Sometimes writing for the JTNews seems a bit tame. Take the recent flap about the restroom adventures of a certain senator (R-Idaho). All fall I’ve been asking myself — “Jaffee! What satirical heights might you have scaled with a column titled ‘Craig’s List,’ in counterpoint to the ‘Tantric Adult Services’ section of The Seattle Weekly or The Stranger?”
Well, I killed my “Craig’s List” column before it got out of the keyboard. How could it ever fly in The Voice of Jewish Washington? Should I have tried to pitch it in a more congenial venue? That’s one of those unanswered questions I’ll have to live with the rest of my life. One of those “woulda, coulda, shoulda” wheel-spinners that sometimes plague us.
Especially at this time of year. Now that the inspirations of the autumn renewal festivals are receding into memory, many of us are reminded that life is pretty much what it is. And “what it is” is mostly what we’ve made of it — our responsibility, for better or worse, and no one else’s!
How fitting it is that the Hebrew month that bridges the highs of Tishrei to the joyous lights of darkest Kislev is named “Marheshvan” (that is, Bitter Heshvan)! The moment when life loses its poetry and is replaced with mere prose can be bitter indeed!
Which, of course, brings to mind a text from the sages that perfectly addresses our late-autumn-early-winter existential blahs. It is also my absolutely favorite teaching of Pirkei Avot. In my own idiosyncratic rendering it goes something like this (4:21-22):
Rabbi Eliezer Hakappar used to say:
The born will die, the dead will be revived,
And the revived will be judged—
All to proclaim that
He is God, He is the one Who Shapes,
He is the one Who Creates, He is the one who Comprehends,
He is the Judge, He is the Witness,
He is the Plaintiff, and He will in the future judge—
The Blessed One!
Before Whom there is neither flaw, nor forgetting,
Nor favoritism, nor fraud — for everything is His!...
But don’t kid yourself that hell
Is some kind of free lunch!
Like it or not, you were conceived,
And like it or not, you were born,
And, like it or not, you shall live,
And, like it or not, you shall die.
And, like it or not, you shall account for yourself
Before the King of the King of Kings,
The Blessed Holy One!
Have you already added Rabbi Eliezer — Mr. Have-a-Nice-Day himself! — to the guest list of your next wine and cheese fundraiser?
Well, let’s not get on the rabbi’s case too quickly! This is not your run-of-the-mill gloom and doom! This is not Cotton Mather — or even Rabbi Akavya ben Mehalelel — reminding us to temper the simple pleasures of life by meditating on the fact that all of us end up, sooner or later, “in a place of dust, worms and maggots” (Avot 3:1).
No, this is a classic text — like the majestic Kaddish — of one of the cardinal Jewish moral virtues, tzidduk hadin: of accepting the order of being as a divine gift, even (especially!) when it is our personal parade that takes the brunt of the storm.
Rather than the paralysis of depression, Rabbi Eliezer offers us in this teaching the freedom of self-mastery. The key is in his repeated refrain: “like it or not.” No one asks us if we want the Gift of life. We take before we know what we’re accepting. We receive it under the absurd terms in which it is given us, and when we leave it, we take nothing with us but what we have made of it.
The Gift is ours to embellish or to squander. All receive an equal portion — the “value” of one life cannot be weighed against that of any other. Each receives the Gift in his own unique circumstances, and does with it what his imagination and gumption make possible.
A true story: Many years ago, while temporarily a patient in a hospital physical therapy unit, I made the acquaintance of a permanent resident — a guy of roughly my own age who, after a stupid, entirely avoidable accident, had become a quadriplegic. During the weeks of our acquaintance, all I ever saw him do — all he could do — was a single neck exercise that involved revolving his head against his bed. He would do this with single-minded diligence throughout the day, bathed in sweat from his exertions. It required, dare I say, “all his heart, all his soul, and all his might.”
Rather then bemoaning all he had lost, “like it or not,” he was thankful that this one power of motion had been left to him. When he wasn’t working at it, he longed for it; when he was at it, he was in bliss; when he had finished, he couldn’t wait to begin the next round of “therapy.”
And I thought: “When God chisels your life down to a fine point, all you can do is write — or not.”
I don’t know if my friend is still “writing” or not. All I know is that his example shocked me out of self-pity and taught me that the meaning of life is not in some sort of theological formula or an abstract theory of value: but utterly dependent upon our will to find joy in whatever is placed before us as our task.