Harry Zeitlin
Harry Zeitlin
Grateful Every Day, Modeh Ani Lefanecha!

Rejecting Enlightened Cynicism

This was originally written a couple weeks ago for Parshat Re’eh. Its relevance isn’t time-bound:

Facing all the challenges of today’s round of Covid, perhaps yet another lockdown in Israel, finally revealed to be planned for the Jewish Holidays because that has the least financial impact on the economy, in the middle of a heat wave that just won’t quit–it’s been weeks since the daily high in Jerusalem was below 90 (33 Celcius), it’s the easiest thing in the world to throw our hands up in despair. The climate is irreparable and we’ll soon become extinct. The world will no longer be able to support the Human species. The Environment has permanently changed to the point that we can no longer survive. And if that isn’t enough, Covid will kill us all within the next couple years. And all of our religious mumbo-jumbo will go for naught, if we’re even given a chance to replay our Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur rituals anyhow (at least here in Israel, supposedly the epicenter and “power center” of all our rites and customs.

It seems that suicidal depression or chaotic depravity might be the only reasonable responses a thinking person might have left. Even the Frum  knee-jerk refrain of Do More Mitzvas seems empty, at best.

What all these responses share is the fallacy that we are able to even fathom the reality of The Creator and that the limits of our imaginations actually limit His Reality. Ishbitz offers a completely different way of approaching all of this.

The Mei HaShiloach, illuminating Parshat Re’ah, begins quoting the first few words of the parsha, “Look! (Pay attention to what’s before your eyes, look at this unavoidable truth) I place before you today Blessing and Curse”. He goes on to explain that everything, הכל, HaKol, the inclusive every thing, is from God. In other words, there is no other source for anything that exists or occurs in the universe. Think about that for a moment.

He continues to point out a very telling behavioral/psychological truth. Hard-wired into our very beings, the very nature of humanity is reflex to cry and shout, זעוק וצעוק, za-ok v’tza-ok to God about what He made, in our times of pain. But when He showers only good upon us, we plaster טח tach our eyes shut rather than to see (and admit) that God brought that into our lives. Rather, we, lamely, declare that whatever good there is in the world is a product of our very own work and effort. Indeed, it seems we’re pre-programed to view the world with “Eyes Wide Shut”.

Furthermore, he goes on to explain that whenever God brings Good, Bracha, blessing, to man, he disguises it “to deceive the eye” in order to appear the very opposite of Good. This is in order to enlist our participation, to enable us to transform what originally appears to be a curse into what is truly a blessing, Bracha. In other words, God Creates, but leaves it in our hands how everything is going to manifest. Perhaps the most ennobling project mankind as a whole, and each person individually, can embark on is to read everything that comes into our lives, no matter how challenging, how initially disastrous and evil, rather as an opportunity to transform bad into good (in the words of medieval non-Jewish Cabbala, to transform lead into gold). It’s well known in our tradition that the darkest dark merely conceals (temporarily) the brightest light.

When faced with seeming disasters, especially when on the scale we seem to now experience, it’s equally wrong to lose ourselves to despair as it is to pollyanna-ishly deny the threat and danger, but rather to take the moment that God gives to us and places us in as the most sublime challenge. This will allow us to underestand the otherwise baffling halacha that we’re commanded to bless the bad that happens to us, exactly the same as the good that comes our way. Because all is directly from God, Hodu l’Shem ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo, Give thanks and praise to God because he is Good, because his loving-kindness is eternal.

At some time in the future, may it be not too far away, when we look back at the challenges facing us today, and they are, indeed, mighty challenges (including climate-based disasters, impending nuclear weapons let loose among evil people, new and frightening pandemics, urban violence throughout the United States and much of Western Europe, and more, not to mention famine and plague which even in the “enlightened” twenty-first century which effect billions of our fellow humans), we’ll also be able to look back and see how we transformed every single apparent curse into untold blessings.

For that is why were created. To partner with The Creator by bringing this world to perfection. In fact, it’s only through these urgent challenges that we put our hand in and take up our true work.

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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