Rosh Hashanah 5775 (2014)
“There is only one Sadness…”
Rabbi Mark Kinzer / Congregation Zera Avraham
It was the first decade of the 20th century. Jacques and Raissa Maritain were students in the Paris Sorbonne, the most prestigious school in France. They were young, brilliant, and in love. They should have been filled with joy and hope. Instead, they were contemplating suicide.
Jacques was raised in a secular family. Raisssa was a Russian Jew whose family had emigrated to France when she was a child. Like Jacques, she had no defined religious commitment. They should not have been surprised or disheartened by the worldview they encountered at the university. According to their teachers at the Sorbonne, there were no transcendent values. Only the material world was real. Truth, goodness, and beauty were but subjective human ideas that had proven advantageous in the process of evolution.
But Jacques and Raissa were not your typical students. They thought and felt deeply about everything. They realized what this worldview implied about life: in the final analysis, all was meaningless. Truth, goodness, beauty were illusions. There was nothing worth living for – and so they were considering leaving life itself behind, and doing it together on their own terms.
Then they read a book that changed everything. It was a novel by a devout Christian by the name of Leon Bloy. The final line of the novel took their breath away, and became a motto for their future life together: “There is only one sadness – not to be a saint.”
Bloy awakened their spirits to a world they had not comprehended before. He soon became their mentor and friend, and finally their God-father as they took the plunge into a new life.
Bloy also taught them about the significance of the Jewish people. He had written a book about the Jews, in which he said the following: “The Jews are the first-born of all peoples, and when all things are in their final place, their proudest masters will think themselves honored to lick the Jewish wanderers’ feet. For everything has been promised them, and in the meantime they do penance for the earth. The right of the first-born cannot be annulled by a punishment however rigorous, and God’s word of honor is unchangeable, because “His gifts and vocation are without repentance” (Crane 14-15).
Jacques went on to become the most prominent Catholic intellectual in France, and he and Raissa together took their place among the most adamant Christian opponents of anti-Semitism in Europe. One of their close friends was Marc Chagall. In numerous paintings Chagall portrayed Yeshua as the crucified Jew who represented the tragic fate of his suffering brothers and sisters in modern Europe. The story told by Chagall’s paintings conveyed through art what Jacques Maritain proclaimed in his writings. Jacques looked with horror on what was about to happen to European Jews, and called it “the Passion of Israel.”
Jacques and Raissa took seriously the challenge of Leon Bloy, and they were determined to not experience that ultimate sadness of which he had written. Their life of prayer, loving-kindness, and zeal for justice was acknowledged by all who knew them. Many came to faith in God through them. Today, they are even being considered in the Catholic Church as candidates for beatification and sainthood.
As I have been preparing for the High Holidays, I have been thinking much about the Maritains, and those words of Leon Bloy that changed their lives. In the Catholic culture of early 20th century France, the word “saint” connoted someone who was the exception rather than the rule, a person whose radical love for God and other human beings went beyond the basic duties incumbent on all. One could be a righteous person without being a “saint.”
This is what made Bloy’s statement so shocking. He was saying that it was not enough to be decent and moral. Every human being was called to be a saint, and it was a tragedy – indeed, the only real tragedy in life – when anyone fell short of that goal.
In Jewish history a similar linguistic twist takes place in the Hasidic tradition. The biblical term “tzadik” refers to a righteous person – one who fulfills the basic requirements of the Torah. It is a noble thing to be a biblical tzadik, but it is the calling extended to every Jew. The great leaders and heroes of Tanakh went beyond this – they were called prophets, men of God (though there were also women), and kedoshim (holy ones).
But this changed with the emergence of the Hasidic movement in the 18th century. The leaders of this movement were extraordinary models of prayer and concern for fellow Jews. Yet, they were not called prophets or men of God or kedoshim. Instead, they were called merely “tzadikkim” – righteous ones! In their exceptional devotion to God and to their fellow Jews, they were but fulfilling the calling which was extended to every Jew!
