Life’s most persistent and urgent question

Jews don’t believe in hell.

We do, however, most definitely believe in the mind.

And if you’ve ever experienced the hell inside of your own mind, your own swirling, closed-loop thinking, your obsessive strategizing, blaming, scheming, worrying, planning, cavorting, problem-creating and problem-solving, frantic mind, then you’ll believe me when I say it is no wonder so many Jews find themselves sitting on a cushion, in search of some safety, some opening, some respite, some doorway into Reality, which of course is as firm or squishy, i.e. changeable, as the butt we’re sitting on.

This morning I got up at 5:00am to write. I was determined to get back to The Book. If only I could write Section Three of The Book. If only I could figure out how to make a million dollars so that I could hole up and be a writer, right? (Insert buzzer sound here.)

A wise friend recently reminded me that Social Interest will lead to nothing short of life itself before Self Interest will, hands down every time. I have been reflecting a great deal on this lately, reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?'”

The more I worry about myself, my path, my ass, my book, my bank account, my choices, my past, my future, my wardrobe, my contributions even, the less I do for others (and the less I have to write about). The less present I become, less available, less attentive, less useful. And as that same friend will say, “Work is worth.” If I am only concerned with myself, I literally become worthless, because my work is to connect with others. To do. To give. Whew. What sweet relief. Rabbi Hillel said it most famously: If I am only for myself, what am I?

The theme of work has been so persistent in my life, it could either make for a great read or you’ll want to throw the book at my head. What I have to remember is this: What am I doing for others? And then I’m sitting on the answer, and any recurrent confusion around work is resolved, just like that, the moment I stop questioning myself and remember what the world needs: compassion, connection, courage.

That sounds a little less hellish, in fact.

Speaking of Rabbi Hillel, I take a book called wisdom of the jewish sages, a modern reading of Pirke Avot, off of my bookshelf and flip through it. Rabbi Judah haNassi said:

What is the right path for a person to follow?
One that honors both self and other.

Be attentive in all you do;
Do not judge one deed small and another great,
For you cannot always know their significance.

And Rabbi Jacob said:

If you are walking lost in wonder,
Empty of self, and mindful of Reality,
And suddenly you interrupt this peace to exclaim:
“How beautiful is this tree!
How magnificent this field!”
You forfeit life.

The intrusion of self
And the imposing of judgment
Separates you from Reality
And snares you in the net of words.

Be still and know.
Embrace it all in silence.

The Jews, the Buddhists, the Southern Baptists – none of us is so different when it comes down to it. What am I doing for others? How am I being attentive? Where do I separate myself from Reality with judgment, even if it is glorious, exclamatory judgment? Words ensnare.

I’m thinking now that it may not take much to exit hell, stage right. Sit quietly, early in the morning as the light is just barely coming up. Read a few words that bring you back to center. And, as Judah ben Tema said:

Be strong as a leopard,
Light as an eagle,
Swift as a deer,
And brave as a lion
When carrying out the tasks of righteousness.

Normally, I’d be put off by the might word, “righteousness,” which Webster’s defines as “Morally upright, without guilt or sin.” Ugh.

Replace it with lovingkindness, though, with deeds small and great – and not for you to judge which, with what are you doing for others, with honoring both self and other, with work is worth, and the path seems so clear. It is right here, laid out before me like the day itself, dawning.

7 thoughts on “Life’s most persistent and urgent question

  1. Beth Patterson says:

    Dear Jena–
    What a beautiful reflection. I’m forwarding to my Lenten Study Group who is struggling, mightily, like a bunch of Jewish scholars, with Biblical texts…this will be a welcome, here-and-now relief about what it’s all about, Alfie.

    I love you. Have I told you that lately?


  2. Tammi McKenna says:

    Wow! This was exactly meant for me to read today…And, it so fit into multiple conversations I have had with people this week on the same or similar topics…Thank you for posting Rabbi haNassi’s reflection…this especially was near and dear to my soul this week.


  3. Lindsey says:

    This is so beautiful. Thank you. What a good reminder. Sometimes when I get caught in the eddies of my own mind I really feel the worst, because, as you say, I am only for myself and therefore … nothing. It’s a tension, though, because I think that being self-aware and reflective actually makes me better at being with others, better at lovingkindness … just not too much. If that makes sense.


    • Jena Strong says:

      Lindsay, you get at something I wanted to capture here but didn’t quite – that balance, or distinction, between self-reflection and self-absorption. After all, the other part of that famous Hillel quote is this: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”


  4. Lisa says:

    Beautiful, timely post, dear Jena :)

    (I’m taking a brief break from my blog sabbatical to check in with a few of my favorite peeps!)

    I have been pondering my servant hood in the world lately, as I am now employed working PT with kids each afternoon during the week. It’s a great lesson in getting MY ego needs out of the way in order to be fully present for them!! (My ‘not enough’ gremlins can still make me feel like I’m not DOING enough, in spite of my ‘work’ with kids, my family, my coaching clients, etc.)

    Yes (exhale)…I’m still seeking balance among all these external experiences and my internal stirrings and epiphanies.

    Hugs to you, lovely soul.



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