The Confession of One’s Soul

June 1, 2011
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David Ellenson

When my friend Susan Berrin invited me to write for Sh’ma, she asked that I respond to two very significant existential questions: How do we assess if we have done enough during our lifetime? And, how do we measure the import and significance of a life? Rather than answer abstractly, offering a philosophical reflection upon the meaning of life, I will respond personally, describing the complexity of the human situation as I experience it.

I am fully aware that I write as a public figure, having served for a full decade as president of the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. Although I much prefer the life of a scholar — the control and order such a life affords as well as the passion and joy that full-time engagement with ideas and thought evokes — there are public and private dimensions of this position that I enjoy. While I often “rejoice” in my life, I know that however much I accomplish, it is never enough. I feel the weight of yearning constantly to do more, and the satisfactions that accompany my work seem fleeting and transitory in comparison to the enormity of the necessary tasks that are yet to be completed.

This is my “confession,” an attempt to look honestly at my life — its accomplishments and shortfalls. These reflections are born out of my character (a contemplative and sometimes even disconsolate personality) and more generally out of my pervasive personal angst about not doing enough. Even our Jewish funeral liturgy suggests this tension: “O Lord, what is man that You have regard for us? What are we, that You are mindful of us? We are like a breath; our days are like a passing shadow; we come and go like grass, which in the morning shoots up, renewed, and in the evening fades and withers.” (verses from Psalms) Macbeth’s poignant soliloquy acknowledges that doubt and frustration — such as the despair that marks my own life — are universal aspects of the human condition: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more, it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

The burden and worry that so many of us seem to bear as we come closer to death struck me more intensely this past January at the funeral of Debbie Friedman. Debbie contributed so significantly to Jewish worship renewal, and her prayers and songs are sung in every quarter of the world. The outpouring of love and appreciation for her, both in life and after her death, made clear just how profoundly she touched the lives of tens of thousands of people in the most intimate ways. By every reasonable standard, hers was a life of outstanding accomplishment and unquestionable significance.

Although no one had more reason to “rejoice in her portion,”1 insecurity and doubt about her contributions to life and their meaning plagued Debbie’s soul. In a message she wrote to her friend Alice Shalvi in Jerusalem just two months prior to her death, she confided: “I think we are frightened of our own death for a few reasons. First of all, we wonder if we have given anything to the world; [have we given] enough that we will be remembered? Then, we are terrified [that] we are going to be forgotten. That we will have lived and worked hard to make a difference in the world and it will all have been for nothing because it is forgotten and we are forgotten. That, in fact, we are nothing more than dust and ashes.”

In her creativity and passion for life, as well as in her profound doubt, Debbie embodied the essence of the human spirit. Her capacity to inspire the world with her transcendent music had as its foundation a unique insight into the depths and pain, the hopes and fears, of the human soul. Her music and her questions remain a powerful and honest legacy for us all.

These are the questions with which we wrestle — and there is no nechemta, consolation, that can completely remove the angst associated with such reflections. Rather, it is through such confession and in the personal scouring and examination of the depths of one’s soul that I find a modicum of relief from the doubt and uncertainty that characterize questions about how to measure the fullness and significance of a life.

1 “Who is rich? Hasmeah b’helko, those who rejoice in their portion.” Pirkei Avot 4:1.

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Rabbi David Ellenson is president of the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. He is the author of Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer and the Creation of a Modern Jewish Orthodoxy and After Emancipation: Jewish Religious Responses to Modernity, which won the 2005 National Jewish Book Award, specifically receiving the Dorot Foundation Award as the most outstanding book on modern Jewish thought and experience. His book with Daniel Gordis on 19th- and 20th-century Orthodox responses to conversion will be published by Stanford University Press in early 2012.

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