Rabbi's Message, Rabbi Alvin Kass, April 2015

Rabbi Alvin Kass
Chief Chaplain of the NYPD

JFK and the Talmud

It's hard to pick up a newspaper these days without reading about the presidential election of 2016. Articles abound about the potential candidates of the two major parties. I was reminded of a visit I made not too long ago to the Kennedy library in Boston where all of the former President's official papers are kept. There are also extraordinary exhibits which trace JFK's career from childhood to that tragic day of his assassination. His was a most remarkable life; indeed, both he and his family possess a mystique which have never ceased to fascinate the American people.

I was struck by some advice that JFK once gave an audience of college students: “Always do the best you can: then, the Hell with it!” What JFK was saying essentially is that in all our endeavors we ought to put forth our utmost talent and ability. Then after we have invested all that is within our capacity to accomplish the goal, recognize that the ultimate outcome belongs to powers that transcend our own. At that point we should stop worrying. If things don't work out to our satisfaction, just forget about it and go on to the next project.

This was sage counsel that all of us would do well to heed in our own lives. It reminds me of the Talmudic statement which describes man as “the co-partner of God, the Holy One, in the work of creation.” Both the Talmud and JFK's advice spring from two assumptions. First human beings possess the power to do things of importance in this world. Secondly, there are limits to our power which can go just so far. At that juncture the rest depends upon our Divine partner whose will we must accept with a gracious and contrite heart.

What I find particularly appealing in both this Jewish philosophy of life and the advice of President Kennedy is that they both avoid two dangerous extremes which have manifested themselves at various times in history: the notion that one can do nothing: the notion that we can do everything. In ancient times, human beings regarded themselves as helpless creatures in a universe populated with spirits, gods, demons, fairies, and witches who could determine the fate of every man and woman. The expansion of modern science led to the opposite extreme of extolling people as the measure of all things. It appeared that there was nothing that human beings could not accomplish as the advancing tide of knowledge produced millions of gadgets and instruments including automobiles, airplanes, televisions computers and rockets. Now there were people who started to claim that instead of God creating man, man created gods. Drunk with the success of technological progress, humans were heralded as everything and God was nothing.

Modern history has tempered our confidence in the capacity of human beings to solve all the problems of life. Two world wars, atoms bombs thermonuclear weapons, the drug plague, the disintegration of the family, the decline of morality, and the spiraling violence have revived a new respect for the values and principles that the greatest religious teachers of all time have transmitted throughout the millennia. As a result, there is a growing recognition that man can make it only in partnership with God.

John F. Kennedy espoused what Judaism has always taught, namely; man can do a tremendous amount in this world, and he should strive to accomplish as much as he can. But, he can't control it all. After you've done your best don't torture yourself if your aspirations don't materialize in just the way you wanted. To be sure, if there are multiple ways to attain your objective, try them; however, there may come a point when realism requires you to concede that what you are striving to attain is beyond your capacity. You are not, after all, the sole proprietor of this universe. You have a partner who will always have the final say.

That doesn't exempt you from doing your part; but, it ought to inculcate within you a healthy sense of our limits as human beings.

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