Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Job, Jobs And Jobs: Turning The Page (Jewish Week)

by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

I’ve been thinking about Job lately. Not “job” as in “employment,” though the rate of joblessness keeps rising to staggering proportions, or Jobs, the Apple CEO who defied death this year, while keeping his liver transplant a secret from his stockholders, but Job the biblical figure and inspiration for the Coen brothers’ much-discussed film, “A Serious Man.”

Or maybe I’ve been thinking about all three. Because those who are suffering, whether Job, Jobs or jobless, all share the same need to turn the page, to move on, to emerge from the shadow of death renewed and refreshed, back and better than ever.

That is precisely what happens at the end of the book of Job. God appears in a whirlwind to inform Job that it is pointless for humans to seek discernible moral patterns in God’s ways. The skies clear, and at the book’s end we find our hero thriving once again. He is blessed with thousands of sheep, camels, oxen and she-asses, seven sons and three beautiful daughters. Job lives 140 additional years, sees four generations of progeny and dies old and contented.

I’ve always been bothered by that ending. It may work as a fitting bookend to the fractured fairytale prologue, but it denies the existence of everything in between. When we first meet Job, he also has seven sons and three daughters. Then God makes the Faustian bargain and everything is wiped out, meaning that the sons and daughters of the last chapter are different sons and daughters. The happily-ever-after Job must have had at least seven yahrtzeits for that first set, plus a body and psyche ravaged by the scars of victimhood. How could he recover so effortlessly? How could he have been able to leave it all behind?

I recently had the privilege of hearing Elie Wiesel discuss Job at the 92nd Street Y. In addressing the end of the book, Wiesel spoke of the fine line separating faith from insanity, suggesting that a little madness might be required in order to maintain a posture of belief in the face of an unjust world. He postulated that Job did not fear an unjust God so much as an apathetic one. Once he heard from God directly, he could regain his balance, knowing that even if no divine reward were coming, at least God was there.

The Jewish experience has been such that the book of Job has not only been read from generation to generation, it has been lived. And, at the end of each trial, in the face of each encounter with absurdity, each generation has gotten up from the dung heap and chosen life.

As Wiesel put it, in recalling Deuteronomy’s call to “choose life,” the word for life, chayim, also means “the living.” For him, and for all survivors since Job, the only real choice has been to choose the living — as illogical as it that choice might at times appear. It may seem like madness to move on, but it is also the secret of Jewish survival. So Job had to move beyond mourning his dead kids to celebrate life with the living ones, just as so many Holocaust survivors have astonished us with their ability to embrace life and build new families.

So now I understand Job’s motives better, but I’m still troubled. Does turning the page require a self-imposed amnesia? The Torah, after all, commands us to remember, zachor, rather than simply to get over it. Wiesel’s life’s work has been built on the basis of fostering memory. And now, with events bombarding us at a frenetic pace, we are often too quick to put yesterday’s news behind us.

One gets the impression that, with this year’s stock market’s rebound, we are living out the Wall Street version of that epilogue to Job. The recession is far from over, but once unemployment figures begin to decline, I’ve a feeling that we’ll be celebrating like it’s 2007 — as if the intervening horrible two years never happened. Already we are seeing the return of exorbitant bonuses, astronomical bank profits and a relaxation of the pressure for regulation and reform.

Jewish organizations, too, seem to have learned little from the cataclysm that we’ve just endured. They’ve been chastened, but have they really changed the way they do business? Too many are trying simply to turn the page.

We may be the people of the book, but we are not the people of the page. Our most sacred text is in the form of a scroll, not a book, and scrolls have no pages. The beginning, middle and end are all interconnected, the one flowing into the next seamlessly — and when there are seams, they are hand woven together, without the slightest gap or tear. Jews don’t turn pages; we scroll with the punches.

Ironically, the next stage of literary technology is taking us back from the printed page to the seamless flow of words and stories. The journey from scroll to book to Kindle is, in reality, a round trip.

Rumor has it that Steve Jobs was dismissive of the Kindle when Amazon.com first released it in 2007, saying, “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore.” But now, with the Apple Tablet set to appear, the master futurist may have been humbled by his recent brush with death. Instead of turning the page, he too is scrolling down as he scrambles to catch up.

Elie Wiesel believes that when we hear the story of a witness, we too become witnesses. The story lives on; a living scroll ever unfolding. All that is must flow from all that came before, no matter how painful those memories can be.

“Because I remember, I despair,” Wiesel says, then adding, “Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.”

Which is why we can never really turn the page.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Stamford, Conn.

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