It’s been a rough few weeks. It began with the news of a heinous crime just blocks from where I live on Manhatan’s Upper West Side: a nanny viciously took the lives of her two young charges. Hurricane Sandy came next, contributing additional loss of life and financial devastation of a magnitude never before experienced by our East Coast brethren. A week later many in our community were disappointed with the decisive outcome of the presidential election and the realization that we are truly a minority both in number and outlook within the United States. Finally, there was the precarious situation in Eretz Yisrael, hundreds of rockets raining down on daily and the threat of another major war. The saying goes, “when it rains, it pours.”
The book of Beraishis focuses on our Avos. Avraham is the trait of chesed or kindness. To me, this is an illusion to the first month of the Jewish calendar. Tishrei is all kindness from Hashem, His accepting our teshuvah, cleansing us and allowing us to sit in the sukkah under His watchful eye.
Then we shift to the stories of Yitzchak and the aspects of judgment or intensity of his persona as exemplified in the Akeidah experience. The letters of “Yitzchak” spell “Ketz Chai” “or end of life as he represents the transition into a higher world and the finality and magnitude of death. Yitzchak reflects the period that we most recently have experienced the endless flow of disappointment, anguish and pain.
We now transition to the parshiyos of Yaakov Avinu, with a prayer in mind – that Hashem be inspired by the Yaakov’s trait of tiferes. That Hashem look toward the integration, balance and synthesis Yaakov created and use it as a model of tempering His strict justice, din, with divine mercy, rachamim. Just as Yaakov integrated the chesed of his grandfather and the din of his father, we pray that by the end of Beraishis, Hashem will also integrate mercy within His judgment.
We live in an “age of anxiety” and that was even before the recent flow of events. Many of us strive for an equanimity or psychological stability in our lives. This goal has been made most difficult to achieve by the ongoing economic ills and the general challenges of living in the technological age. There is a quiet tension that lurks inside many of us. If I have emunah, faith, so why all the anxiety? I think that’s like asking, if I have yiras Shamayim, why do I ever sin? The answer is we all have lapses, but we add to our stress levels when we are self-critical, thinking that we aren’t authentic or genuine in our avodah. We often forget that many great people have had these common setbacks and challenges.
I saw an insight regarding Sarah Imeinu that resonated deeply considering the challenging backdrop in which we are living. The Reszher Rav, Rav Aaron Levine, commented on the life of Sarah being 127 years and the fact they were, as Chazal teach, “all equally for the good.” He suggests that she was an archetype for balanced, emotionally healthy living. She remained even-keeled despite numerous challenges: She is uprooted from her homeland and abducted by a foreign king. Yet, she also experiences great affluence and is the recipient of an enormous and miraculous Divine gift via the birth of Yitzchak. Amazingly, her basic decency and humanity isn’t impacted by either course of events. As Rudyard Kipling famously wrote, she “walks with kings without losing the common touch.” All her 127 years were “equally for the good.”
This maybe explains why death and marriage, a re births of sorts, as reflected in a wedding day being Yom Kippur for both the chassan and kallah. This is echoed by the sevens in Sheva Berachos and Sheva Yemi Aveilus and well as the juxtaposition of the burial of Sarah and the finding of a wife for Yitzchak. A wholesome spiritual life requires equilibrium. At the wedding, the pinnacle of joy, we reflect on the Churban, the destruction of the Temple. In mourning, we have limitations that don’t expand beyond a year. We balance and temper all emotions because when we are out of sorts, we can’t service the Divine in the requisite inspired fashion.
A mentor once said, “Hachaim Zeh Lo Picnic” which translates to “Life isn’t Easy.” I was on the Upper West Side of Manhattan during Sandy. We didn’t lose electricity, barely felt a thing. This was not the case for our neighbors in Seagate, the Five Towns, Teaneck and many other places. Many from our community have volunteered and we are in the midst of completing a $1 million communal campaign to help make a tiny dent in all the financial ruin.
Despite these efforts, connection for me only comes when I reflect on the birth of my oldest child, who surprisingly and shockingly entered our world with a diagnosis of Down syndrome. Those first few days were incredibly difficult. All thoughts of the future were frightening and overwhelming. The challenge for us was to stay afloat (no pun intended) and re-gain equilibrium – as I imagine the challenge for many is at this very moment. The good news is that with time things got much better and much easier, even though it’s not always a picnic.
I think it crucial in times like these that we share our feelings and express ourselves. It’s healthy to acknowledge the fear and doubts and to lean on others for support. Chazal teach, “daaga blev ish yasichenu l’acher – worry in the heart of man should be expressed to others,” a source for the field of listening professionals or minimally to have good friends and solid family relationships.
Yaakov introduced Maariv, the evening prayer. In the darkness of night, when there is a tremendous lack of clarity, Yaakov, who represents us, Bnei Yisrael, cries out to Hashem. Hashem is the address we can always turn to no matter how dark the darkness and despair. The synthesizing of chesed with din, the enmeshing of these two phenomena emanate from our father Yaakov, who prayed from the darkness.
My daughter, who is six, informed me she voted in her mock school election for Mitt Romney. She said he’d be a good friend to Israel and “lower the price of taxis.” Unfortunately, the prices of “taxis” or “taxes” are likely heading in the other direction, at least for those in higher income brackets. Even so, one must remember the maxim introduced by Rav Yitzchak Hutner z’l in a famous letter to a struggling student, “lose the battle, but win the war.” We have lost some battles of late, but we must always keep our “eye on the prize” and fight to the finish where a splendorous redemption awaits us just beyond the horizon.
Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen
About the Author: Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen is director of synagogues for New York and director of community outreach for Yachad, both roles at the Orthodox Union. His popular book “We’re Almost There: Living with Patience, Perseverance and Purpose” was published earlier this year by Mosaica Press. It is available at Jewish bookstores and on his website, www.rabbidovidmcohen.com.
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