Wisdom of Life

Abraham Joshua Heschel: On the Wisdom and the Meaning of Life

“Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”

“The true meaning of existence is disclosed in moments of living in the presence of God.”

 

heschelrabbi“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. …get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed. Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me. Wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.

The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments. In a religious experience, for example, it is not a thing that imposes itself on man but a spiritual presence. What is retained in the soul is the moment of insight rather than the place where the act came to pass. A moment of insight is a fortune, transporting us beyond the confines of measured time.

The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.

To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks. The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.

Self-respect is the root of discipline: the sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself.

Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, man must fight for inner liberty to remain independent of the enslavement of the material world. Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people. There are many who have acquired a high degree of political and social liberty, but only very few are not enslaved to things. This is our constant problem—how to live with people and remain free, how to live with things and remain independent. No man is free who is not a master of himself, that the more liberties we enjoy, the more discipline we need.

The grand premise of religion is that man is able to surpass himself; that man who is part of this world may enter into a relationship with Him who is greater than the world; that man may lift up his mind and be attached to the absolute; that man who is conditioned by a multiplicity of factors is capable of living with demands that are unconditioned.

Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart. A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair. There is no reverence for God without reverence for man. Love of man is the way to the love of God.

The primary purpose of prayer is not to make requests. The primary purpose is to praise, to sing, to chant. Because the essence of prayer is a song, and man cannot live without a song. Prayer may not save us. But prayer may make us worthy of being saved. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.

Remember that there is meaning beyond absurdity. Know that every deed counts, that every word is power… Above all, remember that you must build your life as if it were a work of art.”

Excerpts from:

  • Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion
  • Abraham Joshua Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays
  • Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets
  • Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

***

~Abraham Joshua Heschel was a Polish-born American rabbi and one of the leading Jewish theologians and Jewish philosophers of the 20th century.

Excellence Reporter 2020

Categories: Wisdom of Life

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