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December 6, 2019 9:58 am

Three Jewish Stories and the Essence of Life

avatar by Paul Socken


A Torah scroll. Photo: Reuters / Amir Cohen.

Three short Jewish stories sum up the essence of life — and suggest the essential elements for a life of satisfaction and meaning.

The first story concerns a king who sends a messenger to a distant city with an important message. The messenger is doing well, until he comes to a crossroad where the signpost is down. He doesn’t know which path to follow.

Finally, it occurs to him to put the sign up with the name of the city he came from, facing in the direction that he had been walking. Then he knows where to go.

The first story tells us that, like a traveler who doesn’t know where to go until he knows where he came from, we need connection with our past in order to move forward. Only when we are aware of our past, can we chart our future.

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The second story tells of three farmers standing in a field during a terrible drought. They gather in the same place every day to pray for rain, which never comes. One morning, a fourth farmer walks by and asks what they’re doing. They tell him,  and he responds that their efforts, while well-intentioned, will not be effective.

They ask why, and he responds: “Because no one is standing in the field with an umbrella.”

This story is about faith. Praying for rain without an umbrella is not faith. Faith is real hope, true devotion, and profound belief — beyond ritual, words or ceremony.

The three farmers were going through the motions, ritualistically offering up prayers that they hoped, like a formula, might obtain results. The fourth man understood that only simple, honest and earnest belief merits reward.

The third story is about relationships. Rabbi Harold Kushner tells of his experience watching a boy and a girl build an elaborate sand castle, when a wave comes along and knocks it down. Instead of being devastated, the children laugh, hold hands and run to another part of the beach and build another castle.

He writes: “Only our relationships to other people endure. Sooner or later, the wave will come along and knock down what we have worked so hard to build up. When that happens, only the person who has somebody’s hand to hold will be able to laugh.” Things matter. But people matter more.

So, all life comes down to the fact that life is intergenerational: We need connection to our past to know who we are. Faith and hope are essential parts of life. And loving relationships are critical to a life of meaning.

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said it best: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.”

Dr. Paul Socken is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Waterloo.

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