Life Can Be Beautiful
A Yom Kippur Sermon
Kohelet was the pen name for King Solomon, who was the wisest man of his age. He taught, "L'chol zman v'et lchol chefetz -- For everything there is a season and a time to every purpose."
Kol Nidre eve is "eit la'chashov -- a time for reflection." We should reflect on our lives, we should seek to evaluate the creation we call man.
The payetan -- poet-composer of prayers -- asks the question, "Mah anu, meh chayenu -- What are we, what is our life?" What claim can we make before Thee, oh Lord our God?
The mighty men are nothing before Thee,
Indeed, before Thy perfection even the preeminence of man over beast is naught. U'motar min ha'b'hema ayin ki hakol havel -- for everything is trivial.
A tale is told of a Chassid who was in conversation with God and said, "What is a million dollars by you, oh God?" "Oh, like two cents," was the Divine reply. "And a million years in Thy sight?" "Like one second," again came the answer. Then, getting up his courage, the Chassid said, "Gnu, if a million dollars is only like two cents, can I have a million dollars?" The heavenly voice replied, "You really want a million dollars? OK, just wait one second!"
Man is mortal -- his span of life is limited; his knowledge and powers are circumscribed. There is therefore a tendency to deprecate man; yet man is the crown of creation, the glory of the Creator in Whose image he was created.
Man, like all other animals, may be tolai'ah v'rima, affar v'eifer -- a worm's life, dust and ashes -- but man is distinguished from all other animals by his intellect. Whereas animals live by their instincts alone, man uses intelligence as well. It is true that much of which the human being does is instinctive; yet the intellect plays a very important role in shaping his character and personality. The Ethics of the Fathers teach, "Eizehu gibor - hakovesh et yitzro -- He is mighty who rules his nature." Man can be the ruler of his natural drives. Animals can not.
Animals are not known to think or plan, apply their experiences, or store them up for future reference in the form of history. They react only to immediate stimuli. Hunger will drive them in search of food; but when satiated, they will wait until they are hungry again. Impending danger will arouse them; but they will not foresee it. Some animals store food against the rigors of certain seasons, but that, too, is done by instinct rather than by foresight. Birds will fly south, bears will hibernate, etc. -- all do it instinctively. Only man saves against a rainy day, and consciously seeks a more comfortable living. Animals will mate instinctively, but will not be selective in their choice. Their lives are simple and adequate to themselves. After the mother instinct has spent itself, the lioness becomes again a selfish brute and drives her cubs from the lair, even as the fowl will rid its nest of the unwanted progeny.
Animals recognize nothing beyond themselves and their own wants. They live at present in the same manner as did their forebears thousands of years ago; progress is unknown to them. There is certainly no thought of the Divine, nor any ambition to attain what we call a higher standard of life. A race lost means nothing to the horse involved; on the other hand, man wants to know "Why?"!
Man is his own undoing because of his intellect. He will abuse his system in his effort to realize his ambitions. The student, the scholar, will neglect his personal needs. The merchant will curb his wants in order to attain his goals. His intellect impresses upon him his own inadequacy and causes him to say, "Mah anu, mah chayenu -- What are we, and what does our life amount to?" He is aware of death, and therefore seeks for himself immortality. In olden times, the family, clan, or tribe promised deathless life. In his imagination, he created for himself an afterlife, a permanent, endless, indestructible paradise. Modern man is not so easily comforted, and the greater is his frustration. "What am I here for, what is my purpose in life?", he constantly asks himself.
Of course, there are some people who live like animals -- eat, drink, and perhaps are merry, too. They give no thought to life's purpose. They, too, are driven by instinct rather than by intellect, satiate their desires, and seek nothing further from life. Those who are in this category had been so frustrated that they feel themselves completely inadequate. Having suffered disappointment and defeat, they withdraw into a shell and their lives become like the finger-painting of a nursery child -- blotches of color with no correlation or design.
To the animal, life remains the noise of a foundry, a cacophony of discordant notes. To the human being, it can be a symphony of rhythm. Human life can be beautiful. It can be made meaningful. The answer to "what are we, what is our life?" need not be "a worm's life," or "a pile of rubble," but it can be lofty for man is but little lower than the angels. He has the intellect to recognize and worship the Divine. He sees order and design in nature. He can be master of his instincts, direct them, channel them, or even inhibit them. Living becomes a panorama which unfolds before man. Robert Kennedy pointed out during his world travels that "the business of life is never completed." Man becomes a partner with God in the act of creation as he builds and molds his life. Each one creates his own tapestry out of the warp and the woof of his experiences, and adds it to the universal life panorama. In this orchestration of human experiences, as Jews, Judaism teaches us how to participate in the cosmos of living, and make our own lives more meaningful. To make it a design within the larger mosaic of mankind, for the history of the world is only the lives of little people.
Science attempts to make life more comfortable and man more powerful. Religion strives to refine man, and to make life more meaningful.
My friends, I submit that religion, whatever the faith of the individual is, should play a dominant role in human society. It lends color to lives and depth to existence. It offers man the security of the eternal against the transitoriness of his own life. It offers purpose and direction. Mankind without a religious motive would deteriorate rapidly to the level of precocious animals who spend themselves in destructive pursuits and would create a society in which not even science could long endure.
For what does religion mean -- not in the narrow sense of synagogue, church, or creed, but in its broader significance? It means just these three things:
1. Emphasis on the spiritual
Without religion, without these, life in a paradise would be a boring futility. With these, it is worthwhile even in the agonies of some nightmare hell.
A missionary agency once posted a bulletin, "Nothing to do -- only to believe." Judaism requires belief, faith in a Creator; but even more so, it requires "doing." There is SO MUCH to do in Judaism!
On this Kol Nidre, as on all others, we reflect -- and we also seek to translate our thinking into deeds.