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Rabbi's Weekly Teaching
July 26, 2019
This past week, I have been engaged with a tragedy - a young man who overdosed.

(I have permission from the family to share the following)

The mother is Jewish, the father Catholic, and from our own respective faith traditions the priest and I are attempting to be a source of comfort and support.

All personal losses are challenging, but the loss of a child due to senselessness is especially traumatic.

The family survivors confront all sorts of overwhelming negative emotions.

The entire landscape confronting them seems pervasive in its darkness.

As difficult as the challenges that lie ahead - both short term and long - the parents have discussed with me how they can find the ability to appropriately support their two younger children.

We discussed at length a teaching that God shared within our shared Hebrew Scriptures: 

"I have put before you life and death; blessing and curse; therefore Choose Life!"

No one ever wants to confront the curses that come with our mortal existence, but confrontation is ultimately inevitable.

All we can do is "Choose Life"; choose to re-grasp the blessings we can still find.

Within traditional Jewish liturgy there is an opening prayer:  

Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mish'kenotecha Yisrael - How good are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel!

The prayer's origin is found verbatim within the Book of Numbers.

After the Israelites were freed from their Egyptian bondage, and received the Torah at Mount Sinai, they then began their journey through the Wilderness so as to make their way to the Promised Land.

They had to travel through the Land of Moab, and the Moabite King hired a powerful sorcerer so that he would place a destructive curse on the Israelites.

The King believed that such a powerful curse would certainly be effective and that the Jewish People would be doomed.

The King brings his sorcerer to a high spot well above the Israelite encampment, but instead of cursing the Israelites, the sorcerer instead is compelled by God to bless the Israelites.

The words recited were: 

Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mish'kenotecha Yisrael -- How good are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel!

Thus the profane words that had been intended to be a curse became instead the sacred words that Jews traditionally recite at the beginning of every day of morning prayers.

It is our prayerful reminder, at the start of our prayers, that the intention of our prayerful words is to help us find the strength to transform the cursed landscape of our lives so that we can still find the pathways of blessings that we can meaningfully travel.

The existence of curses, destruction, darkness all exist; sometimes as an overwhelming presence in our lives.  But, with our own choice we can move away from the curses of life and grasp upon the life-blood that is human hope.

The parents of the young man who suffered the illness of addiction, which ultimately led to his tragic death, have stated within their grief  that they "hope and pray" that they can help others avoid what they now confront.

In the immediate shadow of their own raw pain they still find the strength to be concerned for how they might be able to help others.

This sacred act of compassion is its own healing agent.

The desire to assist others, even when struggling with one's own pain and suffering, is a primary lever by which we act out our intentions to "Choose Life!"

In the midst of our most desolate moments in our personal wilderness, we can find blessing. We can still find hope.

Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mish'kenotecha Yisrael -- How good are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel!

May we find ways of offering these prayerful words to one another.

May we help each other move through the wilderness of our lives so as to begin to enable us to turn curses into blessings.

To the family who has lost their son z'l, thank you for sharing with me from your respective lenses of faith and allowing me to share this message with others who it may help. All of us offer our prayers or love and support to you as your face these distressing times.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Mitch
For an archive of past columns, click  here.