Friday, May 23, 2008

Rami: Last Thoughts on the Eighth Commandment

Yes, we are both people of faith, meaning that we each have faith that we are right and the other is wrong, and lack incontrovertible proof to secure our argument. That’s what makes this so much fun.

I don’t think either one of us, however, is really uncomfortable with competing faith claims. In fact, knowing you as I do, it is our differences that make our conversations so enjoyable. I would also say that you are humble enough and brave enough to recognize that not knowing is the key to faith. At least speaking for myself, I revel in the philosophical freefall of not knowing. And I think you do as well. Violence is never an issue for people who love to dialogue. We don’t need to convince one another of who is “really” right and who is “really” wrong (although we both know that I am really right, but, hey, I want to be humble, too). I find little value in talking to someone who believes exactly as I do, or who parrots back to me what I am saying. I learn from you because you differ from me.

Case in point, I know next to nothing about Tolkien, and was very interested in what you had to say about him. I would only add that when it comes to story the commandment should read, “You shall not plagiarize.”

I’m only half joking.

Paraphrasing the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, “There is enough room in this world for everyone. The reason we feel so crowded is that we are trying to stand in someone else’s place.” Each of us has our own story, but somehow we come to believe that our story isn’t as good as some other story, so we abandon our story for that other one. But the fit is awkward at best, and in so doing we are stealing from God’s infinite diversity. As Eli Weisel once said, “God made humanity because God loves stories.”

To bring this back to the Eighth Commandment, when we live someone else’s story we rob the world of our own. This was brought home to me ten or fifteen years ago. I was attending a Jewish educators’ conference, and a middle-aged woman approached me for advice. She told me that she was the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, and that her parents lost all of their family in the Nazi slaughter. When she was born her father was convinced she was the reincarnation of his sister. The woman was named after her deceased aunt, and forced to live her aunt’s story as best her father could remember it.

As you can imagine, she was miserable. She wanted to discover who she was, but didn’t want to dishonor her parents and violate the Fifth Commandment.

I asked her how old she was, and she told me she was almost 49. “This is wonderful,” I said, “you’re entering your personal Jubilee Year, from 49 to 50. Torah says that all debts are forgiven during the Jubilee Year, so for 49 years you honored your parents and your father’s memory of his sister, but now that debt to the past is forgiven. Use the next year and to begin to discover your true self, and continue that process for the next 49 years.” She was genuinely relived, though what she actually did, I don’t know.

The 17th century Hasidic rabbi, Susya of Hanipol said, “When I die and stand before the Heavenly Judge I will not be asked why I was not like Abraham or Moses? To such a question, I could provide a very convincing answer. No, when I die I will be asked only one question, the answer to which will determine whether or not I take my place in the World to Come, ‘Why was I not Susya?’ And to this I will have nothing to say at all.”
We should each live in a way that allows to die knowing we lived true to our authentic story.

I get the sense we have done enough damage to the Eighth Commandment, so let me end this post here, and follow it with my initial thoughts on the Ninth Commandment, You shall not bear false witness.

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