Last night the gift was an introduction to Abraham Joshua Heschel's essay, "The Meaning of This Hour." My oldest son, Saul, struggled through the essay and needed help understanding it for school. He'd been assigned it to study Heschel's commitment to the civil rights struggle. As soon as he told me it was a Heschel piece I felt his pain; I still would like someone to explain to me the prepositional pairing "over against" Heschel relied on in I and Thou. So I sympathized with Saul's challenge and agreed to help him.
Of course in trying to explain the essay to Saul, I learned it better myself. The first time I read it I heard Heschel's dual tone of immediacy and righteous indignation. But when Saul and I reviewed it I gained new insights into the causes of Heschel's fury.
Heschel places the blame for the Holocaust squarely at the feet of the world's inaction. He writes,
"The roar of bombers over Rotterdam, Warsaw, London, was but the echo of thoughts bred for years by individual brains, and later applauded by entire nations. It was through our failure that people started to suspect that science is a device for exploitation, parliaments pulpits for hypocrisy, and religion a pretext for a bad conscience."
To Heschel the onset of the war was no surprise, and the failure of the mechanisms of our society to stop it was only a proximate cause. The ultimate cause was the failure of the individuals behind those mechanisms -- the 'our' in his formulation -- to act.
Heschel's prose cascades upon the reader as rhetorical two-by-fours upside the head. But few blows strike as harshly as these:
"There has never been more reason for man to be ashamed than now. Silence hovers mercilessly over many dreadful lands. The day of the Lord is a day without the Lord. Where is God? Why didst Thou not halt the trains loaded with Jews being led to the slaughter...Like Moses, we hid our face; for we are afraid to look upon Elohim, upon His power of judgment...Indeed, where were we when men learned to hate in the days of starvation? When raving madmen [read: Hitler and his gang] were sowing wrath in the hearts of the unemployed?"
In several quick thrusts Heschel smashes a common post-Holocaust excuse for a lack of faith: if God truly existed, He would have stopped the Holocaust. Au contraire, calls the rageful Rabbi. Man was called upon to act, and instead he hid himself, slinking away like a chastised dog. For Heschel, inaction is the worst evil of all.
Saul read this essay in the context of understanding the civil rights movement. But this essay places before us an eternal demand for action against the failures of society, wherever and whenever they occur.
And here, for me, is my biggest difficulty with Heschel's exhortation. His call to action echoes within me. As does Heschel's scorn for the petty distractions that prevent our action: "We should not spend our life hunting for trivial satisfactions while God is waiting constantly and keenly for our effort and devotion."
Yet I remain intimidated by the call. The need is so great and so constant. How can I possibly meet it? Before reading the essay, I comforted myself thinking my only responsibility is to try; I am mindful of the Talmudic teaching, 'Neither may you complete the work, nor may you desist from it.' But have my efforts been sufficient? Is there more I could do? And what does it mean to be 'hunting for trivial satisfactions?' Am I not allowed to go to a movie with my children over July 4th weekend?
Ironically, once again my son has been an agent bringing me to a point of challenge. But he has also brought me the gift of self-examination, and with it the potential for growth. And, as I feel, ultimately, gratitude for my children, as I do so often.