The following short pieces were read by Confirmation students of Temple Gates of Prayer of Metairie, Louisiana at their Confirmation service in 2014:
WORDS TO LIVE BY
As part of our Confirmation Shabbaton many of us chose a Jewish quotation that spoke to our hearts or mind. The congregation received a series of artistic posters [Voices & Visions Masters Series] with sayings from major Jewish figures from the past and present. This evening we share the teachings and how we understand them as words to live by.
“From every human being there rises a light.” – Baal Shem Tov
“From every human being there rises a light.” said by Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer, better known as Baal Shem Tov, represents each and every individual. It means no one person is useless, no one person has no meaning, and no one person has nothing to offer. Instead, we learn that in every single human being, there is meaning and that every human being has purpose and that purpose is important. It truly means that with every single one of us, there comes importance.
As a Confirmand, this quote has great meaning to me. As young members of a community, we are tempted to feel not important, as our thoughts and concerns do not have much meaning. We tend to feel small and all we can do is just listen. But, going through Confirmation, I personally felt like I did matter and what I thought did have importance. Throughout this past year, my classmates and I were able to help other grades, make decisions about where tzedakah would go, and give input on how to better the religious school program. These acts would not have been possible without the help of each and every member of my Confirmation class. From this I was shown that from each of us there rises a light.
Before he was known as Baal Shem Tov, Yisrael lived a life very close to God. His parents died when he was young, and he developed a strong emotional bond with God. Taken care of by the people in his small village, he became a big part of his Jewish community. He became a religious school assistant teacher, caretaker, and finally a rabbi for his synagogue, and took the name Baal Shem Tov, meaning Master of the Good Name.
As a rabbi, he was quoted for saying these words: “From every human being there rises a light.” I like to think that it means that all of us have a purpose. Rabbi Yisrael found his purpose: he found joy in serving God. But all of us have some special place, some special calling in this world. Every one of us has the potential to do something great in this world. The Baal Shem Tov found his purpose and lived according to it, and now it is up to us to live with ours.
“A miracle cannot prove what is impossible; it only confirms what is possible.” – Maimonides
Maimonides once said, “A miracle cannot prove what is impossible, it only confirms what is possible”. Maimonides was born in Spain, where he grew up and later practiced as a medical physician and is often referred to as the greatest Jewish thinker of all time. His strong ideals in the power of the mind and the way the human brain works are incredibly inspirational. In addition, he was a strong believer in the idea that everything in the world had an underlying scientific reason.
When thinking about miracles, I asked myself, “What is a miracle?” According to the dictionary, a miracle is “an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause”. However, by Maimonides’ definition, a miracle is nearly the opposite. How can a miracle occur, if it is something considered impossible? If you really sit down and think about this whole concept like Maimonides and I did, you would realize that the human mind and the world around you are capable of incredible things. For example, a family member miraculously recovers from an illness. Some might call it a miracle, while Maimonides would attribute the recovery to modern-day scientific technology. I bet that 10,000 years ago the Cavemen weren’t walking around thinking that there would be televisions, phones, microwaves, X-rays, or I-Pods. The reason why we see miracles in the world around us is because every time one occurs, it further proves what the world and the human race is capable of. A miracle cannot prove what is impossible; it only shows us what incredible things are possible.
“Most of the things worth doing in the world were declared impossible before they were done.” – Justice Louis Brandeis
I personally think this quote is about challenges and first impressions. If you are faced with a problem and approach it thinking it is impossible, it is impossible. Many people approach problems, especially difficult ones with this attitude. These people would find that if they worked hard to solve the problem they could and they might find that in the end, doing the impossible is extremely rewarding.
It makes sense that Louis Brandeis would say this. He was a progressive leader of his time. He successfully went against many social beliefs to try to do the “impossible” by trying to limit the control of big businesses in the early 1900’s when they had a lot of power. This did not happen much at this time, but he fought for his beliefs anyway. By fighting for what he believed was right he was greatly rewarded by being appointed as the first Jewish Justice to the United States Supreme Court.
“The heroic hours of life do not announce their presence by drum and trumpet.” – Justice Benjamin Cardozo
Benjamin Cardozo came from a Sephardic Jewish family with roots going back to the 1700s in America. He was the second Jew to be appointed a Justice of the Supreme Court and was always proud and active in the Jewish community.
His insight that “the heroic hours of life do not announce their presence by drum and trumpet” reached out to me. It means that no one is ever told that they are going to be a hero. Super-heroes like Superman and Batman may have special signals when people need help, but it does not work that way for the rest of us.
There are times when we have to be heroic and do the right thing. Situations will arise in our lives, when we will have to make difficult choices. It may be as dramatic as being called upon to save a life or as common as helping an elder cross the street. Sometimes we will act from instinct, and other times our values will lead us to heroism. We are all capable of doing great things.
“If you believe breaking is possible, believe fixing is possible” – Rabbi Nachman of Breslov
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was born in Medzhybizh, Ukraine in the year 1772. He had 10 children and was the founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement. He was a Hasidic Rebbe who introduced new ideas and new life into the Hasidic movement. He attracted many followers in his lifetime, and his influences still continue to this day. His religious philosophy was being close to God and speaking to God in normal conversation. In his early life he stressed the practice of fasting and self-castigation as the most effective way of repenting. He encouraged his followers to increase holiness within themselves to God throughout their daily actions. He also emphasized how important music was for prayer and religious practice.
