Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Matter of Perspective

In Jewish thought, there's an idea that the way we perceive the world around us determines the reality of that world. While this has far reaching ramifications in a spiritual/existential sense, it can also be applied on a day to day level. How we live our lives depends in part on our outlook; while there are certain things that remain absolute and unchangeable, many other areas can be influenced by our attitude. A few examples:

  • On a brutally cold morning in Auschwitz, three men huddle near their barracks. One turns to his friend and says "You know, I am so happy to be here in this camp." His friend incredulously exclaims: "Are you crazy? How could you say that you are happy to be here?" The first man shrugs. "Maybe you are right," he replies, "but if I was upset and angry, instead of happy, I would still be here!"
  • A mechitza (a structure used to separate men and women in a synagogue) can be seen as a terrible thing, causing a separation between the sexes. Women can feel like second class citizens, relegated to the back of shuls, shunted off to the side, put behind a impregnable barrier. The truth is, however, that the mechitza should be looked at as a tool for bringing people together. In the context of halachic decorum in the shul, the lack of a mechitza would make it necessary for women to stay outside; men cannot pray in the presence of women. Therefore, the mechitza is one of the greatest attributes of a shul - it allows women to enter and join in the prayers, and hear kriat haTorah, etc., effectively causing a wonderful unity and harmony for all.
  • Once, Nazi hunter Simon Weisenthal was honored by a religious group, who presented him with an award for his efforts. Deeply moved, Weisenthal related a story that occurred shortly after the war, involving himself and Rabbi Leizer Silver, who was an army chaplain at the time. They and several others had been conferring about various issues. At the end of the meeting, the group gathered together to pray. Weisenthal refused to join: "When I was in the camp, there was one Jew who had smuggled a siddur (prayer book) into the camp - a crime punishable by death. At first, I thought he was courageous, and righteous. The next day, however, I learned that he was renting this siddur out: for the meager scraps that were given out as food rations, he would let a person use it for a few minutes. This man was stealing food from their mouths! I decided then that if that is how a 'religious' Jew can act, I want no part of it, ever." As he turned away, Rabbi Silver touched him gently on the shoulder: "Simon, don't be foolish! Instead of seeing the one Jew who was willing to take his comrade's last crust of bread, see the many Jews who were willing to give their last crust for the chance to say a few words from a siddur!"
There are countless opportunities every day to exercise this idea. Our approach to familial obligations, prayer, school, the possibilities are endless...

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