Saturday, November 30, 2019
I'm posting here the text of my Foreword to Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen's excellent book We're Almost There: Living with Patience, Perseverance & Pupose (Mosaica press, 2016).
Jews often teach by telling stories and learn by listening to them. The best stories for teaching and learning are not parables—though there are many wonderful parables. Rather, they are true stories—stories of the lived experience of men and women. The book you hold in your hands is a collection of such stories. From them, you will derive wisdom, though I must warn you that you will shed a tear or two along the way. (Don’t worry, however, for you will also be rewarded by a chuckle now and then.)
Rabbi Dovid Cohen teaches us by sharing the stories of his life. He does more, however, than merely recount the facts. He interprets them and shares with us his reflections—invariably thoughtful and instructive—on their meaning. In doing so, he gives us a window into his life and, indeed, into his soul. But his stories are not just about him. They are about a people—his people, the Jewish people—a people whose rich traditions and deep spirituality, whose ancient books and modern sages, have shaped him from top to bottom. They give us a window into Jewishness.
Are these stories just for Jews, then?
No. Any gentile—at least any gentile who, like me, is willing to look up unfamiliar Yiddish or Hebrew words—has much to learn from Rabbi Dovid’s stories. And that is because the Jewish people, though “a people set apart,” are a people with a mission in the world—a divine mission. They are a people who are called to be “a light unto the nations.” And, true to that mission, Rabbi Dovid offers enlightenment—wisdom—to anyone who reads his stories thoughtfully and with a desire to learn.
Gentiles and Jews alike face the ordinary and sometimes extraordinary challenges that are the essence of leading a human life. We come into the world as children, full of wonder and needful of years of attentive care and nurturance. We are rational creatures, yet we have feelings and emotions. We experience joy and anger, happiness and hurt, affection and pain. We are required to earn our daily bread. We fall in love, marry, and have children of our own. As we watch with joy our sons and daughters grow into fine men and women, we watch with sadness our beloved parents grow frail with age. We have in laws. And neighbors. And friends. And people with whom we are not so friendly. We are, in a sense, locked into our own subjectivity, yet we can share our thoughts and feelings with others. We are individuals, yet members of communities. We are material beings, yet also spiritual beings to whom the Almighty has given a share of the divine powers of reason and freedom of the will. As the Bible says, “we are made in the image and likeness of God.” Yet unlike God, we are mortal—mere “dust of the earth.” And we live our lives in contemplation of our deaths.
These are, as I say, challenges common to all people in all times and at all places. Many traditions offer insights into them. But there is a special perspective—offering a unique body of wisdom—rooted in the experience of the Jews as God’s chosen people.
The great pagan philosopher Plato taught that the “unexamined life is not worth living.” Rabbi Dovid teaches through his stories that it is worth living an examined life. He has encountered life’s challenges—everything from changing professions to bringing up a disabled child—reflectively, looking for meaning, and finding it. How is it that he finds it, when so many others say they look for meaning yet find only meaninglessness? It is because Rabbi Dovid does not stumble around in the dark. He has a light. It is the light of faith. It is in the light of faith that what is invisible in the darkness becomes clear.
Yet the Rabbi’s faith is not an uncritical faith. Nor does it make all the answers to life’s challenges obvious or easy. It doesn’t solve the great and sometimes painful mysteries, such as why the beautiful and brilliant daughter of a neighbor suddenly dies at the age of eighteen. But faith sustains him—and, he teaches, faith can sustain us—in hope and in the redeeming power of the God for whom we, as spiritual creatures, long. As we come to terms with life’s challenges, seeking meaning in the light of faith, we find ourselves, in a sense, cooperating with God—praying, studying, following His commandments in caring not only for ourselves but for others. And in this cooperation, we experience not slavery, but rather freedom, the freedom that faith-sustaining hope alone can make possible.
Robert P. George, Princeton University