“Trouble is often the base for the creative life.”
In this sermon, delivered on January 11, 1970, Rabbi Olan further develops two of his most important ideas: first, that faith leads to greater agency in the face of trouble; and second, that God wants us to be “co-workers” in bringing justice into the world.
“What should a [person] do with trouble?” he asks. In saying “do”, Rabbi Olan already implies that the proper response to adversity is adaptive action, not just waiting for God to make things right. After all, “adversity is a constant of all of life.” The first step towards wisdom is acceptance of that fact. Rabbi Olan deftly turns the story of the fall from Paradise on its head: “Civilization began when man left paradise and began to meet pain and trouble.” He quotes with approval the idea that “all thinking begins in pain. It rarely comes from an untroubled life.” In advancing this way of understanding our suffering as an opportunity to learn how to cope, Rabbi Olan anticipated the emergence of the psychological concept of posttraumatic growth by about 25 years.
Then Rabbi Olan brings in the idea that in order to cope with trouble, we need “a basic faith from which to operate”. Faith does not replace agency; it strengthens it. And the agency that faith strengthens is not for us as isolated individuals: “Man’s vocation is to do justice.”
For Rabbi Olan, the world is not imperfect because it is meaningless—he rejects the pessimism of the atheist. Nor was it created perfect and then ruined by our disobedience in the Garden of Eden. The world is imperfect so that we can learn to improve it, and what will empower us to do that is “a living faith”.
*Written by Lionel S. Joseph*