|5/5/2016 9:00:00 AM|
My masterpiece of mercy
BY RABBI DAN ORNSTEINJudaism understands mercy in two related ways: Mercy is a quality of character which exists within us yet which needs to be encouraged; mercy is also a way of behaving toward others, especially when we don't feel particularly merciful.
Both types of mercy imitate God who wants us to be merciful because God is merciful. Yet, even God, as it were, struggles with balancing divine mercy and God's strict sense of justice. According to my Jewish tradition, both must be balanced within God and within the world for the world to function, but "erring" on the side of mercy is our ideal.
Here is my story about my middle daughter, my masterpiece of mercy.
The woman walks up to me after morning services, her face uplifted and bright. "I wanted to let you know about some great news I got from my son," she grins. Those few moments after morning worship before I go back to my office are usually when members of the congregation tell me their worst news about sadness, illness, death. Her promise to tell me about something happy intrigues and relieves me.
"He has been writing since he was 16," she begins. "After more than 20 years of writing professionally, he sold a screenplay for a new movie. My husband and I will be visiting him on the set next week. This is true naches."
Yes, I think, this is true "naches" - the Yiddish word for the beaming pride we feel at our children's accomplishments, as if they were our own. I am genuinely excited for her and her family.
Yet, as I tell her this, Old Man Killjoy rolls out a familiar drum beat inside my head: "No reason why this couldn't have been you, if only you had chosen writing over being a rabbi. Still working on getting your masterpiece published?"
In one self-referential second, my happiness for her transforms into a tired whine about the writing career I cannot fully make time for, and the famous writer I know I will never be.
Being a rabbi, not a full-time writer, is where God and I have agreed, after some rough debate, that I am most needed and most capable. Because I love to write, I have chosen to try being a writer-rabbi.
I work hard at filling the cracks of lives and loves -- my own and those of the people I lead -- with words and sentences, some of which are mine, many of which belong to others. I want those words to stick, to give shape, texture and meaning to the chaos that being alive often entails. I tell Jewish tales to kids; I listen to my congregants' accounts of their pain, their joy, and their journeys; I teach the sacred stories of the Bible and the ancient sages who interpreted it; I write and attempt to contribute my voice to the ceaseless conversation of the Jewish people and our faith.
Shouldn't this be enough? Later, in my office, I brood over how, at times, it doesn't feel like this is enough. As word-hungry as I am, I am equally hungry for my own words to see the light of day.
At that moment, I remember a story that my wife had proudly told me the day before. The previous weekend, as she drove with our daughter along a Philadelphia street, a disheveled, homeless man approached our van, carrying a worn cardboard sign that told his devastating story.
"Mom, aren't we going to stop to give him something?" my daughter queried my wife urgently.
"No, honey, I don't think we will," my city-weary wife answered.
"Why not, mom? You have to," my daughter demanded.
"Well, honey, there is no way to know if he is telling the truth and there are so many people on the streets asking for money. Our family helps the poor in many other ways," my wife reasoned with her.
My daughter was unimpressed by her logic. She made her mother stop the van, rolled down the window, handed the man the one dollar she had and gently bade him good luck.
As he walked off, she explained to my wife that one of the most important things I had taught her was that we should give people asking for money the benefit of the doubt. If the man was telling the truth, then we fulfilled the religious obligation of tzedakah, giving to the poor. If he was lying, the sin is his, not ours.
Further, my wife and I never had to stand on a street corner to feed her and her siblings. She was painfully conscious of our privilege and of the ways in which the poor and their often decrepit appearances frighten people, who marginalize them as the other. She wanted to help the man by giving him money; but, more importantly, she wanted to show him dignity and kindness.
I sit thinking of my naches that this is the wonderful, open book of compassion and justice my daughter is becoming. She is writing her own story, yet I realize that she is also this growing masterpiece of mercy of which I am one author; a great work of art begun by me that will outlast me, and into which my signature is tightly woven.
(Rabbi Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany. He blogs at http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/author/dan-ornstein and writes at at http://wamc.org/term/dan-ornstein#stream/0.)
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