Sunday, May 25, 2014

"I" of Destiny

Just in case you missed last year's birthday post, I'll summarize it by saying that, although it is a lovely occasion, my birthday brings with it its fair share of emotional challenges.  And, here I am, once again, at Erev Birthday, feeling the usual mix of pure gratitude for this life I lead combined with self-criticism and frustration regarding all the ways I haven't quite hit the mark.  It's a time of year when I need a little extra inspiration, a little extra spiritual connectivity and galvanization.

Fortunately, two weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend a shiur by Rav Avi Weiss, and have been thinking about it ever since.  His topic was, "Fate and Destiny:  Coping with Adversity."  I almost blogged about it right away, but instead chose to hold onto it until closer to my birthday, when I felt I would most need its message of empowerment--and would be most excited to share it.

Rav Avi Weiss packed so much meaning packed into that shiur, but what resonated with me most was when he made the following point:  when a person struggles, it is normal for that person to ask, "Why?"  But perhaps that is not the most effective question.  Maybe instead of asking, "Why?" one should ask, "What now?"

To flesh out this idea, Rav Weiss brought a quote from Rav Soloveitchik's work, Fate and Destiny.  Rav Soloveitchik views the human being as having two "I"s:  the "I" of fate, and the "I" of destiny.  Here is how he explains his concept of an "Existence of Destiny":

In short, the "I" of fate asks a speculative metaphysical question with regard to evil, and this question is not susceptible to solution and has no answer.

In the second dimension of man's existence, destiny, the question of suffering takes on new form. What is an, "Existence of Destiny?"

This is an active existence in which man confronts the environment into which he was cast with an understanding of his uniqueness, value, freedom and capacity without compromising his integrity and independence in his struggle with the outside.  The slogan of the "I" of destiny is, "Against your will you are born, and against your will you die [but with your free will do you live]."  Man is born as an object, dies as an object, but it is within his capacity to live as a "subject" -- as a creator who impresses on his life his individual imprimatur and who lives autonomously.  According to Judaism, man's mission in his world is to turn fate into destiny--an existence that is passive and influenced, to an existence that is active and influential; an existence of compulsion, perplexity, and speechlessness, to an existence full of will and initiative.  


There is just so much I love about this, relating to both the specific challenge of struggling against adversity, and to the more general concepts of self-determination and empowerment.  I feel that so much of recovery connects strongly to Rav Soloveitchik's idea of turning "an existence that is passive and influenced, to an existence that is active and influential; an existence of compulsion, perplexity, and speechlessness, to an existence full of will and initiative."  And, what better time to reflect on my own commitment to this endeavor, than my birthday?

In what ways am I actively shaping my own destiny?
In what ways am I still being too passive?
In the coming year, how can I live more authentically as the "subject" of my own life?

We can all benefit from asking ourselves these questions--it's the ongoing work of recovery.  So, even if it isn't anywhere near your birthday, I (gently) challenge you to think about how Rav Soloveitchik's ideas apply to your own journey through life.  How can you wake up your "I" of destiny?

Sunday, May 11, 2014


A few evenings ago, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture given by Rabbi Sharon Shalom, an Ethiopian-born Jew who emigrated to Israel, where he later received his rabbinic ordination.  Rabbi Shalom spoke about his childhood in Ethiopia and his long, treacherous journey to Israel.  Throughout his lecture, which he peppered with humorous anecdotes and insights into Ethiopian Jewish culture, Rabbi Shalom maintained a focus on hope.  Time and time again, he quoted three lines from "Hatikvah," the Israeli national anthem:

Kol od balevav penimah
As long as within the heart

Nefesh yehudi homiyah
A Jewish soul still yearns

Od lo avdah tikvateinu
Our hope is not yet lost

Rabbi Shalom referenced these words as he described sitting with his grandfather in Ethiopia, listening to the old man tell him and his friends about Jerusalem.  At one point, he asked his grandfather, "Which way is Jerusalem?" to which his grandfather basically replied, "Go straight."  So, the next morning, Shalom and a friend of his snuck out of their village and started to run in the direction his grandfather had indicated.  They ran for hours, these two little kids, expecting--hoping--to get to Jerusalem.  When Shalom and his family eventually did begin their real journey to Israel, it involved a months-long, dangerous walk to Sudan, in which many people died.  Because they felt Shalom would have the best chance of success in Israel if he went alone with other children, his parents sent him by himself while they remained in Sudan for several more years.  A young boy going to a new country, alone, yet full of hope…because he was finally going to get to Jerusalem.  

There were many, many "take-aways" from Rabbi Sharon Shalom's lecture, and a major one was definitely this:  Giving up is not the Jewish way.

A few years ago, I wrote about the Talmudic quote, "Eretz Yisrael is earned through hardships."  In that post, I addressed the question:  If recovery is my metaphorical Land of Israel, how much am I willing to struggle to get there?  How much hope in my own recovery am I able to hold…and how much energy am I willing to expend in order to make that hope a reality?

In order to get to Eretz Yisrael, the answer had to be:  Whatever it takes.  I am not giving up, and I am willing to do whatever it takes.  As long as I have hope, I'm still in this game.

Rabbi Sharon Shalom literally walked through a war zone in order to get to Israel.  His story is dramatic and exceptional, but it is not the only one of its kind.  Our collective history as Jews is full of individuals who fought against tremendous odds and maintained hope in the face of extreme hardship.  Hope--and a sense of agency--is our cultural legacy, and we need to use it.  The road of recovery is full of challenges.  But remember, as long as you have hope and are willing to act on it, you can go all the way.

Kol od balevav penimah
Nefesh yehudi homiyah
Od lo avdah tikvateinu

We're Jews, and we don't give up.