If you were cast away on an island with just one Jewish text for company, which would you choose?
This week, Rabbi Howard Cooper, of Finchley Reform Synagogue, selects Ten Rungs: Hasidic Sayings by Martin Buber
Everyone must have two pockets, so that each of us can reach into the one or the other, according to our needs.
In the right pocket is to be a piece of paper with the words, “For my sake was the world created.” And in the left pocket a piece of paper saying, “I am dust and ashes.”
Intuitively, we know what this is about. There are times when we go along quite cheerfully, thinking we are doing pretty well in life: we are fairly good people, responsible citizens, we support the right causes, we’re fair-minded and honest, sensitive and decent, tolerant (but there are limits), reasonably charitable, we try to be kind to children and animals and those less fortunate than ourselves.
Life, we fondly feel, is good to us – on the whole. The piece of paper in the left pocket is for when we are in the midst of this pride and self-congratulation (which can turn into grandiosity). It reminds us of our fragility, our mortality, our transience, our insignificance in the scheme of things.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. As the Psalmist says: “Frail man, his days are like grass…” All of life is provisional, a temporary, precarious, holding on, fending off the inevitable. This is one reality.
And another reality is captured in that other piece of paper: there has never been anyone like us ever before in human history. We are each unique, wondrously complex beings. We are the epicentre of the world. How humble – and awestruck – does that make us feel?
When we are feeling low or dispirited or hopeless, or that life has little meaning, we reach out towards the simple unfolding mystery of our being here.
We have a purpose, a value, after all.