THE BLOG
08/04/2014 04:57 pm ET Updated Oct 04, 2014

Redemption in the Present Tense

This week, Jews around the world are marking Tisha B'Av, a day of mourning for all that is broken in ourselves and in our world. Judaism generally places tremendous emphasis on maintaining a deeply joyful attitude and perspective, no matter what. But this is the one day in our calendar when we focus intently on how far we have to go until ourselves and our world are at peace and whole. However, even on this day our mourning is profoundly optimistic by nature, for our tradition also teaches that this is the very day on which redemption comes to the world - that is, by facing the full devastation of the brokenness, we merit to see its healing.

We might think well of redemption merely as an unlikely fantasy, but it need not be so. My dear friend and teacher, Rabbi Sarah Bracha Gershuny, once shared a piece of Torah with me about this that literally changed my life. She pointed out to me that when we Jews say the Amidah - one of our most important and frequently recited prayers - we bless the Creator for being our Redeemer, not in the past or future, but in the present tense: Blessed are You, Adonai, who redeems those who struggle with the Infinite. Redemption is not an event, but a process, and it is happening now.

We Jews are used to talking about past redemptions from Egypt and Persia, which we celebrate at Pesach (Passover) and Purim, and of course there is plenty of talk in our tradition about the future redemption, which is hoped will lead to a messianic era of peace for all mankind. But how often do we apply the words of the Amidah's blessing to our own lives, and consider that what is happening right now might in fact be the process of redemption?

If we take this on as a thought experiment for a few minutes, we might find ourselves looking at each concentric sphere of our lives a little differently, and perhaps more healthily. For example, in my inner life, let's say I'm challenged one day by feelings of anger, fear, or resentment. I might very well do what many of us do when this happens, and make things worse for myself by telling myself some kind of judgemental story about why I'm feeling the way I do. For example, I might tell myself that I deserve to be this way for some reason or another, and that I'm stuck being the kind of person who feels this way. This judgement heaps further suffering upon the original unpleasantness of how I was feeling, and often prolongs it unnecessarily.

However, if I suggest to myself that maybe what is happening is part of a redemptive process, I have replaced the damaging secondary story with one that allows me to look for and benefit from a positive side of this experience - a silver lining to my angry cloud. This is what the Ba'al Shem Tov meant when he spoke of seeing that even our yetser hara (evil inclination) is in fact doing the work of the Creator, who is infinitely good. When we feel a challenging emotion such as anger, there is often a powerful lesson behind it, which we will not hear until we stop resisting our experience, and start paying closer attention to it. As the Besht's student, the Maggid of Mezhirech, wrote: "all that a person sees and hears and all the occurrences which happen to him, they all come to awaken him."

One more example, on a bigger scale. Let's imagine two peoples don't like each other very much. There are angry words, and perhaps even acts of violence which cause trauma and deeply embedded fear and suspicion. A helpless onlooker might well tear their hair out, or despair of humanity's chances of survival, if they see only the pain and suffering before them. But what if we try to consider that what is happening may be a part of a process of redemption, in some way that is not possible to currently discern? It might not make reality any less ugly, but it might open some new questions about the situation: Is life evolving, somehow, through this painful struggle? What will this struggle look like to a historian looking back, millennia from now? Where are the possible lessons and blessings - the silver linings - even amidst the most wretched chapters of human suffering?

I realize that writing this at a time of intense conflict in the middle east could be misconstrued as trying to diminish the suffering occurring there. That is not my intention, nor am I espousing that we should care any less deeply about that suffering. In fact, I am proposing we experiment with looking at things a little differently, not to deny or escape from how much suffering is happening in the world, but because this change in perspective may help us to make a real contribution to fixing it.

Judaism does not claim to offer one definitive narrative of the world's redemption. Our prophets and sages offer many different visions, many of which seem contradictory. One thing they have in common is they describe a paradigm shift to something that would be difficult to understand from our current standpoint. In other words, we can't predict the future, but the good news is that we don't need to. The Amidah is suggesting we let go of our stories about what the end or goal of redemption is, and start living the process, inviting it into our lives. In doing so, we will relate to ourselves and the world around us differently, and become a channel for that process. This is an essential step in or preparation for the next sacred day in our calendar, Tu B'Av - the festival of love.