Heschel for Passover (or Any Time)

by Bob Schwartz

A reader reminds me that a year ago, I posted about including readings from Abraham Joshua Heschel in the Passover seder (A Heschel Haggadah).

You will find the readings I included in last year’s seder below. As regular readers know, I’ve mentioned Heschel a few times in this blog, and more frequently in my conversations and discussions. He may be the greatest of modern masters of Judaism or of any spiritual traditions. He is not always easy, but he is accessible, inspirational, mind-and-soul-stirring at a depth that lasts. His is not fast food; it is a long, rich, delicious meal that nourishes you for a lifetime and that you never forget—kind of like a seder. In addition to Elijah, who we expect at every seder, Heschel would be so welcome any time.

Along with the readings below, I urge you to take a look at some of the collections of readings available and then, if you like what you find, check out some of the many books (I am particularly fond of The Sabbath, but there are so many worthy ones).

Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings

The Wisdom of Heschel

I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology  (“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.”)


THE MEANING OF EXISTENCE is experienced in moments of exaltation. Man must strive for the summit in order to survive on the ground. His norms must be higher than his behavior, his ends must surpass his needs. The security of existence lies in the exaltation of existence.

This is one of the rewards of being human: quiet exaltation, capability for celebration. It is expressed in a phrase which Rabbi Akiba offered to his disciples:

A song every day,
A song every day

 

THE TABLETS ARE BROKEN whenever the Golden Calf is called into being. We believe that every hour is endowed with the power to lend meaning to or withhold meaning from all other hours. No moment is as a moment able to bestow ultimate meaning upon all other moments. No moment is the absolute center of history. Time is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose periphery is nowhere.

 

THE WORLD COULD NOT EXIST at all except as one; deprived of unity, it would not be a cosmos but chaos, an agglomeration of countless possibilities … Life is tangled, fierce, fickle. We cannot remain in agreement with all goals. We are constantly compelled to make a choice, and the choice of one goal means the forsaking of another.

 

THE PROPHETS PROCLAIMED that justice is omnipotent, that right and wrong are dimensions of world history, not merely modes of conduct. The existence of the world is contingent upon right and wrong … The validity of justice and the motivation for its exercise lie in the blessings it brings to man … Justice exists in relation to a person … An act of injustice is condemned, not because the law is broken, but because a person has been hurt.

 

THE HEART IS OFTEN A LONELY VOICE in the marketplace of living. Man may entertain lofty ideals and behave like the ass that, as the saying goes, “carries gold and eats thistles.” The problem of the soul is how to live nobly in an animal environment; how to persuade and train the tongue and the senses to behave in agreement with the insights of the soul.

 

HUMAN LIFE IS HOLY, holier even than the Scrolls of the Torah … Reverence for God is shown in our reverence for man. The fear you must feel of offending or hurting a human being must be as ultimate as your fear of God. An act of violence is an act of desecration. To be arrogant toward man is to be blasphemous toward God.

 

TO PRAY is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live.

To escape from the mean and penurious, from calculating and scheming, is at times the parching desire of man … Prayer clarifies our hope and intentions. It helps us discover our true aspirations, the pangs we ignore, the longings we forget. It is an act of self-purification … It teaches us what to aspire to, implants in us the ideals we ought to cherish.

 

THE MOST MAGNIFICENT EDIFICES, most beautiful temples and monuments of worldly glory, are repulsive to the man of piety when they are built by the sweat and tears of suffering slaves, or erected through injustice and fraud. Hypocrisy and pretense of devoutness are more distasteful to him than open iniquity. But in the roughened, soiled hands of devoted parents, or in the maimed bodies and bruised faces of those who have been persecuted but have kept faith with God, he may detect the last great light on earth.

 

WHAT WOULD ART HAVE BEEN without the religious sense of mystery and sovereignty, and how dreary would religion have been without the incessant venture of the artist to embody the invisible in visible forms, to bring his vision out of the darkness of the heart, and to fill the immense absence of the Deity with the light of human genius? The right hand of the artist withers when he forgets the sovereignty of God, and the heart of the religious man has often become dreary without the daring skill of the artist. Art seemed to be the only revelation in the face of the Deity’s vast silence.

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