As Jews we really appreciate the influence and ideas Reb Nachman has left for us. “If you believe breaking is possible, you believe fixing is possible.” This means that if there is one type of person who believes in doing something wrong, there is always going to be a person who is going to want to fix what has happened. For example, we have the problem of starvation. It is not something that we as Jews have created, but if we do something so small as to donate a canned good, it is “fixing” that problem by saving one life which is at least something. This quote represents one big Jewish value, Tikun Olam. This is repairing the world. Just because something is broken does not mean it cannot be fixed. As Jews we believe that helping, even a little, accounts for something and although it is hardly helping to solve the “crisis”, it is at least a small mitzvah step in that direction.
“I found a fruitful world, because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise I am planting for my children.” – Talmud
This quote, found in Talmud, Taanit 23a, is based off of a Talmudic story about a rabbinic sage and folk hero named Choni. A man was planting a carob tree, and Choni asked the man, “How long will it take until this carob tree bears fruit?” The man planting the tree answers, “Seventy years.” Choni does not understand why the man would plant this tree if he would not live to see it bloom, and the man replies with the quote “My ancestors planted for me. Likewise, I am planting for my children.” With this quote, the man is showing respect for his family that came before him, and respect for his future children. The idea that this man was willing to plant a late-blooming tree shows a remarkable show of character in the aspect of Jewish Beliefs. We are taught to derive benefit from the past as well as look to the future.
I connected with the quote because I like the simple, straight-forwardness of it. There are no hidden meanings to it, just an honest opinion of a Talmudic man. When I grow up, I too will want to help benefit the world for my future children, as well as teach them about their ancestors. It is important that I do not forget the past that was created for our present, and to create a future that will make life a much nicer place for our descendants.
“Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech.” – Susan Sontag
Susan Sontag, born January 16, 1933, was an American writer, filmmaker, professor, literary icon, and political activist. She wrote extensively about photography, culture, and media, AIDS and illness, human rights, and Communism and leftist ideology. During her life, she would travel to places of conflict, some being the Vietnam War, and the Siege of Sarajevo. One of her most famous quotes is: “Silence remains, inescapably, a form a speech”. When I think about what this means, it is that when in acts of conflict, you don’t always need violence to get things the way you want. Some of the most powerful words are the ones unsaid, and the most influencing actions are the ones not acted. Many inspirational people have used this idea, but the one that pops into my mind is Gandhi. He is known for employing nonviolent civil disobedience that led India to its independence.
I like this quote because, not only does it show how long this idea, that silence is powerful, has been around, but because of its straightforwardness. Even though this influential quote is made up of only seven words, it really speaks to me. I am generally a very shy and reserved person, so with the quote saying how silence is a way to express yourself, it just felt like it related to me on a more personal level. Susan Sontag was a very strong willed person, who followed through on what she believed in, and motivated many people around the world.
"Once I had tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge, there was no going back.” – Blu Greenberg
Blu Greenberg is one of the leading feminists of Orthodox Judaism. She is changing what it means to be a woman in a world where they are typically shunned from participating in services and studies. When she said, “Once I had tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge, there was no going back,” she was being very serious. She experienced what it was like to participate in the wonderful world of Judaism, and she was not interested in going back. She wanted equality, and the freedom of all orthodox women to practice as they wish.
When she said this quote she probably was not thinking of how it relates to our confirmation class. We have tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge, by studying Jewish traditions and reading prayers. Now we will continue being Jewish, whether going to every Shabbat service or not. Whether we are in NFTY or BBYO or not in a youth group, we will still think of ourselves as Jewish and we will still be Jewish. Now that we have tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge, there is no going back.
Blu Greenburg is an Orthodox Jewish woman. She has been a leader in inspiring the fact that Jewish women should have all the rites and opportunities that men are given to learn and practice in the Jewish tradition. By saying “Once I had tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge, there was no going back” she was saying that once she started to learn about Judaism she didn’t want to stop. By learning about the past and what Jews have been through she got to look into a whole new world that consisted of struggles, victories, criticisms, and hardship, but through it all the Jewish people never lost their faith. This sparked an interest in her, as it has with many other Jewish people.
To me being Jewish is like an adventure, there is so much to learn and you never know what is out there. I took an interest in furthering my Jewish education the summer of second grade. That summer I went to Henry S. Jacobs Camp. It was really fun and I made a lot of lifelong friends there, but the knowledge that by going there I was furthering my Jewish education was also a big part of what drew me back every summer. Learning all of these things in a fun environment, I realized that learning about Judaism wasn’t just about going to services or having a Bat Mitzvah, or even being Confirmed, it was about having a chance to learn things that aren’t particularly linked to your everyday life, but instead shows the roots from which we all came. We know that even though over the years we have learned a lot about Judaism, we are far from done learning, and so, even though it might be hard sometimes, we look forward to everything we have to learn in the years to come.