How can you not think of this:
"Akavyah ben Mahalal said: Reflect on three things and you will not come into the grip of sin: Know from where you came, where you are going and from whom you will have to render account and reckoning. Whence you came? From a putrid drop. Where are you going? To a place of dust and decay and vermin. Before whom will you render account and reckoning? Before the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He." (Pirke Avot)
"Rabbi Levitas of Yavneh said, Be exceedingly humble in spirit, for the hope of earthly man is but decay." (Pirke Avot)
when you encounter this:
God, A Poem (James Fenton)
A nasty surprise in a sandwich,
A drawing-pin caught in your sock,
The limpest of shakes from a hand which
You'd thought would be firm as a rock,
A serious mistake in a nightie,
A grave disappointment all round
Is all that you'll get from th'Almighty,
Is all that you'll get underground.
Oh he said, "If you lay off the crumpet
I'll see you alright in the end.
Just hang on until the last trumpet.
Have faith in me, chum--I'm your friend."
But if you remind him, he'll tell you:
"I'm sorry, I must have been pissed--
Though your name rings a sort of a bell. You
Should have guessed that I do not exist.
"I didn't exist at Creation,
I didn't exist at the Flood,
And I won't be around for Salvation
To sort out the sheep from the cud--
"Or whatever the phrase is. The fact is
In soteriological terms
I'm a crude existential malpractice
And you are a diet of worms.
"You're a nasty surprise in a sandwich.
You're a drawing-pin caught in a sock.
You're the limpest of shakes from a hand which
I'd have thought would be firm as a rock,
"You're a serious mistake in a nightie,
You're a grave disappointment all round--
That's all that you are," says th'Almighty,
"And that's all that you'll be underground."
I keep each text close at hand, especially when I get the usual proclaiming from one genius or another about why the synagogue or Jewish life is meaningless to them. "There's no god, you see--so why bother," the logic goes, as if the Sages never struggled mightily with theodicies' failures and shortfalls; as if the persistence of evil or the absurdity of our material existence didn't throw them from their beds in the middle of the night, leading them by the nose of their tortured souls toward a more palatable fate.
This past week, more than usual, in a range of ages from 12 to 82, I found myself arguing that participation in the synagogue had less to do with faith and more to do with the responsibility to know what our Tradition teaches and, regardless of one's view of wisdom's source, to have the courage of one's convictions, as they say, to act.
Shammai: Say little, do much.
Micah: He has shown you, o' man, what is good; and what the eternal requires of you: to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your god.
Justice, mercy and humility. A tall order any day--no matter who demands and who has the courage to take up the cause.