As I walked through the streets of New York City one chilly morning last April, a young woman with a big smile threw her hand in front of me and cheerfully yelled: “Free bag! Want a free bag?”
“Sure.” I thought. “I can always use an extra reusable cloth tote.”
The bag she handed me was cream in color, featuring black print across the front that read: “The Secret of the Universe.” This seemed perfect! I had just finished a three-day conference with Rabbis Without Borders, where 22 rabbis from across the country and beyond the denominational boundaries had come together to wrestle with how to bring meaning to our lives and the lives of the people we touch. And here I was, with a few hours to spare on that windy day in Manhattan, running errands before my flight back to Austin, and a friendly blond woman was offering me a simple cloth bag that would disclose the answer to that very question with which rabbis have struggled for millennia.
I peered inside the bag and pulled out a card. “The secret of the Universe” – read the card – was Bobbi Brown concealer.
On the surface – just like the literally superficial makeup this bag was advertising – this whole notion of finding “the secret of the universe” seems like a cliché, maybe even silly. But, in truth, Bobbi Brown’s marketing people are onto something – something beneath the skin. They are tapping into our deep human desire to unlock meaning in our lives. Framed in this way, I don’t think any of us would call it silly. When I sit with folks who are battling cancer, struggling to heal traumatized relationships, or searching for a transformative career change, the question of “meaning” is far from silly; it is essential.
But Judaism teaches us that the answer to the question — “What is the secret that gives our lives meaning?” – isn’t found in a magical compact of make-up used for concealing. Rather, it is found on the opposite end of the spectrum – in deep and honest revealing. That’s the deeper truth of Jewish wisdom: “the secret” is located in sacred connections, holy experiences, and loving relationships that don’t conceal – but rather reveal – goodness and light.
The Mishnah of Pirket Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) teaches: The world stands on three things: On Torah, on Avodah (purposeful prayer) and on Gimilut Chasadim (Acts of loving-kindness.
Torah: The climax of our Jewish narrative is the moment of Revelation on Mount Sinai, when God spoke face to face with Moses, revealing a language of justice, peace, and love to the Jewish people. We recapture that experience of revelation each time we sit down and study Torah with a chevrauta – a study partner – bringing new understandings to our texts and creating a space for our Jewish language to continue to evolve. The act of studying with a partner reflects the tremendous value Judaism places on encountering other human beings in sacred relationships that permit us to reveal the depth of our souls.
Avodah – Purposeful Prayer: Originally, in the time of the Temple, Avodah referred to the sacrificial offerings. Our offerings now come in the form of communal connection and recitation of sacred texts. When we truly engage in purposeful prayer, we experience the potential of revelation — we both reach out to the mystery of God, and also reach inward to connect with the mystery of our souls. In doing so, we strive to reveal our deepest feelings to the one who needs to understand us best – ourselves. Life can be disheartening and scary, yet when we come together in passionate communal prayer, we support one another and gain strength and inspiration to do the revelatory, healing work that our society so desperately needs.
G’milut Chasadim – Acts of Lovingkindness: The first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shneur Zalman, taught that there are moments in each of our lives when we become worn down and are unable to simply spring back and find meaning in life. Rebbe Shneur Zalman explained that when those moments arise, we must go out and share kindness with another human being. Visit a resident in a nursing home. Volunteer in a soup kitchen. Spend time in an inner-city school helping children learn to read. When we engage in selfless acts that elevate others, we reveal God’s love and goodness to all those we touch. In that moment, not only do we bring light to others; we become filled with light ourselves.
Bobbi Brown just might have the secret to concealing an annoying pimple, but when it comes to searching for the secret to the universe, I vote for revelation over concealment and Jewish wisdom over elegantly packaged make-up.