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Building a Life

“What should I do with my life?” The question pursues us to the very end of our days. Whether we are fulfilling our destiny in this world is a constant challenge and provocation.

Some believe each of us has a fixed, preset destiny and life is a search; others believe our purpose is created and life is a shaping.

Judaism offers both models. There are moments and missions that require only we heed the voice: In ancient times, Abraham was chosen and resolute. In modern times, many visionaries felt that they had only to pay attention and their journey was laid clearly before them.

But for most of us, there are multiple paths to walk. Each will develop unique sides of ourselves. The task is not to find the solitary correct road, but one of the roads that will make us better, brighter, more fully realized human beings.

What you are is God’s blessing given to you. What you make of yourself is your blessing given back to God.


What Would You Give?

The first mention of love in the Torah occurs when God tells Abraham to offer up Isaac, “whom you love.” (Gen. ch. 22)

Why should the Torah choose this improbable moment to mention love for the first time? For a moment let us set aside all the other questions involved in the very difficult story to ponder why love is introduced here.

All love has an element of sacrifice. The Hebrew word for sacrifice, Korban, comes from the root “to draw close.” When you sacrifice for another you draw close to them. One of the reasons we so treasure our children is we have given them so much. The idea is suggested in the Hebrew word for the Isaac story: “Akedah” – binding.

All relationships require offerings: to be betrothed in Jewish tradition one must give a gift. Most importantly, to love another as friend, family, partner, you must make an offering of yourself. We often ask those in love, “What do you feel?” We might better ask, “What would you give?”

To Hold with Open Arms

When the renowned Rabbi Milton Steinberg recovered following his heart attack, he walked out into the bright midday sun. He thought, “How precious – how careless.” Life is so precious, and we are so careless with it. How can we be so heedless when we know that everything must end? Perhaps we fear that if we care too much, the losses of life will be unbearable.

How should we live, knowing everything can vanish in an instant? This is how Steinberg concludes in words written more than half a century ago: “And only with God can we ease the intolerable tension of our existence. For only when He is given, can we hold life at once infinitely precious and yet as a thing lightly to be surrendered. Only because of Him is it possible for us to clasp the world, but with relaxed hands; to embrace it, but with open arms.”

As this Shabbat approaches, remember Steinberg’s legacy: The wisdom to cherish and to let go. The wisdom of holding with open arms.

Passover and Real Freedom

Ask most schoolchildren the meaning of Passover and they will say “freedom” or perhaps, “freedom from slavery.” They aren’t wrong, but the answer is incomplete in a very important way.

The famous Passover phrase, “let my people go,” is abbreviated. The full sentence is, “Let my people go that they may serve me.” The historian of Ideas, Isaiah Berlin, made a famous distinction between being “liberated from” and being “liberated to.” To be liberated from oppression is the beginning of freedom, not its end or aim. True freedom is abundance of opportunity, not absence of obligation. A man in a desert alone is not free. Standing in a developed society with a thousand obligations but also a million possibilities, that is freedom. In other words, freedom is about the ability to fulfill one’s potential, just about the absence of coercion. I am not free to play the saxophone, because I don’t know how. I am however, free to learn how to play it.

Passover encourages us to understand that our lives are not about evading responsibilities. Service to God, to one another and to what is best in ourselves — that is the freedom taught by this beautiful, lasting festival.

We Were Poets and We Were Young

How do we make the past come alive to a generation that did not live through it? Each person wishes their stories to live in the echoes of later generations. The 19th century English poet Flecker, addressing a poet who will read him 1,000 years later, wrote: “O friend unseen, unborn, unknown/ Student of our sweet English tongue/ Read out my words at night, alone/ I was a poet, I was young.”

Judaism carries memory through words and through ritual. The voices of those who have lived before us survive in the faith they lived and shaped. We remember them by carrying a piece of their lives into a new age, like a jewel refitted in a new setting.
Judaism is Janus-faced. It points toward both the past and future. The melody of lives long past contributes to our own. When a Jew sings, there is always a chorus of the ages. As with the English poet, our Judaism writes its tradition into the future. For we too were poets, and were young.

