Thursday, 16 August 2018

Some Light Summer Reading - Ways of Looking at Suffering - Part One

I’ve been making my way through Scott Samuelson’s newly published, Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering. I know, there are lighter offerings on the shelves, but I’m drawn to this stuff. I should probably consider a career in the Rabbinate or something. En route to my Yizkor sermon (and again Rosh Hashanah falls on the evening of 9th September), I’ll be sharing in this blog from some of the insights in the book and suggesting a Jewish response to them.

Chapter five of Samuelson’s work features the response of the Stoics. This response entails seeing suffering as no more and no less than the rules of game. As Samuelson imagines us playing chess, and wishing our pawn could zip up the board and take the opponent’s queen several ranks away, but that simply wouldn’t be chess. Similar we could wish that we, or a loved one, wouldn’t be suffering, but to wish for a life without pain is to wish for a breaking of the rules of existence. We can’t all live for ‘beyond average’ lengths of time. To think, says Epictetus, father of the Stoics, that “the fall of leaves is ill-omened, or that it is evil for a bunch of grapes to turn into raisins” is a waste of emotional energy, and worse, such an expectation only sets us up for disappointment and added heartbreak.

There is, clearly, an attraction in a stoic worldview. It’s safe from breeding disappointment. And, indeed, somewhere in a called-for Jewish response to our own bad things come the urge that we find a way to accept our experience of bad things in general and human fragility in particular. In Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur’s most magisterial prayer, the Unataneh Tokef, we acknowledge that ‘humanity comes dust, and ends in dust; like a broken clay shard, withered grass, a shrivelled flower ...’

But the response of stoicism is not the first response. And we cannot - must not - skip to the end of the story before its time. As well as acknowledging our mortality we are called to remember we are ‘little less than angels,’ that ‘the Universe is created for our sake,’ that we embody ‘the image of God.’ And so on. Life is precious, astoundingly so. Loss, pain and suffering are not invitations for cool-heads to nod coolly. They are tragedies to be mourned. In one of my favourite Talmudic passages, the young Rabbi Yochanan enters the room of the dying leader of his generation Rabbi Eliezer to see his teacher in tears. “Why do you cry?” the neophyte asks as if tears are somehow a failure of greatness. “I cry because of the beauty that is to rot in the earth” the Master responds, “And they cry together.” We don’t express our humanity through being so tough, so smart or so stoical that we feel no pain. That is the characteristic of a rock, not a being of flesh and soul. We should not feel called to transcend our humanity. For humans the more we love, the more we hope, the more we invest in the relationships which are the true touchstones of humanity, the more we hurt when these hopes are dashed. To hurt is to be human. Transcendence of our mortal realm is not the goal. Our suffering, as painful as it may be, is not pointless if it connects us to our humanity, rather it reminds us, even in our pain, of the importance of having a soul at all.

Ways of Looking at Suffering - Part Two

 I’m sharing, in my words at this time of year, insights sparked by Scott Samuelson’s newly published, Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering.

Samuelson suggests that there are primarily two human responses to suffering; fix-it and face-it. He grants a third response; forget-about-it - which he acknowledges is practically common, but philosophically “not significant.” “Thanks to our fix-it energies,” he writes, “we’ve used our creative fire to forge all sorts of inventions to better our lives. A large portion of civilization arises out of the fix-it attitude, including a fair amount of science and politics, and nearly all technology.” Fixing things is good. But, Samuelson goes on to suggest, because up to the modern period we weren’t actually particularly good at fixing things we also had to develop our skills in facing-suffering.
Nowadays we are so much better at fixing things. Marvellously, infant mortality rates are down, desperate poverty is on the decline, we have and we are achieving so much. Our fix-it muscles are honed, taut and powerful. Long may they continue to be so.

But our face-it muscles have atrophied. In our fix-it obsessed modern age, we seem surprised we can’t fix our mortality and we don’t know what to do about it. We’ve lost our face-it fitness. Facing-suffering is a powerful skill to possess. Samuelson suggests facing-suffering “characterizes much of religion, art, and the humanities, as well as a certain significant portion of science and politics.” Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are face-it moments in the year. We are called to feel fragile, as if we pass before our creator like sheep on a narrow path, each falling under the eye of a watchful shepherd, none knowing of its fate. But we don’t know how to do this well. “Rather than confront our anxiety at the sadness, we fidget on our tools of infinite distraction.” Yes, leave that mobile-phone at home when you come to shul.

Here are my three top tips to strengthen the face-it muscles we will need in our lives just as surely as we need strong fix-it muscles. Sit. Put everything down and sit in one place for a while without trying to do more things. Try - even if just for these coming awesome days of prayer - not to treat life as something to be fixed. It’s OK not to always be doing something. It might be the most important spiritual gift you can give yourself. Reflect on how you treat your life and the lives of those around you. And do something decent and kind for those less fortunate than yourself. Or, as the Rabbis put it, try Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah.

The best place, the best time to begin this face-it training, is Saturday evening, 1st September, 10pm at the Shul. Do come, do support our Slichot service. It is a wonderful way to enter the spirit of the time.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Buckle In - One Month To Go

We mark, on Shabbat and Sunday, Rosh Hodesh Elul - one month until Rosh Hashanah.

Looking forwards let me share, here, our plans for the Davenning in the Kiddush Hall this year. AS well as a traditional Minyan Chadash Kol Nidrei and Neilah, we are also offering a 90 minute reduced service. It will be feature participative davenning, led by former NLS choir master Joseph Finlay, and creative approaches to Torah Service and much else. It’s designed to appeal to those who would want a briefer service, with mixed seating, also to include families with children who would prefer an adult-offering above a children’s service. All welcome, access by the same ticket which provides access to the main services. (Tickets with timings will be posted to members on XXX. Non-members can purchase tickets from the Synagogue office or the web-site.)

Let me also take this opportunity to urge members to join us for our Slichot service on Saturday 1st September. Chazan Stephen Cotsen will be leading us. Julian Dawes will be bringing his own style and compositions to the evening and I will be sharing insights into one of the most special prayers of the season to get us in the spirit. It is the most magical way to get in the mood for the services that follow (from evening of 9th, 10th and 11th Sept).

And finally, Rosh Chodesh Ellul - we begin reciting Psalm 27 at evening and morning services. It speaks of one great wish, ‘to dwell in the House of God, all the days of our life.’ It may be the wish of us, or maybe there is something else. What, exactly, do you wish for your life? Not the material things, not the things that can be counted, but the things that truly count. What is our great wish for the year ahead. For the time is coming,

Shabbat Shalom, Chodesh Tov, Shannah Tovah,

Rabbi Jeremy
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