Ed Feinstein: Live life with meaning to endure tragedies

Rabbi Ed Feinstein unpacks the story of Jonah in his sermon, titled “How Can You Sleep?,” Sunday in the Amphitheater. Dave Munch/Photo Editor

Column by Mary Lee Talbot

There is a Jewish folktale about a man who gave up on life and he asked the Lord to show him the way to paradise. “Are you sure?” the Lord asked. “With all my heart,” said the man. The Lord said, “Leave the village, turn right and start walking.” 

At the end of the work day, he began his journey. It started to get dark and chilly and the man decided he would continue walking in the morning. He thought to himself, “I might forget which way to go in the morning, so I will leave my shoes facing paradise and will continue in the morning.”

“In life, things happen,” said Rabbi Feinstein. “In the morning the shoes were turned around. Was it an angel, an imp, a squirrel or just confusion? He gave thanks that the shoes were there and walked back toward the village.”

The man saw the village — the same village he had left — but he thought he had reached paradise. He said, “This is marvelous. My home village was noisy, but in paradise there is love and concern.” As night came, he noticed that there was a street like the one in his village and he followed it to see if there was a house like his.

Lo and behold, there was. And in it, a woman who looked suspiciously like his wife. She invited him in, saying, “Come in, your soup is getting cold.” The man declared the soup in paradise to be the best he ever had. The woman said, “If you want more, there’s a whole pot on the stove.”

The next morning the woman handed him his toolbox and he went to work. He felt a sense of service he had not felt before and every night he came home to an angel. Feinstein said, “The old fool lived his whole life in the village and no one could convince him he hadn’t made it to paradise.”

Feinstein continued, “You come to the gate at Chautauqua and they give you a tag and they turn your shoes around. Chautauqua is a little like paradise. And I want to thank President Hill and the Department of Religion for having the moral courage to invite a rabbi to preach and share my Torah.”

Concluding his week at Chautauqua, Feinstein preached at the 9:15 a.m. Thursday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “Write a Letter,” and the scripture reading was Deuteronomy 30:11-16. Feinstein had to return to California for the Sabbath services and recorded his sermon for Friday at the Everett Jewish Life Center. It will be shown as part of today’s morning service of worship.

In Judaism, people believe that the holiest day of the year is Yom Kippur and for Christians the holiest day is Easter. “I disagree,” said Feinstein. “On those holy days, we sit filled with righteousness. But the holiest day is the Monday or day after, when we are back to our work relationships and the world we have to live our lives in.”

Feinstein had given the congregation homework to do every day at the end of each sermon. “You have to have homework; to have faith, you have to carry what you have learned here and take it out there. Today is your final exam: Write a letter to the people you care for most.”

In the letter, put the meaning of your life, he said. Write about your childhood, your home, your schools. Write about your relationships, friendships, whether you married or divorced, your children and grandchildren. Write about your work, your failures and your triumphs. Write about the tragedies you have faced. Write about what life has taught you and what is your truth, where do you find meaning.

“There are three reasons why you should do this. First, do it for yourself,” he said. “You deserve to know that your life has a truth.”

The most sacred text in Judaism is the Torah scroll, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. By tradition, the scroll is written by hand with a goose quill pen and it has to be perfect. If there is one letter missing or a word defaced, it is set aside until it can be repaired.

“This is the Jewish obsessive-compulsive tradition,” Feinstein said. “But every letter and every word is one of us. We cannot lose or neglect anyone. God has sent each of us to give a message to the world. Have you discovered and delivered yours?” 

Feinstein was asked to preside over a funeral for a family he did not know. He went to the home of the family and met with the man’s three sons. Feinstein said, “Tell me about your father. What mattered to him, what did he value?” The oldest son said, “He loved golf.”

Feinstein thought, “Is that what really mattered to him? Was that his dream? Then I looked around the house and it was full of golf memorabilia, decorated in what I would call, ‘early Tiger Woods style’. Eighteen is a magic word in Hebrew, it means life. So the man played 18 holes, got his hole in one, and died.”

He continued, “How can we reduce someone’s life to a game? Why had he never communicated the poetry of his soul?”

People, he told the congregation, laugh when they are asked: “What is the meaning of life?” People think it is a funny question. “This is the question in my world. When you sit in the waiting room of a cancer center, or awaiting surgery, or in the mortuary, it is not a funny question.”

Who taught people that this was a funny question? The American technological genius has given people unprecedented freedom. “We have experienced more freedom than any culture, ever. What do we do with this freedom? We have plenty of leisure and spending money, but we have no idea what to do with it,” he said.

