Sunday, May 31, 2009
Sermons and Lessons
Choose you this day whom you will serve. - JOSHUA 24:15.
We are told in sacred lore, that when their hours of study were over, and the wise men left the halls of the Academy, they departed from one another with the following quaint and beautiful blessing: “Mayest thou behold thy world during thy lifetime, but may thine end be in Life Eternal, and thy hopes, may they endure throughout all generations.” On New Year’s Day, we too take leave, not from one another, but from the old year, and from all that it held for us of good and evil, of gain and loss; and I know of no more seemly benediction which we can bestow upon one another at this hour, than this selfsame prayer of the Rabbis.
If I were to bless you this day, between the dark and the dawn of the New Year, with the choicest gift in the treasure-house of God, I could think of none more rare and precious than this. It is threefold benison, each part segment of a perfect whole: “Mayest thou behold thy world during thy lifetime.” Is there anything more complete than this? To see our whole world while we live! The world of our desires and the world of our hopes! To win every goal, to taste every fruit, to slake every thirst at the fountain of success. What a generous benediction this is! Surely this is what we pray for on this, our Holy Day. “Grant us life, long life; grant us health, happiness, prosperity, peace. Let us not die ere the last mile of our journey is covered and the last beautiful scene glimpsed. Permit us to see our whole world while we live.”
And how thoroughly human a prayer it is! What man is there who would wish to close the fascinating book of life before the last chapter is read and the last page is turned and the story is fully told! Unless he be of those who have suffered much, whose eyes have been darkened by unutterable sorrow, and from whose hearts anguish has drained all love of life. We all wish to live, to see all, to know all, to taste all, to have all. The world is so resplendent with the works of God and the works of man, with the beauty that dwells in the earth and in the habitations of the children of earth. Our souls are hungry for this earth beauty and this life beauty, for all the wonder and grace which are in existence. How very human then is this prayer, and how truly it voices our deep-most longings. And yet, somehow, the wise men of old, who uttered this valediction, keenly felt its incompleteness, for they hastened to supplement it: “But may thine end be in Life Eternal, and thy hopes, may they endure throughout all generations.” On the face of it, a paradox! If one could see his whole world in his lifetime, why should his end be in life eternal? If one could realize all his cherished hopes here and now, why should they be extended throughout all subsequent generations?
But the Rabbis, who saw life steadily, felt this wish to be in¬adequate, because unattainable. They knew that no man can see his whole world in his lifetime, nor realize his high hopes in his generation. But they also knew of a world which every man could realize in his lifetime, and of a hope which every man could see fulfilled. In the eyes of the Rabbis there were two worlds; the world of our wishes and desires, and the world which these same wishes and desires create for us and in us. The world of our dreams and hopes, and the world which these dreams and hopes surround us with. In a sense every man builds his own world. Every man constructs his own world, his universe of wish and desire, the far-flung constellation of passionate cravings and longings, whose fiery center is self. The worlds of no two men are alike. Some build their world of clay, of carnal wishes and coarse desires. It is narrow, never extending beyond the reach of the senses. Others fashion their dream-empires of finer stuff, of the needs of the mind and soul as well as of the body. Theirs is a larger estate, reaching out through spiritual roads into distant worlds. Still others, who are caught up by some vision and touched by some inspiration, shape their worlds out of ineffable beauties, transcendent and measureless to man.
And each builder would like to see his dream-world come true in his lifetime. But God, the Master Builder, who has his own plan and his own architectural design, has so ordered his Universe, that none shall see his world fully realized in his lifetime, and that the finer and subtler the stuff the dream-world is made of, the more difficult shall it be of attainment. Even the clay-world is hard to attain. Low desires and earthly cupidity, even when satisfied, leave ashes in the mouth. Each fulfilled desire incites to others, stronger and more impetuous. “The sea hath bounds, but deep desire hath none.” Passion means suffering. Until our hankerings are appeased, we suffer, and after they are appeased we soon weary of them. When we are in want, we strive for the necessities of life; when we have the necessities of life, we crave for comforts; when we have comforts, we crave for luxury. When we have luxury, we cry for the moon - a mounting fever of discontent, an endless cycle of futility. The Greeks called it “The Torments of Tantulus.”
