blossom that produced almonds” (Num. 17:23).  Calm is more available in the wake of Aaron’s blossoming (va-yatzeitz tzitz) staff.  We now look to the fringes of our garments (tzitzit) for help in addressing our society’s knottiest problems.

Last Shabbat we lost Elie Wiesel.  His voice and its message affected our world very much like the blossoming, almond-flowering staff of Aaron.  Deep memories and deserving tributes have honored his incomparable impact.  Once asked by a fellow writer whether he was surprised to receive the Nobel prize for Peace rather than for Literature, Wiesel said he didn’t mind because a goal of literature is to be an emissary of the spirit of humanity.  Another writer said, in considering Wiesel’s peerless capacity to render history into memory, “his writing challenged me to find a way to honor an experience rather than to exploit it.”  Wiesel’s words and works warmed faith.

For me, Elie Wiesel’s most faith-warming moment came back in the fall of 1997 when he published “A Prayer for the Days of Awe” in the New York Times. Fifty years of trauma and torment had begun to give way to a yearning for fresh faith.  “In my testimony I have written harsh words, burning words about your role” Wiesel conveys to God. “Master of the Universe. What hurt me more: your absence or your silence?” In the end, Wiesel’s longing for renewed connection to God had little to do with God’s deserving it.  To the contrary, anger and angst persisted.  Yet they were eclipsed by hunger and longing. “Let us make up: for the child in me, it is unbearable to be divorced from you so long.”

How can hope and faith be credible, perhaps by living in ways that keep them available.

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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