Staying Pure in an Impure World
Just as the terrible news arrived about the ISIS beheading of another American journalist — this time one of the “tribe,” a Jew by the name of Steven Sotloff — I just happened to be reading, rediscovering Christopher Morley’s heart-touching poem To A Child.
Just as I was embracing my two beautiful grandchildren before their return flight to LA, I hear about the tragic death of 23 year-old Aron Sofer in, of all places, the Jerusalem Forest. I tighten my clutch of these innocent children who, together with all children of the world, are completely oblivious to the pains of this life, drawing them close to my heart, in the hope that the world they grow into will spare them the anguish of our virulent universe.
As I hug my granddaughter and grandson I remember reading about the recently restored Chabad House in Mumbai, and I have a flashback to events that transpired six years ago. In November 2008 Chabad shluchim Rabbi Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg and four of their guests were murdered in cold blood by… Islamic terrorists as they were going about their business of helping everyone and anyone in their Mumbai Chabad Center, also known as Nariman House. That very week, while we were all glued to the live streaming news feed from India to hear the latest update, hoping for the best, my first grandchild, Luba, was born to my daughter Rashi and her husband Bentzy Marcus.
Oh what a psychotic world… Through one window we witness unbearable barbarism and brutality. And through another we see unbelievable beauty and awe-inspiring wonders. Look one way and you see death; look the other way and you see birth.
At times like this don’t you just want to curl back up into your fetal-like childhood innocence, seeing only the good in things?
Bringing to mind Morely’s wonderful poem:
The greatest poem ever known
Is one all poets have outgrown:
The poetry, innate, untold,
Of being only four years old.
Still young enough to be a part
Of Nature’s great impulsive heart,
Born comrade of bird, beast, and tree
And unselfconscious as the bee-
And yet with lovely reason skilled
Each day new paradise to build;
Elate explorer of each sense,
Without dismay, without pretense!
In your unstained transparent eyes
There is no conscience, no surprise:
Life’s queer conundrums you accept,
Your strange divinity still kept.
Being, that now absorbs you, all
Harmonious, unit, integral,
Will shred into perplexing bits,-
Oh, contradictions of the wits!
And Life, that sets all things in rhyme,
may make you poet, too, in time-
But there were days, O tender elf,
When you were Poetry itself!
The question and challenge, however, is this: Can we retain our childhood innocence even as we become seasoned and war-weary adults?
I knew one man who mastered that art. Despite witnessing and experiencing first-hand the most horrible events of the 20th century — the pogroms of Czarist Russia, the bloody Russian Revolution and even bloodier two World Wars, one worse than the previous one, the genocide of Jews throughout Europe, the anti-Semitic silence of a so-called “civilized” and “scientific” world; despite all these deep scars and wounds, personal and collective, this man was somehow able to retain an innocence of a child. The sparkle in his eye, even at age 90, was like that of a new-born.
How does one maintain such integrity and purity in such an impure world?
Only through a firm and unwavering connection to a reality beyond our own. A seamless connection to the Divine, which flows transparently and saturates his entire being, creating a seamlessness below as above, unscathed by the existential toxins inundating this world of ours.
No wonder the Rebbe told one of his assistants, Rabbi Berel Junik: Thank G-d that I trained myself to look at things with a right eye. Otherwise, I couldn’t have survived.
By attaching ourselves to this higher power we too can transcend the pain of our suffering existence and be the poet — the poetry — itself.
Thus, even on that day when G-d’s sad forecast is fulfilled and His face is covered from us — “I will cover my face on that day;” even when we cry out: “Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their G-d?'” — we still hold tight to our roots. How? Who knows, but that doesn’t change the fact.
No doubt that this Jewish eternal connection is what gave Steven Sotloff the super-human ability to retain his Jewish identity in the abyss of ISIS. The presence — as we are now being told by someone who who was held captive with Sotloff — of successfully managing “to hide the fact he was Jewish from his captors, managing to fast for Yom Kippur by feigning sickness… He told them he was sick and doesn’t want to eat, even though we were served eggs that day. He used to pray secretly in the direction of Jerusalem. He would see in which direction (his Muslim captors) were praying and then adjust the angle.” And now, even in his death he is not parted from G-d (as we say in the Yizkor service).
And this immortal bond is what gives us all the capacity to endure any challenge, and not just survive, but thrive through the process.
Even when we hear about the gruesome beheading of a Jew in the early days of Elul, a month that is supposed to be one of compassion, we somehow hold on, and open up (barely, at times) our right eye and see the blessings of life, the miracles that are taking place both in Israel and abroad, both individually and collectively.
We hold on to a force that is beyond pain and pleasure, death and life, dark and light, beyond all the ends of the spectrum — an energy that is even beyond paradox.
This is how we bare our souls in this month of Elul — the month of I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me — a supra-rational love that can never be vanquished. Accessing a purity that no impurity on earth or beyond can defile.