People don’t ask what the purpose of our freedom is and we are forced to grapple with emptiness, Feinstein told the congregation. “Human beings need purpose or we live with a gaping hole in the soul. If we don’t fill it, it will be filled with anything. We are very good at filling that hole with distraction and entertainment.”

Fun is the new American god, Feinstein said. He was born the same year that Disneyland opened. “One thousand years ago in the age of faith, the primary symbol was the cathedral. Five hundred years ago in the age of industry, the primary symbol was the factory. Today it is entertainment, and the primary symbols are the mall and the cineplex.”

American essayist Henry David Thoreau wrote that people live lives of quiet desperation. Feinstein said, “Today people live lives of amused distraction and are conceived in a culture of distraction. That is how you can fill a lifetime with golf. American theologian Paul Tillich said every person has a god, an ultimate concern, but what if you don’t have an ultimate concern? Phillips Brook, longtime rector of Trinity Church in Boston, said to be a real failure is to miss the tenderness of the world, to miss the light ablaze with God’s presence and be content to have it so.”

The second reason to write the letter is for your loved ones, Feinstein told the congregation. “Share your stories. So many times at funerals we find out how little we know about someone, about their moral struggles, their deepest yearnings. They deserve to know your inner truth.”

The third reason to write the letter is to understand your own spiritual life. “A friend told me we either live on purpose or we live by accident. Most of our culture lives by accident,” Feinstein said. “If we have no notion of what we live for, we will be unprepared for tragedy. It is the only way we can bear being human.”

The psychiatrist Victor Frankl said if life is lived with meaning, human beings can survive anything. 

“You will understand life if you understand your call, what provides meaning,” Feinstein said. “Rabbi Joshua Abraham Heschel said it was most important for people to have a moment, to respond to the demand on their life, to sense that demand.”

Frankl, as a young psychiatrist in Vienna, was asked to look into why so many young men were killing themselves over taking their exam to get into university. He found that it was not the pressure, but instead because they were children of privilege who had no sense of call, for whom life was hollow so they ended their lives. 

From his research, he founded logotherapy, that finding meaning and purpose in life was the most driving and motivating power in life. When the Nazis annexed Austria, Frankl was finishing his 600-page dissertation, his life’s work. He sewed the dissertation into the lining of his coat, but when the Nazis took him to the town square they made him give up his coat into a pile of others’ coats. Frankl started crying and the Nazi guard said, “Hey, Jew, if that Jew coat was so valuable, take another Jew coat.” Frankl picked one up and in the boxcar on the way to Auschwitz he felt something in the lining of the coat.

He pulled out a single page from a prayer book that contained the Shema, Feinstein said. “Hear, O Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai in One! Blessed is God’s name; His glorious kingdom is for ever and ever! And you shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”

Frankl realized that the slip of paper was as substantive as his thesis. Someone had grabbed one thing that gave them a sense of purpose and mission, one that could get them through any hell.

“Write the letter and discover what God and the universe are calling you to do, to heal, to care for. Write the letter. I am blessed to find the hospitality, compassion, the sweet wisdom shared with kindness that was offered in this place called Chautauqua.” The congregation gave him another standing ovation.

Renee Bergmann Andrews, choir president of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia, and an active volunteer in several organizations at Chautauqua, presided and created parts of the liturgy for the service. Dr. Larry Cohen, past president of the Hebrew Congregation of Chautauqua, read the scripture. For the prelude, the Motet Consort, featuring Barbara Hois on flute, Debbie Grohman on clarinet, and Willie La Favor on piano, played “Ein Kamocha,” by Allan Naplan, arranged by La Favor, and “Mi Chamocha,” by Meir Finklestein, arranged by Stephen Glass/La Favor. The Motet Choir sang “What God Ordains is Always Good,” music by Dan Forrest and text by Samuel Rodigast. The choir was under the direction of Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist, and accompanied by Nicholas Stigall, organ scholar, on the Steinway grand piano. The closing benediction, read in Hebrew by Andrews and in English by Cohen, also featured the Motet Choir, under the direction of Stafford, singing the responses in Hebrew. For the postlude, Stigall played “Fugue in G minor, BWV 535” by Johann Sebastian Bach. Support for this week’s chaplaincy and preaching is provided by the Daney-Holden Chaplaincy Fund and the Samuel M. and Mary E. Hazlett Memorial Fund.


The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.