Living Actively

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Our partner, The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, regularly hosts Jewish study sessions on a variety of different topics.  Last week, they discussed “Coping with Adversity” taught by Rabbi Avi Weiss, the founder and president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. Below are reflections from Nerissa Clarke, the Senior Bronfman Fellow at The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

Rabbi Weiss presented a text from Rabbi Soloveicheik, which states: “According to Judaism, man’s mission in his world is to turn fate into destiny- an existence that is passive and influenced, to an existence that is active and influential.”

Soloveicheik argues that while there are certain things in life we cannot control, namely our birth and our death, there are other things in life over which we do have an influence. The quote reminded me a picture I have hanging up in my small NYC apartment, which often gives me inspiration. The image shows a young girl joyfully painting a scenic view on the walls of her bedroom while purposefully disregarding the fact that the only view from her small window is of a brick wall. The caption reads “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.” According to Soloveicheik (and the art on my bedroom wall), the key to coping with adversity is to live as a subject in your story, wherein you actively pursue life, a rather than as an object, wherein you let life act upon you.

During the session, the group raised question, “So how exactly does one move from being a passive object to an active subject in one’s own life?” I believe the transformation occurs from the development of self-awareness. One cannot become the first-person in their life narrative if they are not aware that they exist as a distinct and unique entity. It is not enough, however, only to be self-aware. In order to take full control of one’s life, one must also understand where they fit into the broader landscape, and how they relate to the many other distinct actors who exist in the world.

On Rosh Hashanah, we are told that “repentance, prayer and charity cancel the evil decree.” To me, the connection between becoming an active subject in one’s own life and these three components of Rosh Hashanah is clear. Repentance involves inward reflective self-awareness; prayer requires the humbling upward realization that there is more to life than self; and charity necessitates outward interaction with other distinct beings in the world.

As we enter the season of Rosh Hashanah, may we each think not only of ourselves and how to take control of our own lives, but also of our interactions with others and our impact on the world. Through inward repentance, upward prayer and outward charity, may we all come one step closer to turning our fate into destiny.

Posted on September 16, 2009

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