Saturday, 15 December 2012

"Never give up hope!" - a rabbi's tale

I'm writing this on the eve of Gaudete Sunday. Many of my Facebook Friends are clergy in the United States, and a number of them, in their status updates, have mentioned either needing to revise their sermons for tomorrow, or feeling they could not use those they had prepared. They feel they cannot speak of hope and joy, in view of that, just yesterday, a gunman of 20 entered a Connecticut school, and murdered his own mother (a kindergarten teacher) and 18 little children.

I have always been enormously sensitive to violence, and my heart grieves for those killed, for their families, and for everyone affected in any way. However, here speaking of sermons and worship in general, I believe that what has sustained both the Hebrews and their Christian cousins is orthopraxy. Amidst all the evil in this world, for which there is no explanation, somehow going through the prayers (and sacraments),observing the feasts even if there is great sorrow in one's own life, keeping the fasts even if one is in a time of joy, sustains us in faith and hope. (Charity indeed requires outward reaching as well - but I don't want to be diverted for the moment.) Were one to refrain from speaking of hope and joy because others have suffered a horrid loss, they could never be mentioned at all.

My 'regulars' will remember how my understanding was enriched by studying the Hebrew scriptures and commentaries. Yahweh was a most puzzling God - demonstrating none of the 'powers' expected by followers of other, more 'successful' gods - keeping us ignorant of his identity lest we turn him into an idol. Genesis itself is a chronicle of fratricide, trickery, hatred, violence, then slavery. Yahweh is worshipped where the 'other gods' are long forgotten, though the history of the Israelites is a chronicle of pain, oppression, exile, and, so recently, the Holocaust.

I am privileged to belong to a 'senior centre,' with much on offer, which is located in an Orthodox synagogue. I occasionally have the treat of hearing young rabbis and students, who have been studying Torah nearly from infancy, share their wisdom. (Don't let the beards and side curls divert you - most of them could be my sons.) :) This past week, amongst all the fun of a Hanukkah party, a young rabbi presented a tale with the theme, constantly repeated, of "Never give up hope!" Rabbi Byers tells a magnificent story, and I could not possibly do justice to his presentation here. His gestures, inflections, and explanations (understandable even to the little children, but intriguing to even the eldest and wisest there) captured more than can be reproduced on a page. His description of a train en route to Auschwitz had me 'seeing' the passengers. His imitating the mocking laughter of the SS, who greeted arriving prisoners with 'today is Hanukkah - here is your fire!' as they gestured towards the smoke from the death chambers, was amazing.

In short, the tale was of a group of Jews transported to Auschwitz, arriving on Hanukkah. Naturally, some of their number had immediately been 'sorted' to be sent to death. The others, among them a noted rabbi, improvised a Menorah, using pieces of bread and some margarine to light the fire. I wish I could capture the entire story here, but, with that impossible, I shall say that Rabbi Byers had me caught in wonder as he kept repeating the words of the rabbi whom he referenced: "Never give up hope!"

Judaism and Christianity are faiths of endless 'watching and waiting.' We admit to divine revelation / epiphanies, and to a God always involved with his creation - but nothing ever seems to improve. We don't know for what we are waiting specifically, though we believe in a cosmic redemption. We have no answers for evil, but we do not see this as meaning God is not a constant creator and redeemer.

How I wish I could be witty, insightful, or wise today! It cannot be summoned on demand. :) Yet I did wish to share this tale to remind my Christian friends that we mustn't avoid joy and hope to dignify grief. Sorrow is plentiful and always will be so. Yet we must seek joy where we can - and "Never give up hope!"

The prophets and evangelists (many of whom were executed or tortured) were no strangers to sorrow! Many notable religious figures were martyred. In any era, those who were especially close to God wanted to seek to share holiness - but had no illusions that the world was not a very dark place, indeed. We Christians have an image of an Incarnate Lord - whose Father must understand our pain, since His own son was scourged and crucified.

John Paul II saw the horrors of the Holocaust, of Stalin and his concentration camps, of war and "Iron Curtain" oppression. One must bear this in mind in reading this quotation from him: "The human heart has depths from which schemes of unheard-of ferocity sometimes emerge, capable of destroying in a moment the normal daily life of a people. But faith comes to our aid at these times when words seem to fail. Christ’s word is the only one that can give a response to the questions which trouble our spirit. Even if the forces of darkness appear to prevail, those who believe in God know that evil and death do not have the final say. Christian hope is based on this truth; at this time our prayerful trust draws strength from it."