Three years ago, on October 27, 2018, a white supremacist committed the deadliest attack on Jews in the United States, killing eleven worshippers at a Shabbat morning service in Pittsburgh.
That weekend, I was attending a Shabbaton [program of Jewish learning over the Sabbath] in Thornhill. Since I was staying with an Orthodox family, I did not use my phone during Shabbat. And so, like many in the Jewish community, I found out about the shooting once Shabbat ended.
My heart sank. I read a few articles before heading upstairs and I wasn’t going to mention the news to my hosts until they had seen it for themselves.
That weekend, I had experienced what it is to be guarded by the oasis of time that Shabbat had been for all of us. I recalled Heschel’s words: “The Sabbath is no time for personal anxiety or care, for any activity that might dampen the spirit of joy. The Sabbath is no time to remember sins, to confess, to repent or even to pray for relief or anything we might need. It is a day for praise, not for petitions.” How could we have avoided anxiety and petitions on that day had we not been observing Shabbat?
In his piece, “The Patient As A Person,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says:
Striving for personal success is a legitimate and wholesome ingredient of the person. The danger begins when personal success becomes a way of thinking, the supreme standard of all values. Success as the object of supreme and exclusive concern is both pernicious and demonic. Such passion knows no limit. According to my own medical theory, more people die of success than of cancer.
Heschel contends that “making money is expensive” and that “making money may cost us values that no money can buy.”
Today I came upon the Oath of Maimonides. Here is the short text written by the preeminent rabbi, physician, and philosopher of the medieval period:
The eternal providence has appointed me to watch over the life and health of Thy creatures. May the love for my art actuate me at all time; may neither avarice nor miserliness, nor thirst for glory or for a great reputation engage my mind; for the enemies of truth and philanthropy could easily deceive me and make me forgetful of my lofty aim of doing good to Thy children.
May I never see in the patient anything but a fellow creature in pain.
Grant me the strength, time and opportunity always to correct what I have acquired, always to extend its domain; for knowledge is immense and the spirit of man can extend indefinitely to enrich itself daily with new requirements.
Today he can discover his errors of yesterday and tomorrow he can obtain a new light on what he thinks himself sure of today. Oh, God, Thou has appointed me to watch over the life and death of Thy creatures; here am I ready for my vocation and now I turn unto my calling.
Even though it was published five years ago, I still remember this news article in my local paper in which an 89-year-old man describes his life at a retirement home.
It begins with this section on small talk:
Unlike soldiers, prisoners or students, we at the lodge are here voluntarily and with no objective other than to live. We don’t have a lot in common other than age (and means). However we are encrusted with 70 or 80 years of beliefs, traditions, habits, customs, opinions and prejudices. We are not about to shed any of them, so the concept of community is rather shadowy.
The common topics of conversation are the weather and the food, and since they both change every day, most of us never lack for conversation. For those contemplating a move to a lodge such as ours, it is wise to polish up their encrustations to make them as smooth and inoffensive as possible.
Thus we engage in the never-ending table talk with the minimum of disagreement.
Now I understand that the piece is intended to be a bit humorous in a certain way, but I haven’t been able to forget the grim picture painted in those short paragraphs.
By contrast, consider the aspirational vision that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gives us in his piece, “To Grow in Wisdom”:
There is a marvellous little essay called “To Grow in Wisdom” in Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence.
I love Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s writing so much.
It has that confident aphoristic quality to it that elicits attention.
Such is the case with his short essay entitled, “Death as Homecoming.”
Right at the beginning, Rabbi Heschel proposes that “in a way death is the test of the meaning of life. If death is devoid of meaning, then life is absurd. Life’s ultimate meaning remains obscure unless it is reflected upon in the face of death.”
Still, Heschel is keen to note that the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition do not stress “the problem of dying” so much as they stress “how to sanctify life.”
Recently, in a discussion about the military, a friend of mine recalled receiving a letter when he was 18 asking him whether he would like to join the military in Belgium. This Canadian friend of mine had a Belgian grandfather, but had never visited the country. “After I received the letter from Belgium, it did make me wonder why I never received such a letter from Canada,” he reflected.
The military is not on most Canadians’ minds, particularly because Canada has one of the lowest rates of per capita military involvement in the world. According to this Macleans article, “[looking at] military personnel per capita […] leaves Canada the fourth-lowest number, with 0.0018 per person. In this instance, Canada is only beaten by India, Brazil, and China, whose large armed forces are eclipsed by their giant populations.”
Canadians are blessed to live in such a peaceful country with the best neighbour on whom we can rely for cooperation on our security interests. However, the meagre percentage of our population that serves in the military bespeaks a weakness in our cultivation of civic responsibility and even of the value of a noble patriotism.
Today is both International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat. The coinciding of a solemn commemoration with a celebration of the trees and fruits of Israel makes me reflect on all the tenacious ways that new life is sometimes brought forth from barren situations.