During one of my last semesters in seminary, two of the courses I took were God and the Problem of Evil, largely based on the writings of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and taught by the Rev. Dr. Carter Heyward; and The Life of Prayer, taught by the Very Rev. Harvey Guthrie, then Dean of Episcopal Divinity School and Professor of Old Testament (it would be called Hebrew Scripture today). I got an A+ in God and the Problem of Evil; and a B- in The Life of Prayer, which had the (I’m sure) unintended effect of having examiners in my home Diocese of New York think that while I was an expert at evil I was somewhat wanting with respect to prayer. I bring all of this up because I have been trying to recall a quote from Elie Wiesel about beginning and beginning again. I finally found it and here I share it with you.
Following the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE, the Jewish people were faced with two options: to end their suffering by denying their faith and assimilating into society, or to go on and rebuild on the ashes. Wiesel suggests that the Talmud was the “temple” constructed when the Jewish people chose the second option. He says that “the Talmud was conceived and written as an act of defiance.” It was as if the sages wished to tell God they refused to concede and quit believing. This defiance of theirs confirmed the ancient message of Judaism that, while humanity cannot begin (only God can do that), it is humanity’s duty not to accept an imposed end. “It is not given to man to begin; that privilege is God’s alone. But it is given to man to begin again—and he does so every time he chooses to defy death and side with the living.” [Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends, New York: Random House,1976]
It was this last sentence that I was looking for: “To begin is not in the realm of possibilities; only to begin again, over and over again – and therein lies [humanity’s] strength. And his glory, too.” “New Beginnings” is an oxymoron. But we have been given the opportunity to begin again, over and over again.
So, we come to the end of calendar year 2021, and one characteristic 2021 has in common with 2020 is that most people are glad it’s over! Yet as we look ahead to 2022, let us remember that piece of wisdom from Elie Wiesel. We are not the ones who created the world. God did that. Yet God continuously gives us the opportunity to begin again, over and over again. And to that I say Thanks be to God!