In Chaim Potok’s book “The Chosen” Reb Saunders is one of those tzadikkim. He is a great scholar, but his most notable trait is his identification with all Jews throughout the world and his embrace of their suffering. His son, Danny, is an intellectual prodigy, but he is also proud and in danger of cutting himself off from the pain of others. Reb Saunders decides he must educate his son in the school of suffering, in order to teach him compassion. Ultimately, this leads to Danny’s decision to forsake his role as his father’s successor in the rabbinate, and to become a psychologist – a “doctor of the soul (psyche).” In the climactic scene of the book, Reb Saunders acknowledges that, despite Danny’s decision, his own greatest desire for his son has actually been realized – for, as he states, “My Danny has become a tzadik.”
Michael Wyschogrod has this to say about the tzadik: “Authentic renewal [in Judaism] always happens through the appearance of the tzadik, the saint who personifies in his very being the teaching of the tradition…The tzadik is…the person who is the pivot of Judaism…To put it simply, one felt God’s presence in his presence. Such people eliminated their egos and lived to serve God and their fellow man. They loved those with whom they came into contact. They could do harm to no one. Those who came into their presence found themselves transformed, becoming what they had wanted to become and leaving behind them values that did not deserve their allegiance. In the presence of the tzadik, the Jew felt himself addressed in his inner self because he knew that for the tzadik he was a unique person and no one else. To enter into the presence of the tzadik was the closest approximation available to entering into the presence of
God.” [Body of Faith, 232]
Leon Bloy took the Catholic word for exceptional devotion, and applied it to every human being. Hasidic tradition took the Jewish word for normal devotion, and applied it to the greatest of souls. The end result in both cases is the same. The saint is but a truly righteous person, realizing the intent of God for all human life; and the righteous person is the one who goes beyond the minimum requirements and loves Hashem with all the heart, soul, and strength.
Our sages teach that we are judged or measured at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The question at hand is this: what is the standard by which we are measured? How does God measure us? How should we measure ourselves? In particular: how are we as Messianic Jews to be measured?
Ultimately, the standard is Yeshua himself. When Yeshua says, “come, follow me,” he is not saying: “come, and live a decent human life, do not lie or steal, and do your best to be happy.”
Instead, Yeshua calls us to become his disciples, to live His life in this world, to carry on His work, to manifest His character, to be His hands and feet. In other words: to be saints or tzadikkim. Anything less may not cost us our soul, but it will be a great sadness.
This is not merely a matter of imitating Yeshua. Through Tevilat Mashiach we have been joined to Yeshua by his Spirit, and he dwells among us and within us. More than imitation, this is participation. We are his junior partners, and walk with him daily as much as did Kephah, Ya’acov, and Yohannan. His mitzvot are not just binding obligations – they are means of grace, opportunities to make contact with him, to sense his presence, to receive his help.
If the words of Leon Bloy are true for all human beings, how much more are they true for us as Jewish disciples of Yeshua. To be a nominal Jew or a nominal Christian, one who keeps the minimum standards and seeks nothing more – that is indeed a great sadness. To be a nominal Messianic Jew is truly a tragedy. We are called to be salt not only of the earth but also of our people Israel and the Church. If this salt loses its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?
Jacques Maritain was a saint, and his wife, Raissa, was a tzadikah. I know this not only from books, but also from another saint whose life was deeply touched by theirs, and whose life has in turn deeply touched my own. After Raissa died in 1960, Jacques moved back to France from the United States and became a member of a religious order in France, devoting himself to prayer and preparation for the world to come. He lived in a hermitage in Toulouse, where our good friend, Jean-Miguel Garrigues, was studying to become a priest. Jean-Miguel spent much time with this great man in the year before his death, and that encounter left an indelible mark on Jean-Miguel’s life. Jean-Miguel speaks of Jacques with great reverence – for he had been in the presence of a tzadik, and the tzadik had brought him into the presence of God.
This world desperately needs saints and tzadikim. During these Days of Awe may we renew our desire to meet that need, asking and finding forgiveness for the ways we have failed, and receiving the grace from on high to fulfill the purpose for which we were created. When we reach the end of our journey, may there be no sadness, but only great joy among the saints and the tzadikim.