The Solidarity of Grief

I’ve often been asked to join a minyan, a quorum of ten. But I am never asked to join “so we can say Barchu” (a prayer only recited with a minyan) or “so we can do a full Amidah” (also done only with a minyan). It is invariably so someone can say Kaddish, the prayer for the dead.

The obvious reason is to come to the aid of one who grieves. Saying Kaddish is usually a more urgent emotional need than other prayers. However, we might also see it as a tribute to the one who has died.

When we join together for a minyan we declare — even though we may not know this person, he or she was a part of the Jewish people. Each loss is a loss to all. We gather to let the mourners know that we too mourn, not as individuals, but as Klal Yisrael, the people of Israel. We pray that the bereaved will be comforted “among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” No one weeps alone. To rephrase the poet, every Jews’ death diminishes the Jewish people. Join a minyan and share in the solidarity of grief.


A Hundred Times a Day

Jewish tradition bids us to offer a hundred blessings a day. This is not about the numbers; there is nothing magical about one hundred. The one who recited ninety-nine blessings is not spiritually derelict. The secret is not in the numbers, but in the underlying ideology of blessing.

The mishna exhorts us to pray when we see lightning, mountains, deserts, the ocean, a long lost friend and myriad other things as well. Each category has its own formulated blessing, reminding us of the Author of all. This is not the enterprise of accumulating blessings; it is training in cultivating appreciation.

If you bless one hundred things a day you recognize that in each day there are one hundred marvels (at least) spread before us as a banquet of beauty in God’s world. Religion at its best takes on the task of combating the ennui that life brings; it is a struggle against believing in the ordinary. Every sunset is the sky on fire, every rainbow a promise. A blessing turns our hearts heavenward, and for a moment, our daily lives are renewed by wonder. A hundred times a day.

A New Strategy

As different factions argue in modern times many strategies have been tried. There has been bullying, out-reasoning, ignoring, insulting, throwing data at one another, quoting authorities – you name it, every way of winning the argument has been tried. Strangely however, one thing that proved effective in the Talmud is neglected.

The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) says that the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel, the two great rabbinic schools, argued for years. A voice came from heaven and said that both houses were the word of the living God – that is, in great disputes, there is no solitary truth. However, the Talmud goes on to ask, why then is it that the House of Hillel prevailed in (most) disputes? “Because they were kindly and modest, studied the views of House of Shammai as well as their own and not only that but quoted the views of the House of Shammai before their own.”

Now there’s a strategy! Be kindly, modest, study your opponent’s views and present them fairly before your own. Why has no one tried that?

Purim Masks

Why do we dress up on Purim? Partly to share the delight of inhabiting another identity. The child can now be a queen, a wise man, a King, a knave. The story springs off the page and into pageant. We love play acting as an aid to imagination.

But it may also be because hiding is a powerful way of revealing oneself.  Oscar Wilde wrote, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.”

Revelation through disguise is part of the Purim message. Hamann pretended to be a faithful advisor to the king, and in that false role showed his true colors as a hater. Esther pretended to be a simple subject who loved the king, and in that role was unveiled as a savior of her people. Perhaps most hidden of all in the story is God, whose name is not mentioned in the scroll of Esther at all, but whose presence is felt throughout the miraculous tale.

It is a paradox to reveal oneself through disguise. But at times a bit of pretense liberates us enough to express deeper truths. Purim provides the opportunity to dress up as others in order to more deeply discover who we are.

Windows to the Soul

The Talmud teaches that one should not pray in a room without windows. According to Rav Kook, this is because prayer without a recognition of the outside world, one’s responsibilities and duties, is empty. Why should one choose to pray to God in a cramped, narrow corner, unrelated to the vast panorama of God’s world?

The Talmud may also be making the reverse point: not that we look out, but that others must look in. To see someone lift a heart to God can be itself heartening. Knowing devotion exists can kindle our own devotion. Although we cannot be sure what goes on in another’s heart (as Queen Elizabeth famously commented in her declaration of religious tolerance, “I seek not to carve windows into men’s souls”) we can watch others pray and be inspired.

The Baal Shem Tov taught, when you see someone sway in prayer, do not think it strange. Compare it to a man passing by a glass house where inside people are dancing. Since he cannot hear the music, he sees only the strange rhythms. The music may be playing even if we can’t hear it. How do we know? That’s why we have windows.