On January 4, my family and I were privileged to attend the final Broadway performance of the revival of Pippin, one of Stephen Schwartz’s wonderful musicals. I had not seen it before. It’s the story of a well-educated young prince who, after university, embarks on a search for a meaningful life. He tries being a soldier and being king, and he tries living on a farm. None of it seems to work. He finally realizes that it is the mundane life on the farm with a woman he loves, and her young son, that is the meaningful life.
The day after we saw Pippin, David Brooks published a column discussing the modern search for meaning, and asserting that “Meaningfulness tries to replace moral systems with the emotional corona that surrounds acts of charity.” He says today’s seekers of meaning are looking only for a feeling they call meaning, and contrasts them with those who lived meaningful lives in the past, who “subscribed to moral systems — whether secular or religious — that recommended specific ways of being, and had specific structures of what is right and wrong, and had specific disciplines about how you might get better over time.”
Rabbi Geoff Mitelman responded last week on this blog, discussing the way Judaism’s moral system and meaningfulness go together. Rabbi Mitelman, like me, lives mostly in the religiously liberal Jewish world, and he mentions in his piece how important it is, for liberal Jews especially, for their religious practice to be meaningful to them.
I teach my congregants that, as practitioners of Reform Judaism, they are obligated to observe the ethical commandments of Jewish law, but are not obligated to follow the ceremonial or ritual commandments. However, it is incumbent on us to learn about the latter types of commandments, and take on those that we find add meaning and holiness to our lives.
The challenge of this is that some practices could potentially bring holiness and meaning to people’s lives, but do not do so the first time one tries them. It can take years of, well, practice, before a practice like meditation or communal worship feels meaningful. Some activities may feel initially awkward or difficult, and therefore may not feel meaningful immediately, like visiting the sick or paying shiva calls, or the hard work of social action (these would qualify as mandatory commandments for Reform Jews). If we are searching for meaning, it is worth our while to commit to a moral and ethical system, and to practices, that others have found meaningful, even if they don’t feel meaningful to us at first. We might seek out people who seem similar to us in temperament or spirituality, and engage with some of the practices that work for them. Then we need to trust that the meaning will eventually come.
In other words, searching for meaning in each experience may not be the most effective way to find meaning. Perhaps we need something that is discussed far less in most liberal Jewish circles than meaningfulness: faith. We need to have faith that some of the morals, ethics, and practices that have led to meaningfulness for others can do that for us too. We need to have faith that if it doesn’t feel meaningful today, it can someday, if we keep with it. Then, like Pippin, we may find that the meaning we’re searching for comes through our day-to-day work to improve the world, and through our rituals, routines, and relationships.
There are 54 discreet portions, parshiyot in the Torah. If we regard them as chapters in a greater whole each portion begins a new episode in the ongoing story of our heritage – with one exception. This week’s portion (Va’era) is a continuation the endpoint of last week’s portion (Shemot). This week’s portion takes up in the middle of Moses’ encounter with God at the Burning Bush.
From Charlteton Heston to Steven Spielberg we have witnessed the majesty and mystical experience we associate with God’s direct revelation to Moses. Unfortunately the Hollywood images blind us to what may be the real messages in the text. The Burning Bush presents the paradigm for all future interactions and attitudes toward God and challenges humanity to rise up to the potential with which we were created. It is not so much about experiencing God in life as it is experiencing God in our lives.
A simple reading of the text shows that Moses is not reluctant to accept God’s charge to free the Israelites from Egypt – he refuses four times. In his refusals he challenges God to become more transparent in dealing with humanity. Moses first asks, “who am I to do this?” but soon, aggressively continues, “Who are you?” to God.
Despite God’s assurances to the contrary Moses continues “They won’t believe me.” Finally he says to God, “Please send someone else.” God’s anger hides the fact that Moses actually wins this part of the argument because God sends Aaron to help him.
This foundational text sets the future dynamic between Israel and God: We may follow God’s will and word but not ever blindly. Questioning God is in our spiritual DNA.
