Thursday, July 10, 2008

What Do You Have When You Have Nothing?

Natural disasters have dominated the news. In June there were the disastrous floods in the Midwest, and in July, wildfires ravaged Northern California. Thousands have watched their homes and possessions destroyed.

It is particularly painful to consider the fate of those who lived outside of flood or fire “range”, and were not insured. In a matter of hours, they watched the bulk of their assets disappear, along with their homes and communities. In natural disasters like these, lives are ravaged along with the countryside.

The question that nature forces upon the survivors of these catastrophes is simple: what do you have when you have nothing? It's a question that seems absurd at first; if you have lost everything, then you truly have nothing.

Actually, those of us who live comfortably are afraid of contemplating this question. We are driven more by a fear of loss than by any possibility of gain. (This has been demonstrated by the economist Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his work in this area). If fear of loss is frightening, the thought of losing everything is terrifying and unthinkable.

In loss, the unfortunate victims have nothing, and feel like they are less than nothing. Indeed, the Midrash, refers to this sentiment in saying that “poverty is like death”. Faced with extreme losses, it feels like life is not worth living; indeed, Job, after suffering the loss of his family and his wealth, is urged by his wife to curse God and commit suicide.

But this is the wrong answer. Even when stripped of everything else, people still have their character. In times of extreme stress, a person still has the courage to cope with their circumstances, and the dignity to transcend their limitations. Although impoverished and homeless, man still holds the keys to his own character.

Character is our most precious possession. Little David, a shepherd boy armed only with a slingshot, can take on Goliath because he has something Goliath lacks: character. David’s weapons are courage and cunning; weapons like these are held in one’s heart, not in one’s hands.

Dreams are another priceless possession that can never be destroyed. No matter what a person’s situation, he can still pursue his dreams. And when the dispossessed pursue their dreams, they can change the world. The Prophet Zachariah describes the messiah as poor, and riding on a simple donkey. Zachariah’s words remind us that if you want to redeem the world, you need to hold on tight to your dreams, even in poverty and hardship.

Throughout history, many have faced the question of “what do you have when you have nothing?”. Some, like Job’s wife, have given the wrong answer, and given up. But those who continue to hold courageously onto their dreams have changed the world.

A few months ago, I visited the Museum of the Jewish Heritage in New York. On display was a special chuppah commissioned in the year 1946 by the Joint Distribution Committee. (a chuppah is a marriage canopy used in Jewish weddings). What made this chuppah unique was that it was for the use of Holocaust survivors who were marrying each other after surviving the war.

When I saw this chuppah, I was overwhelmed with emotion. How is it that people who had seen so much destruction, who had lost everything, could still get married? Isn’t it absurd to try again at life when you have nothing left? But I realized that these couples where not truly destitute and bereft; after all they had their dignity and their dreams, the most important possessions in the world. And it is these couples, with nothing else but each other, who went about rebuilding the Jewish world and succeeding beyond their wildest dreams.

These poor survivors, who had nothing in their hands, actually had everything they needed, tucked away in their hearts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

But there is still an unanswered question: shouldn't there be a limit to what G-d inflicts on us as so-called test, shouldn't be a little more quid pro quo ? One of the most difficult question in kabbalah is the wicked who prosper and the "bad" things happening to good people. When you look at the world, it looks like evil rules the world. Ok, those might be tests to check who will be masochist enough to keep devoting to the world despite the pain undergone. But is this fair behavior from G-d, after all, he made us with desires and free will. Shouldn't He be treated according to his deed, that is since He made us with desire and free will, He should be exected to live with the fact that we could withdraw our love when treated unfairly. Shouldn't He take into account our nature when rewarding and punishing, that is reward with things that WE feel as reward and punish us with things that WE feel as punishment. It is like when He makes happen something HE wants (not WE want), he dare call that a reward for US ? Frankly, if he wanted robots, it would have been fairer to create us without desire and free will.