It is almost a truism by now to observe that we have very little control over a great many things in our lives, and yet it seems that most people yearn for that very control, or at least for the order and peace which they imagine having it would bring to their lives. And yes, count me, and my own similar impulses, among that yearning mass of “most people”. But this is where things get interesting.
I am not about to share yet another new-age’y teaching or tip sheet on letting go and feeling great about doing so, or a pietistic approach reminding us that it’s all in God’s hands anyway so it will of course all be for the best, or even some weirdly modernist reflection which tells us that we really could have the kind of control which so many people seek. None of those answers work for me, though I would be the first to admit that each has a measure of wisdom from which we can learn.
Nor is this my “secret recipe” for how to mix up the perfect “cake” of a happy life from those three approaches. Nope, I just want to share a true story, and how I think it helps recover and assert a power we all have, no matter how out-of-control things may be.
It was 1933, and then Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel, Abraham Isaac Kook, was spending Rosh Hashanah in the Old City of Jerusalem. Yes, Rosh Hashanah was last week, but this is a story about the Shofar, which we will blow one last time this Saturday night, at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, and more importantly, it’s a story about that ongoing struggle regarding control, so hang in.
1933, Rabbi Kook has gathered together a large group who wait to hear his message for the new year, and he begins by telling them that the shofar is meant to wake people up to the possibility of redemption and salvation. He continues by teaching that there is actually more than one kind of shofar in this world — more than one instrument in the symphony of human salvation.
There is the typical shofar, made from a ram’s horn. We not only blow this shofar, but make a blessing over doing so, and in addition to making the soul-touching sound, it reminds us of the ram which Abraham offered instead of his son, Isaac, whom God had earlier commanded him to sacrifice. This shofar not only calls us to redemption, but evokes the love and devotion which flows back and forth between God and people, according to Kook and other teachers.
There is however, another kind of Shofar which can be blown. It is less preferred than the first, but kosher nonetheless. This Shofar can be made from the horn of other kosher animals, and like Shofar #1, it too signals redemption and a blessing is said when it is blown, though it lacks the ancient story of mutual love and devotion.
“Finally,” Rabbi Kook said to those gathered around him, “There is a third kind of shofar which can be blown — the shofar we make from the horn of a non-kosher animal, and over which we make no blessing when it is sounded, even though it too can stir us toward redemption.” At this point, Rabbi Kook burst into tears. “This last shofar,” he continued as he wept, “is the shofar which our brothers and sisters are hearing in Germany and across Europe.”
Now I don’t know that I ever think of any one’s suffering as a call to redemption or salvation per se — though I fully appreciate the power and truth of that message, especially for many Jews and and Christians — but I do know that all three of those Shofars blow in each of our lives, sometimes at different times, and sometimes all at once.
I also know that, however little control we may have over which Shofars are blowing in our lives, we have the power to determine what we are listening for, and for whatever meaning can be found in each of them — even when it is a “Shofar” over which no blessing can be said, which makes us weep when it blows, and which we wished with all of our hearts, wasn’t even blowing. That is the teaching of another spiritual master, the Austrian neurologist/psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor, Victor Frankel, who wrote the ever-wise book, Man’s Search for Meaning.
Like Kook, who wept bitterly over that which he saw as a call to salvation, Dr. Frankl never romanticized his experiences in the Holocaust. He simply discovered, and went on to teach, that in our willingness to find meaning and purpose even in those things which we cannot control, which should not be happening, and which we would undo in a heartbeat regardless of how much meaning or purpose we find in them — in that process of finding meaning and purpose, even in those places, we find a measure of redemption, and that we find it in the one thing which we can control, even in the most out of control situations.
I would love to live in a world where nothing but Shofar #1 was blowing. Who wouldn’t? And truth be told, I would be pretty OK with living in a world in which only #1 and #2 were being played. But we don’t. There is plenty of Shofar 3 for far too many people to pretend otherwise.
We do however live in a world, both Rabbi Kook and Dr. Frankl would remind us, that cannot take away our ability to seek meaning and purpose, in whatever shofars are blowing, whether they make us dance or they make us weep. And that is no small measure of power and control in our often crazy and out-of-control world.
Brad Hirschfield is the co-founder and co-executive editor of The Wisdom Daily. A rabbi, Brad has been featured on ABC’s Nightline UpClose, PBS’s Frontline, Fox News and National Public Radio. He wrote a long-standing column, “For God’s Sake,” for the Washington Post, and has also written for The Huffington Post and Beliefnet.com. He authored the book, You Don?t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism. Brad also serves as President of Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank and resource center in New York City.