On the First Night of Hanukkah this year, I had the great joy of being Jerusalem and, more specifically, in the vibrant neighbourhood of Nachlaot.
I joined some friends outdoors, warm beverages in hand, and we sat outdoors enjoying the light of the hanukkiah. Throughout Jerusalem, there is a big emphasis on publicizing the miracle of Hanukkah, as has always been the aim but as has not always been the possibility on the holiday.
After some time, we began a stroll throughout the neighbourhood. Every few doors, we came upon families lighting their hanukkiot, saying the blessings, singing songs and playing instruments, serving soup and latkes to their neighbours, and enjoying being in the Jewish homeland.
Before anyone close to me had died, my early reflection on death took place most routinely sitting on gymnasium floors during Remembrance Day assemblies on November 11th each year.
I even remembering colouring pages with poppies on them in Grade 1.
These early experiences stirred my imagination in gradual and subtle ways.
As I got older, the school assemblies became more intense. Parents of soldiers who had graduated from my high school came and spoke to us about the wars in which they had died.
Anyone who has ever loved someone who experienced profound vulnerability and dependency knows that people have dignity not only for what they can do but simply, and fundamentally, for who they are.
“Quality of life” is not an individual assessment but a community’s responsibility.
I recently came across these words of Rabbi Dr. Yitzchok Breitowitz who says:
The concept of quality of life, per se, is not a relevant idea because any life is worthy of sustaining because there are purposes for a soul to be in the body that we don’t always perceive. Sometimes the purpose of a soul in the body is not because of what the body can do – even if it’s comatose – but the body enables other people to do mitzvos [good deeds] such as pray, give charity, and the like. So sometimes, the purpose of your life is not what you yourself are accomplishing; the purpose of your life is what you are enabling others to accomplish, and that is a great spiritual benefit that will serve this soul well when it goes into the world of truth.
Such a view requires cultivating the ability to receive help, support, treatment, affection, and acts of kindness from others.
Kindness depends on cooperation between the recipient and the giver, between the person in need and the person rendering some form of service.
A seeming “diminishing quality of life” corresponds to increasing need and opportunities to show kindness.
Painting: Visiting the Sick, Modernist Israeli Oil Painting, Avraham Ofek
“Your lessons are hard, oh God, let me be your good and patient pupil. I feel that I am one of many heirs to a great spiritual heritage. I shall be its faithful guardian.” – Etty Hillesum, killed in Auschwtiz on November 30, 1943
Today I am reflecting on the transformative impact of encountering misery – past or present – to discerning one’s path in life.
Confrontations with grave moral evils and injustices can be decisive turning points in a person’s life when he or she becomes summoned to personal responsibility with a sense of mission.
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.
This evening I came upon this quotation attributed to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov:
“If you are not going to be any better tomorrow than you were today, then what need have you for tomorrow?”
That is a serious provocation to self-examination and personal responsibility.
What have I done to deserve tomorrow?
Tomorrow is a gift I cannot merit, but what would it look like to try to become more worthy of it?
What difference would it make, every night, to create new day’s resolutions?
The author of the book Resisting Throwaway Culture has laid out some concrete proposals for how to do so at the end of his newly published book, Losing Our Dignity.
Like Pope Francis, author Charles Camosy agrees that it is our cultural consumerism that is contributing to a “throwaway” mentality extending toward human beings.
The opposite of throwaway culture, Camosy suggests, is to “live out a counterculture of responsibility, encounter, and hospitality.”
Recently a friend of mine introduced me to James Baldwin (1924-1987), an American author who wrote books, essays, and memoirs on the experience of Blacks in America.
I just finished reading Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which contains two essays exploring race relations in the U.S. in the early 1960s. “Color is not a human or personal reality; it is a political reality,” he says.
Continuing to reflect here on what case there is for suffering being redemptive without sliding into any justification of (or indifference to) real injustices, Baldwin offers a credible voice.
Here is an excerpt on how suffering can be a school in maturity:
I still remember my utter perplexity at a so-called professor of Genocide Studies at a Canadian university having accused me of “voyeurism” for having travelled to Germany, Poland, and Rwanda on genocide study trips.
Now, I can see that such a bizarre accusation might stem from failing to see the way in which studying genocide properly can actually constitute an education in moral sense. By learning about perpetrators and meeting with rescuers and survivors, my friends and I with whom I studied and travelled encountered the moral drama of human action and responsibility in persons and deeds, not in mere systems or abstractions.
This morning I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1973 short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”
The story is about an idyllic town, flourishing with music, processions, decorations, horses, abundant food, flowers, bells, and so on.
The only trouble is that, in order to sustain all of this revelry and satisfaction, one child must be kept trapped in a small broom closet with no light, malnourished, naked, covered in sores, and sitting in its own excrement.
We read that, “this is usually explained to children when they are between eight and twelve, whenever they seem capable of understanding.”