In Mark Helprin’s modern classic, A Soldier of the Great War, Alessandro and Rafi are best friends who take divergent paths in life. Rafi joins a law firm, while Alessandro pursues the life of an artistic dreamer. One conversation between the two friends is particularly telling:
“Alessandro, why ARE you going to Germany?” “To see Raphael’s painting of Bindo Altoviti.” “All the way to Germany just to see a painting?” Rafi asked. “All the way to Antwerp?” Alessandro shot back, “to argue about a dent in a ship?” “We get paid for it.” “That may be so,” Alessandro said, “but remember one thing.” “What?” “A dent is a dent.” (Mark Helprin, A Soldier of the Great War, 223-4)
In moments of clarity, most of us would surely agree that God and religion are of eternal significance, and that our careers and businesses are merely a means to a greater end. And yet, on a day to day basis, the choices we make and the ways we spend our precious time rarely correspond with our hierarchy of values. We might believe that serving God is our raison d’etre, but if we find ourselves flying to a far off destination, we are more likely to be on a business trip than on a search for self-discovery and religious truth. In allocating our limited time, only rarely does the eternal take precedence over the ephemeral.
Our confusion of priorities, argues C.S Lewis, is due to our propensity to confuse the truth of religion with the goodness of religion. Too often, we perceive religion simply as being ‘good’ for us, and so it is possible to believe that “a certain amount of religion is desirable but one mustn’t carry it too far.” If religion is merely ‘good’, it must be expected to make room for other ‘good’ things in our lives, such as our careers and hobbies. But the fact is, religion cannot simply be ‘good’ for us, like exercise and healthy diet. For religion “is a statement which, if false, is on no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.” (C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics) If we believe that religion is true, everything else must pale in comparison.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov urges us to ask a simple question: “Mah?” or “what?” Meaning, every Jew must ask himself: “after all of the quarrels, confusions, hindrances, arguments and foolishness that I use as excuses for why I remain far from God, what in the end will be with me? What will I say to He Who sent me to this world? Do I not know that I am only a stranger in this world, and all of my days are nothingness, like a passing shadow? Every man knows this, intellectually, but is this something that I know in my heart? (Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, Sichos HaRan, #286)
The way we will choose to live our lives, in the end, depends upon our ability to remember one simple, eternal truth: a dent is a dent.