Our clock within and our clock without will soon be ticking away the final hours of 2014. As the year began 365 days ago, we felt a surge of hope for Israel and the world. Instead despair struck, far too many deaths in war and terrorist attacks.
As one writer put it, “when you are backed up against the wall, constant itching and scratching, you have only one choice but to act.” Merely acting is not sufficient; we need stability and a path ahead that is level.
With all that has been written about innovative timepieces this year, what many miss is the old grandfather clock. Its chimes rhythmically marked the hours of the day.
You watched closely, fascinated, as the long pendulum swung to and fro never out of range of its limited arc. Most important, the clock kept perfect time.
As 2015 is upon us, let us apply the analogy of the pendulum to our daily living. We swing back and forth between moods. The challenge, which is ours alone, is to channel our varied feelings so that we can gently and gracefully swing through each day in the year ahead.
At the beginning of the year, our faith reminds us that the Torah has two paths: one, fire, one ice. Turn to one, you are burned. Turn to the other, frozen. So the essential message of Judaism, somewhat forgotten in these days of extremes – is to take the middle path.
For Israelis, one of the ways in which we measure the calmness leading to achievement is through the Israel Prize award. The winner in the Talmud category, this year, was Professor Shammai Friedman. A native of Philadelphia, the cradle of liberty in the United States, he and his family have been here for close to a half a century.
On Israel Independence Day, I watched the presentation to the Israel Prize laureates.
Exhilaration was the mood which overcame me. I recalled Professor Friedman, 52 years ago, teaching a class in the essentials of Rashi’s commentary on the Torah. Now a multitude of students, lay people, academics, are studying Shammai Friedman’s commentary on the Talmud.
In 1987 Friedman made a breakthrough when he led the Saul Lieberman Institute of Talmudic Research into the computer age.
This quarter of a century of intense research by him using Talmudic texts from many different centuries, accessible in a database, has made Friedman a “gaon” in this era.
We can clearly see what one individual has done with his life. What will we do as this new year begins with all its possibilities? I once read about a young man of 20 who died in the Israeli War of Independence. In his diary, he wrote. “Lately, I have been thinking about what the goal of life should be. At best, one’s life is short. The years of life do not satisfy the hunger for life. We can reach either one of two conclusions.
“The first is that life is so short, we should enjoy it as much as possible. The second is that precisely because life is short, we should dedicate life to a sacred and worthy goal.”
His conclusion before his death was “that life is worth little by itself unless it serves something greater than itself.”
When we think in terms of what we can accomplish, we have the ability to fill our time here on earth with so much more. Plus we can help others and make life better for those who are sorely suffering. How do we get to that stage when we can accomplish this? Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words can help us raise ourselves to the point where we can recognize what we are capable of accomplishing now.
“It is one of the illusions that the present hour is not the critical, decisive hour. Write it on your heart that every day is the best day of the year. No man has earned anything rightly until he knows... that today is a king in disguise, you can unmask the king as he passes.”
How can we discover if we are capable of taking those steps in the next 365 days which will prepare us to act when that opportunity presents itself? There is the tale of the young man who had become an apprentice to a blacksmith.
During the course of his training, he learned how to hold the tongs, how to lift the hammer, how to smite the anvil, and how to blow the fire with the bellows. When he finished his apprenticeship, he was chosen to be employed at the royal smithy. What an honor! The young man’s delight at his appointment soon turned to despair when he discovered that he had failed to learn how to kindle a spark. All of his skill and knowledge in handling the tools were of no avail because he had not learned the most basic principle – to light the fire.
Unless we are fired with conviction, then what we could do is essentially meaningless.
Turn back our calendars to September 1954. Earlier that year the Supreme Court of the United States had ruled that the doctrine in existence for many years, “separate but equal,” was no longer operable. The first application of the new principle was “that segregation in American schools was illegal.”
One of the first states to halt segregation in its schools was the tiny state of Delaware.
At that time H. Albert Young was attorney general of the state, the first Jew ever elected to such a high position. In southern Delaware the schools of Milford had to be desegregated.
Young accepted his constitutional responsibility and prepared to act. Anti-semites flooded the state, arriving by car, bus, train, plane and even by boat. They filled the cities with the worst possible anti-Jewish hatred. A noted figure in this array was Bryan Bowles, whom Time magazine claimed was out to get the attorney general so he could not perform that “vicious act” of integration.
H. Albert Young, as I can tell you from letters written to him from the members of the Jewish community, had little support.
He was a “profile in courage” because the fire of changing the lives of African-Americans had become a part of his personal makeup.
He was the only Jewish public servant in the entire country who took children by the hand and led them into the newly desegregated schools of Milford.
His act has never been forgotten.
Recently, I learned that Professor Aaron Demsky, now retired from Bar-Ilan University and a classmate of mine, 50 years duration, at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, had been awarded the Bialik Prize in Hebrew literature, presented by the city of Tel Aviv. Born in the United States, Demsky always told his classmates in New York that he was going to demonstrate his ability in the Hebrew language which he so loved. He and his wife made aliya many years ago; he earned his PhD at an Israeli university and has had a notable career here.
Professor Demsky is known widely for his pioneering work in deciphering the origins of Hebrew names since the biblical period.
Now the Bialik prize was given to him because of his expertise in the use of the Hebrew language in the many books he has authored in the field of biblical studies. He has never given up making our language his most significant priority.
Let us be inspired by the swinging of the pendulum in the grandfather clock and direct our lives in a way which will bring a balanced stable life to all. Also let us catch that spark which can kindle a world, a people, a person, thereby illuminating the causes in which we are involved. May we be fired up with the energy to carry through what we choose to do in 2015.