Difficult as the clay-world is of attainment, even more difficult is the dream-world which some men wish to see fulfilled in their lifetime - the world which is not circumscribed by the ordinary wants of life, the world fashioned out of the silver sheen of ideals and the gold of aspiration, the world patterned after the similitude of God’s own perfection. The man who, conscious of his high estate, fashions such a world, and who, by his dreams, would lengthen the road between himself and the beast, and shorten the road between himself and God, the man who projects a wish-world of justice and peace, an empire of knowledge and love, of truth and beauty, that man will never see his world fulfilled in his lifetime. Such wish-worlds are eternities in the making. No single hand can effect them, no single generation can encompass them. Such dreams lead the dreamer, not to the goal of consummation, but to the pit and the dungeon, the rack and the cross, and all the miserable artifices of a world afraid of his dreams. Such dreams lead the dreamer along the dolorous road of frustration and loneliness, to death.
Many illustrations come to our mind when we think of this. Let us but choose two - an ancient and a modern one. Moses, a leader of men, built for himself a dream-world of heroic design - to liberate a people from the yoke of bondage - to give it a law and a land - to fashion it into a priest-people and to send it forth a messenger of a new revelation and a new covenant. Did he see his world come true? On the top of Mount Nebo, he died a lonely and a world-wearied man, his tired eyes straining to catch a glimpse of the land of his unfulfilled promise. He freed the people. He broke the chains of their body. He could not break the chains of their soul. He gave them freedom, they enslaved themselves. He gave them a law, they flouted it. He gave them a hope, they destroyed it. Where was his world?
And what became of the dream-world of that modern dreamer - Woodrow Wilson? Somewhere in the Capital of our land, there lived for two years a broken old man, alone with his memories, ruminating among the ruins of his shattered dream-world. He had visioned mankind healed and redeemed, made one in peace and freedom. He failed. During the early years of the great world struggle he sought to maintain neutrality. He failed. He gave his life blood to establish a covenant of peoples to enforce peace. He failed. He hoped for peace without victory, and failed. He hoped for peace with victory, and failed. He hoped that justice and comity would follow the Pentecost of calamity, and behold, violence and hatred everywhere. Did he see his world in his lifetime? He died even as his dreams died.
Our ancient sages knew the sorry plight of such world builders. They therefore added to their benediction this phrase: “But may thine end be in Life Eternal, and thy hopes, may they endure throughout all generations.” The end is not here - cannot, should not, be here. A world which a man can achieve in his lifetime is unworthy of him - unworthy of the reach of his imagination, the chivalry of his spirit, the hardihood of his faith. Only such tasks and ambitions are worthy of us as lay bare the finitude of our bodies and the infinitude of our souls, the impotence of flesh and the omnipotence of spirit, the brevity of our days and the eternity of our dreams. Blessed is the man whose dream outlives him! Blessed is the man who is strong enough to see himself grow old and powerless while his ideal remains young and green. For then, old age assumes a dignity which compensates for our infirmities. The flame of life may burn low, but the holy incense of our visions will rise inextinguishable from the undefiled altars of our ageless souls.
In his picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde tells us of a young man, radiant and beautiful as a god, whom a great artist painted in the full splendor of his youth. When the man beheld the finished masterpiece, he burst into tears. “How sad it is,” he cried, “that I must grow old. My face shall be¬come wrinkled and wizened, my eyes shall grow dim and colorless, but this picture shall remain always young. Oh, if it were only the other way! If the picture could change and I could remain always what I am now!” His wish was granted. Throughout the succeeding years his picture - his dream-world - changed with the changes that came over him, while he remained unalterably the same. Through successive stages of degradation and shame, through sin and cruelty and vice, he remained the same, young and beautiful - but his picture - the mirror and reflex of his soul - took on all the ugli¬ness, all the viciousness, and all the spiritual disfigurement which were his. At last the horror of the picture, the ghastly deformity of his dream-world, drove him to madness and to self-destruction.
