By Rabbi Marvin Hier
This year at Rosh Hashanah, special sensitivity is required while giving our friends the traditional New Year greeting, “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year,” because for millions of Americans, it has not been a good year, nor are there any prospects of a near-term economic recovery. Millions have lost their jobs, seen their homes confiscated, their children’s schools closed.
As we usher in the High Holidays, what can our faith say to people who, overnight, have been swept asunder, lost their self-worth and dignity as well as their life’s dreams, what hope can we offer those who are convinced that life has dealt them a mortal blow from which there is no recovery? What is there to say to people who had everything and suddenly find themselves with nothing, who have to rely on assistance from soup kitchens and their clergy?
Judaism does have something to say to those who are suffering. The great 20th century thinker, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, saw such life-changing tragedies as both a challenge and an opportunity. “Man’s task in the world, according to Judaism,” he wrote, “is to transform ‘fate’ into ‘destiny,’ a passive existence into an active existence, an existence of compulsion… into an existence of daring and imagination.” To rise above the challenge and change the ‘fate’ forced upon us into a new-found ‘destiny’ of our own choosing, that has the ability to take us to a new place that will enable us again to reclaim our dignity and be the drivers of our own destiny.
Like any life trauma, such a path is not an easy one to take – it requires determination, great courage, and sacrifice, but it is a lot better than anguishing about what cannot be again.
Stephen Hawking did just that by refusing to accept his fate as a victim of ALS at the age of 21. Instead, he pushed himself on a path to become one of the world’s greatest scientists, authoring dozens of books and offering millions of people his brilliant insights into the Almighty’s universe.
Helen Keller, deaf and blind from the age of two, had every reason to give up, but with her teacher’s help, broke through her isolation and became the first American to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree and author many books that were read around the world.
So did Thomas Edison, who was considered to be too unintelligent to be in school, and suffered from terrible dyslexia, making it difficult for him to speak, patented over 1000 inventions, including the light blub.
In May of 1940, when all of Europe fell to the Nazis and only England remained, Winston Churchill, who had worked hard to overcome stuttering became the voice of Western Civilization. Millions of people throughout the world would hear his unforgettable speeches that inspired the world to stand up to Hitler.
And many ordinary people, like the thousands of Holocaust survivors aboard the ship Exodus en route to Palestine in 1947, they had the same attitude when they published a newspaper and called it “Baderech – On the Way.” What were they going to report? All their news was tragic. They had lost everything, their parents, their children – their suitcases contained only bitter memories. They were without a past and no homes to go back to – still they had the courage to wipe away the tears, to pick themselves up by their bootstraps, and turn despair into hope, choosing to live fully – to smile and even to find love again. They married, had families, built careers, some became businessmen, others used their terrible experience to become psychologists or teachers. Their message to the world was clear, despite everything they experienced, they were “Baderech, On the Way” to a new life and a better world.
Of course, the millions of Americans who have borne the brunt of the economic collapse would much rather return to their former stations in life, but in G-d’s world, they know there is no instant replay. All mortal men and women can do when faced with a life’s tragedy is refuse to yield and be defeated by a forced ‘fate’ but rather to find the courage to stand up and discover their new ‘destiny.’