Friday, April 14, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Celebrate Your Victories

Jewish Holidays1:8
“Happy is the man…”

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something, If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however a small way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
Howard Zinn [1922–2010], 
A Power Governments Cannot Suppress (2006), p. 270

Pesakh Seder (2017): Our table set up before the beginning of the traditional Passover seder, which begins the holiday often called the Festival of Freedom. It is seven days in Israel, eight days outside Israel. Jews who follow the Reform tradition also celebrate for seven days. Our family read from the Haggadah, both in English and in Hebrew. Our meal included gefilte fish, matzah ball soup, beef brisket and carrot tzimmes; there was an opera cake for dessert, but I was not able to eat it.
Photo Credit & Source: ©2107. Perry J. Greenbaum

The Jewish People like celebrating holidays with a table laden with food, lively discussion and lots of singing. There are no shortage of occasions to celebrate, since the Jewish calendar is filled with holidays to mark important events in the history of the Jews. As a notable example, on Monday night’s festive meal (סֵדֶר‎; seder‎) to mark the beginning of Passover (פֶּסַח‎; Pesakh), we read from the Haggadah (הַגָּדָה‎‎), which translates as “the telling.”

In  doing so, we recount the biblical story of how the Israelites (the ancestors of the modern Jews), led by Moses, an untested but patient leader, were able to gain their freedom after enduring approximately 400 years of slavery in a foreign land ruled by the ancient Egyptians. For greater detail, it is all there in the Book of Exodus (שְׁמוֹת; Shemot), part of the Torah (תּוֹרָה; instruction or teaching), the central reference document of Judaism.

The story, like all the biblical stories in the Jewish Bible of victory, reveals a transcendent being acting in some fashion on behalf of the narrator and his people, leading them to victory by the use of bloodshed and force. In this case, the narrator is Moses; the transcendent being is the God of Israel, introduced earlier by Abraham, if not Adam, the first man—as told in the first book of the Bible, the Book Of Genesis (בְּרֵאשִׁית; Bereishit). The beginning has a lot of foreshadowing of future events, of both great victories and crushing defeats.

The Bible, if anything, is a bloody book of battles; there is no escaping this conclusion, even as some of us recoil against such means of punishment, the gratuitous use of violence. These are not, by any stretch of the imagination, humanistic values, values that give us comfort. But, then again, violence has always been a part of our nature, a means to stop evil when it does occur. We tend to frame such battles as good versus evil. Uncomfortable as the idea is, it takes violence to stop evil.

The question, as always, is which battles need fighting?

Some people look to the Bible for guidance; I find in it ethical and moral teachings, especially in the prophetic literature and in its message of hope. I also find this in modern stories of courage, where individuals live in defiance of “all that is bad around us,” an idea that Howard Zinn encourages, if not outright emphasizes, in his 2006 book, A Power Governments Cannot SuppressThis is not a superfluous defiance, but a necessary defiance, where individuals are compelled to act in accordance with their conscience.

What Zinn, the child of working-class Jewish immigrants from Brooklyn, N.Y., says is instructive and strikes a chord that resonates deep in my being. I live, and have always tried to do as I think I ought to, in agreement to my values, ethics and morals. Much of it given life and nurtured from what I learned in my early years. I have had both successes and failures, including loss of friendships and sometimes more. But I have also had a few successes, where courage was victorious over cruelty. This is worth celebrating.

As are battles to regain human freedom from unnecessary constraints and the preservation of human dignity are always important, and such are often long battles, requiring perseverance and courage. Such is a universal message, a universal need that applies to all humans. As is the need for hope, not only a Jewish value but a universal one. Here we are and one of the other chief lessons is that despite the way humanity appears—and it might appear dark and gloomy today—does not mean that it will always be this way.

The situation can change; it often does. 

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