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Clergy Column by Rabbi Janet Marder

The Uses of Adversity

Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.
      —William Shakespeare, “As You Like It,” Act 2, Scene 1

Duke Senior, deposed from his throne and exiled to the forest by his treacherous brother, counsels his comrades that there may be many “uses” (advantages, benefits) to the adversity they now suffer. Far away from the corruption of court life, “exempt from public haunt,” they may find peaceful time in the forest to learn and reflect, taking instruction from the natural world around them and discovering “good in every thing.”

Shakespeare draws on the folk belief of his time that toads carry on their own bodies the antidote to their poison – the mythical “toadstone” supposedly found on the forehead of venomous toads. As the toad “wears yet a precious jewel in his head,” says the Duke, so we may find beauty and value in difficult times.

A lesson like this one must discover for oneself. It would be grossly insensitive for a person who dwells in comfort and privilege to urge someone who is struggling economically or emotionally to “find value in your suffering.” Yet, we might ponder the idea of having “a jewel in one’s head” – a beneficial way of perceiving the world and thinking about life – that helps us better endure adversity.

The Bible, I think, is such a jewel: a work produced over many hundreds of years by a people schooled in suffering, setting forth their hard-earned lessons of wisdom and resilience. If we internalize its teachings, it can serve as a jewel in our heads, a prism through which to view our current troubles that can lend us ancestral strength.

One could draw many lessons from the Bible about overcoming adversity – stories of heroes who fail and fall, only to rise, repent and persevere; stories of love that overcomes death; stories of shared purpose that transcends a single generation and lends meaning to life. But I will focus on a single teaching that has been important to me in my years at Beth Am. It appears often in the Bible. For example:

“You will search for Me and find Me, if only you seek Me wholeheartedly” [Jeremiah 29:13].

“Look to the Lord and God’s strength; seek God’s presence always” [Psalm 105:4].

Or most simply: “This is what God says to Israel: Seek Me and live!” [Amos 5:4].

What is this oft-reiterated counsel to “seek God”? In its original context, “seeking God’s presence” (lit.”face”) may have meant going regularly to the sanctuary, God’s holy place. But we might understand it as a teaching about the lens through which we view reality. To “seek God,” or “seek God’s presence” is to focus attentively on a single question: where is goodness manifest in this situation?

This question does not keep us from seeing the truth of what lies before us; it does not blind us to sorrow and suffering. But the person who has internalized this biblical teaching will not stop at acknowledging these painful aspects of reality. Such a person will go further and deeper, seeking the signs of goodness and beauty that are also present in any situation, no matter how dire.

So, for instance, we might seek God’s presence in the comforting rhythms of nature, the burgeoning of new life out of death and decay, the mysterious and beautiful life of the growing things that surround us. We might perceive God, as Walt Whitman put it, “in the faces of men and women” – in the presence of people in our life who offer us attention, care, love or inspiration. Some will look for God in the structure and elegance of great literature, art, music or scientific discovery, testifying to the extraordinary gifts of human intellect and creativity. And some will see evidence of the divine in the thirst for justice and peace which they perceive in themselves and others.

What is important is the activity of searching for God — the continuous effort to discern goodness, beauty, wisdom or meaning in one’s present circumstances. In the midst of our current challenges, this could mean asking ourselves questions like these: Where do I see evidence of generosity and kindness right now? How am I growing in strength or maturity from this experience? What am I learning? What can I do to make God more present in my world by acting as a vehicle for divine love, justice and compassion?

Some dismiss religious experience as a fraud because they don’t see sudden, miraculous manifestations of God in a burning bush or a thunderous voice. But the psalmist reminds us that revelation — the perception of God’s presence — comes to those who live with a particular consciousness, steadily and persistently looking for what is remarkable, enriching and inspiring in this life:

I heard my heart say, “Seek me,” to You,
But surely it is I who need to seek Your face, Adonai.
      —Psalm 27:8 (translated by Martin Cohen in "Our Haven and Our Strength")

May we all make good use of this time of adversity, and come forth stronger, wiser and more conscious of the Divine Presence.

Sat, October 31 2020 13 Cheshvan 5781