There are reactions we’re all called to make, in every occurrence in our lives. Those reactions determine, and are determined by, who we are, and tell us much of what we are – and, thankfully, we have some measure of control and determination.
The Talmud, in the Mishnah, refers to the legend of the Pardes. In this, four eminent rabbis traveled to Paradise, and encountered Holiness there.
They had four different reactions: one went insane, one lost his faith, one died, and one came and went in peace.
These reactions mirror ours. When we are presented with… anything, a situation, a question, an experience, we reflect that experience and channel it in some variations of these.
When we integrate the experience without context or understanding, we are “mad,” in a way. Imagine those who think the Easter Bunny is somehow a canonical Christian image, or that Santa Claus hung around with Jesus. Imagine those who can’t tolerate that Jesus is the Way and the Life, and think that a good Buddhist is as deserving of Heaven as a good Christian.
(Meanwhile, orthodox theology says that none of us deserve Heaven, period, but are considered co-heirs with Christ through acceptance of His death on the Cross in our stead [Romans 8:12-17]. Anyone who refuses that sacrifice, no matter how wonderful a person they are, is unsaved.)
We might also endure an experience, neither adding to it nor subtracting from it. We become static, unchanging, fixed in position. This lack of growth is “dying,” in a sense.
Loss of Faith
When we reject an experience and its implications of the glory of God, we lose our faith… maybe not literally or wholly, but we might simply become jaded, or refuse to acknowledge God’s role in that experience. (Or, of course, we might literally lose faith entirely.)
The rabbi who lost faith was Elisha ben Abuyah, and he’s referred to as Acher, אחר, “the other.”
While accounts are not mechanically literal (and therefore we don’t know for sure), it seems he rejected the idea of the afterlife; one story has it that he saw a child do a good deed, and lose his life, while a man who sinned suffered no consequences.
He then became a self-declared outsider, one who rejected the teachings that he himself possessed.
It’s tragic, really, to think about.
The rabbi who “survived,” Rabbi Akiva, “came in peace and went in peace.” This suggests that he was the only one who went to the Orchard knowing who and what he was, and let that inform his actions and reactions. He preserved his faith, he extended his experience of the Holy, he grew.
The Holocaust – referring to the Nazi extermination of groups such as Jews, Gypsies, and other such ethnicities and subcultures – stands alongside the Exodus and the destruction of the Second Temple in Jewish life as hallmark events. (There are more, but for me, these are the three most impactful.)
Jews had a chance to react to the Holocaust, after its ending — and those reactions mirrored the reactions of the rabbis to the Pardes. Some Jews lost faith, rejecting God; some Jews went mad, embracing hatred. Many, many, many Jews obviously died. Some endured, retaining their faith and their essential character despite the horror.
This is me. This is us. This is everyone, to every experience.
Through Christ, we are able to achieve peace, and with His grace and mercy, we are able to go in peace, if we listen to Him and not to the chaos of our own hearts in our agonies and ecstasies.
And our reactions can tell us who we are in Him, too; if we have not His peace, then we know what we lack. We know then that we must attempt to invite Him to be nearer to us, to reach out for His Hand in our lives.