This is the tragedy of one who wishes to outlive his dream, whose life-picture is tied up with that which is physical and transitory. When such a man grows old, he will have memo¬ries which will embitter his days; for all his glory will be of yesterday, and all his hopes as if they had never been. in the midst of life he is in death. Israel Zangwill, in his Italian Fantasies, brilliantly sums up this truth. “He that dies in the full tilt of his ambitions is buried alive, and he that survives his hopes and fears is dead, unburied.” And the ancestors of this brilliant writer, in their equally incisive way, declared: “The righteous are alive in death, the wicked are dead in life.”
The world, then, of dreams and ideals which man creates for himself, cannot be, should not be, achieved in his lifetime. But the Rabbis knew of another world which they believed every man could and should achieve in his lifetime. It is the world created for man by his own ideals. It is built up of mental and spiritual reactions to those ideals, out of enthusiasms and exaltations which these very ideals and loyalties create within him. For the ideals of man give to his life a definite content and a definite scope which are his real world. This, then, was the meaning of the Rabbis: “May your life be blessed with the vision of a world so beautiful that it will crowd your life with beauty, even though the vision cannot be fulfilled in your lifetime. Life may deny you the world of achievement, it cannot deny you the world of poetry and romance and the rich savor of living which the very presence of the vision within you will create for you.” Therein does the spiritual differ from the physical. The physical must be owned or consumed to be enjoyed, but we need not own or consume or realize our ideals in order to enjoy them. We enjoy them in the quest, and struggle for them, in our devotion to them.
An ethical book written by a Jewish mystic of the eighteenth century tells a naïve and charming folktale. There lived somewhere a lonely and pious Jew, poor and forgotten of men, whose entire possession in life was one single tract of the Talmud. He had no other books. The pious man spent all his days reading and re-reading this one sacred tract. It filled his entire life, it became his world. He guarded it, he loved it, he treasured it. When he died, so runs the tale, this precious tome of sacred lore was transformed into a radiant maiden of surpassing loveliness, who led this faithful devotee to the Gates of Paradise. Quaint, is it not? But how profoundly true! In similarwise did Beatrice lead Dante along the terraces of heaven. For every high devotion, for every transfiguring wish, or hope, or prayer, an angel is born unto us to be our ministrant and guardian.
Such is the potency of ideals. They give us a whole realm of celestial beauty in which to live, even while these ideals are passing through the tragic stages of denial and frustration which lead to their ultimate transfiguration. And such ideals are within the reach of all men. One need not to be learned, or highborn, or opulent, to have them. They are more precious than gold - and yet the pauper may have them for the asking. Some men have vast estates, but they are lost in waste and weeds. Others have a few square feet in front of their little homes, but love plants a flower-bed there and a tree, and behold, there is beauty and the dream of perfection.
The cobbler at his lathe may have an ideal of high artisanship. He will see the charm of his work during his lifetime. The day-laborer who is conscious of the indispensable character of his work, the merchant who is faithful to his standards of service, the employer who finds in his office a challenge to unselfishness, the professional man who regards his calling as a consecration, all of them have a dream-world which will outlive them, but one which will abundantly bless them throughout their lifetime.
These ideals are near at hand. You need not ascend mountains to find them. They have no habitation. They are everywhere. They are not only near, they are seeking us. Halevi, the mystic poet of the Middle Ages, exclaimed: “I have sought thy nearness, with my whole heart have I called upon thee, but when I went forth to find thee, I found that thou hadst been seeking me.” Our ideal is seeking us. Open your eyes, it is here, in your home, in the multitudinous acts of mutual love and sacrifice, in the exalted experience of friendship, in shop, store and office, in your community, in social work, in civic work, in religious work, in the humblest and highest task it is there.
“Behold, I have set before thee this day, Life and the Good, Death and the Evil. Choose thou Life!” Amen.