Thursday, January 19, 2017

Spiritual Striving, a Rich Litvak, a Chechen Warrior: An Inclusive 47th Birthday Farbrengen

The “Rich Litvak and the Merchants” parable was discussed at a ‘farbrengen’ at my house this week celebrating my 47th birthday.  A farbrengen is traditionally a time for Chasidic men to sit together, sing, eat and talk about the challenges and emotions of living and service. My farbrengen also featured men, but it included two Christian clergy, and an assortment of Jews with a range of identities; gay and straight, Buddhist, Rabbis and non-religious. Unfortunately, none of my Muslim male friends that attended in the past joined us this year.

We talked about the vastness of some of the challenges we encounter, how to have such a strong centre as not to lose heart.

I reflected that there were others whose lives did not endure for 47 years including a young man who recently died, aged 23, whose brother I visited the previous night. Life is fragile. Aside from whatever we do or don’t achieve in our lives, I give thanks that I am alive! I am grateful for my heart that has been pumping blood and the rest of my body that has worked for 47 years. I give thanks for the huge amount of food that has been produced and provided to me over all that time. And still, despite all the blessings I have received, I am unsure how to manage the anxieties that I and others grapple with.

So I talked about the parable (1) of the rich Litvak (Lithuanian) and the Polish businessmen who lodged in the same inn. The Litvak put his backpack down on the ground and fell asleep instantly. The merchants fussed with pillows and bedding but found sleep elusive. The Litvak explained to them in the morning that he could fall asleep because his bag was his own while their bedding belonged to others. In addition, the merchants were focused on whatever pleasure they could have on the road. There was no pleasure waiting for them at home, only aggressive creditors that would tear at them to retrieve their money. But the Litvak’s pleasure focus was ‘at home’ so what happened on the road was just a means to an end and didn’t stress him out. The purpose driven person can be less impacted by troubles along the way. “He who has a ‘why’ to live for, can bear almost any how.” (2)

I burst into some Chasidic songs of longing and spiritual striving, some words, one in yiddish. Those who didn’t know the songs just experienced the vibe of the songs.
A few of the participants talked about striving to do good boldly but facing great obstacles. I repeated a story I heard at a conference in Indonesia from a Muslim man from Dagestan about a great Chechen warrior of the mountains named Shamil (3). Shamil had been leading the war for independence against the Russians but now found himself a prisoner in a wagon. As the wagon travelled for days, Shamil kept asking his captors ‘where are we?’ The answer every day was the same: Russia. When Shamil finally realised how vast Russia was he said that if he had known how big it was he would not have tried to fight it. Sometimes the darkness seems too formidable. Jock, one of the Christian Farbrengen participants suggested that the story might relate to the way God leads us to do great things without allowing us to see the vastness of the challenge beforehand so we don’t give up before we start.

As I start my 48th year I am determined to do what I can to bring people together despite the challenges to that task. The Farbrengen was a delightful experience of people from different walks of life, exploring the common experience of seeking to be great human beings at the same time as being only human.

  1. R. Yaakov Yosef of Polnoy, in Toldot Yaakov Yosef Vayechi.
  2. Friedrich Nietzsche, in Frankl, V. Man's Search for Meaning

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