[Rabbi Ilan Feldman is the rav of Cong. Beth Jacob in Atlanta, and a member of the Board of AJOP]
The challenges of battle come at combatants fast and furiously, and can never be fully anticipated beforehand. What makes the greatest difference in a soldier’s ability to meet them?
Training creates automatic responses, so that, when the crunch comes, the soldier need not pause to think through the various steps of say, firing his weapon. The act comes naturally. It is thorough training that carries a soldier through the thick of battle. The fighter who uses his first battle as his training ground runs a high risk of becoming a casualty in his first training exercise.
As a society, we are about to enter what is euphemistically called an “economic downturn.” We are only at the beginning an extremely challenging period of time whose duration is unclear. We are actually about to enter battle. The obvious “enemy combatants” in the war zone are formidable enough foes: little available credit, job losses and the fear of job loss, foreclosures, disappearing retirement savings as the market plummets, entire industries on the verge of bankruptcy, huge and ineffective government rescue packages. But theses are only the obvious challenges we will face.
Concealed from view, but highly lethal as well, are other dangerous assailants. Anxiety and insecurity will be high. Resources will be scarce. People will be and feel needy. Trust will be rare.
In the Jewish community, already scarce resources will be stretched even thinner. Organizations and institutions entrusted to provide vital services will be under pressure to cut back on these services.
And we will be tested. Because of who we are, when we emerge from this battle is largely up to us. Whether it be as battle-scarred casualties, or as heroic battle-tested warriors, we will look ourselves in the mirror and we will see things in ourselves we never saw before. We will not be the same people we are now.
We will either be giants or midgets. We will discover in ourselves generosity or selfishness. We will come to know ourselves as sources of comfort, or as critics assigning blame to others. We will discern surprising flaws of character, or inspiring wellsprings of loving-kindness, generosity, and devotion.
How we are transformed depends not on the circumstances of the war theater, but on how we react to them.
When anxiety strikes, what will we do with it? Anxiety can be used to improve faith in G-d, or to draw away from Him.
When our friends and neighbors begin to suffer, will we draw on wellsprings of compassion in responding, mimicking the patience and goodness that is G-d’s trademark? Will the weakest among us be taken care of by the strongest among us? Or will we withdraw from our neighbors into protective isolation, feigning ignorance of their plight and helplessness to do anything for them?
When we realize our communal institutions are weakened, will we forget about the institutions we created, becoming instead pre-occupied with our own survival?
Will we shrug our shoulders and abandon them to “market forces”, or will we courageously insist that what they provide must not be compromised by economic hardship?
Will our institutions, under severe financial strain, adhere to the letter and spirit of the law, even when economic pressures might suggest compromising their integrity, or will they proudly remain honest and upright?
We have already entered the battle field, but it is not too late, before the fighting becomes more intense, to be ready with answers to these questions. If we await the intensity of battle, the answers will take shape by chance, not by choice.
Tough times are opportunities to develop character. Ours is a glorious heritage of transcendence, faith, and compassion, in the face of trying circumstances. While we cannot control the larger forces governing our economy, we can draw on a tradition that shows us that we can choose our character and our spiritual destinies, not in spite of, but because of, difficult times.
Come, my friends, we’ve got a war to fight. Let’s get to it, together.