Wonder’s nutriments

Moral infection troubles today’s world.  Our communication is crammed with callousness.  We fixate on the mental and emotional pathways of others.  What makes a neo-Nazi?  How are extremists born?  Another destabilizing week leaves our minds feeling sore.  How then can our spirits soar?

Life must be compatible with more than power.  It is also lived with wonder.  We turn not only to a power greater than ourselves, but to a mystery greater than ourselves.  Faced by mouthfuls of dust, it is time to feed on grandeur.

Any larger cause will do?  Not really.  Some larger causes can turn very dark.  If their offerings incite resentment, then they serve deceit’s greater glory.  But when a cause warms within us empathy and responsibility, then it is likely sponsored by and for righteousness.  Importantly, we need to earn our spiritual living as we earn our material living.

A biblical Jacob wrestles with his desire to be somebody else.  He has spent his life wanting to be Esau.  He was born grasping Esau’s heal.  He opportunistically obtained his birthright.  He deceptively gained his blessing.  In this week’s portion of Torah, a nightlong wrestling ordeal vanquishes Jacob’s urge to be who he is not.  “What is your name?” asks the one with whom he wrestles.  “Jacob” he replies (Gen 32:28).  Years earlier he had responded to the same question posed by his blind father Isaac, by identifying himself as Esau.  No longer.  Rather than spending the rest of his life grasping for Esau, he attaches himself to God, earning his new name Israel.

What comes from genuine self-attachment to God?  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel distinguishes between live thoughts and dead thoughts.  A dead thought is like a stone.  A live thought is like a seed.  When you plant a stone in the soil, nothing grows out of it.  But a live thought comes forth as a creative force.   A Jacob who used to be occupied with stones, now graciously fashions shelters (sukkot) in which to dwell (Gen. 33:17).

“In exposing our lives to God” Heschel teaches, “we discover the divine within ourselves and its accord with the divine beyond ourselves.”  As children of Israel, may our attachment to God yield verdant and fertile thoughts and deeds.

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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