The Rabbis view at this episode with a mixture of emotions. At one point the ask a pointed question (which is hinted at in Spielberg’s version), “How long was the Burning Bush burning?” Their answer? 400 years with Moses being the first person to come close to this known supernatural phenomenon. According to the interpretation the bush started burning the second Israel was enslaved in Egypt. This prompts the question, “What would have happened if someone else had turned aside to look at the bush several hundred years before Moses?” Their answer? We would have been freed several hundred years earlier. It took someone to recognize the significance of the bush and turn aside to look for God to take the first step towards freedom.
And these are only two facets of the text: A text that establishes our relationship with God and asserts the potential to greatness in each of us.
A few days ago, David Brooks wrote an article entitled “The Problem of Meaning.” In our society today, and especially in more liberal Jewish circles, “meaning” has become a high value. We want our prayer services to be “meaningful,” we want our social justice activities to be “meaningful,” we want our text study to be “meaningful.”
But, as Brooks notes, meaning can potentially be very self-centered. It is often less about making our world better and more about making ourselves feel better. As he says,
If we look at the people in history who achieved great things — like Nelson Mandela or Albert Schweitzer or Abraham Lincoln — it wasn’t because they wanted to bathe luxuriously in their own sense of meaningfulness. They had objective and eternally true standards of justice and injustice. They were indignant when those eternal standards were violated. They subscribed to moral systems — whether secular or religious — that recommended specific ways of being, and had specific structures of what is right and wrong, and had specific disciplines about how you might get better over time.
In other words, “feeling good” is not enough to drive our lives — and Judaism would agree. Our goal in life is not simply to feel warm and fuzzy inside, it’s to repair our world. If that’s the case, morality, not meaning, should guide us.
The challenge is that while meaning is certainly subjective, morality is also not completely objective, either. Different people place different priorities on different values. So what are we to do?
Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger, in his book Our Religious Brains: What Cognitive Science Reveals about Belief, Morality, Community and Our Relationship with God, suggests the following:
There must be a best way to construct human morality, though people may never fully agree what that way is…To guide our lives we must rely on some specific cultural synthesis. We “hop” to Judaism or Christianity…believing that in the process we can live largely moral lives. Lest we be paralyzed by uncertainty and indecision, we live as if our set of moral values captures absolute right and wrong, knowing, though, that as a human system, a cultural expression, it may at best come close to that ideal.
So even if we don’t know with certainty what “the right thing to do” would be, we still have to live by principles. And if that’s how we look at morality, that’s where meaning can come back into the equation.
Meaning, at its core, is how we make sense of the world. It allows us to figure out what our lives and our world “mean.” If we view meaning in this way, then our morality, even if it is imperfect, truly is a form of “meaningfulness.”
Yes, meaning can be fluff — or, as Brooks phrased it, “the NutraSweet of the inner life.” But it can also be the driver to a more just and more peaceful society, because it is what allows us to discover how we can best bring our gifts and talents in the service of our world.
If we are looking to better ourselves and our world, morality might be more important. But meaning might be more effective.
Have you filled out your bracket yet? Yes, “Madness” is in the air as the most exciting two weeks of sports in America are about to begin: the NCAA Men’s (and Women’s) College Basketball Tournament. Roughly 50 million Americans (myself included) will take time out of our busy schedules to plot out 63 different matchups and enter our picks into office pools or online competitions. We will spend countless hours sneaking peaks at TVs or mobile broadcasts of the games during work and neglecting our kids at home for hours at a time on the weekends, leading to the inevitable stories about how many billions of dollars in productivity our economy has squandered. But why do we care so much about a bunch of college basketball games?
For starters, there is the chance of work-place glory and even some petty cash for winning one’s office pool. The self-proclaimed “experts” among us will analyze conference records, strength-of-schedule comparisons, and other analytical metrics, agonizing over each pick until we are convinced we have the perfect bracket. We will check our results daily, arguing at the water cooler over why our upset picks should have won. And then we will lose our office pool to the person who picks teams based on who has the cutest mascot! For those who yearn for more than just office bragging rights this year, Warren Buffett has upped the cash ante by offering $1 billion to anyone who can correctly pick all 63 games (spoiler alert: the odds are roughly 1 in 9 quintillion that you will do so, so don’t start spending that billion just yet).
For many others, the thrill of the NCAA Tournament is less about filling out brackets than about a celebration of all that is good about sports. While professional sports are filled with doping scandals and selfish athletes who play more for their next contract than the welfare of their teams, college basketball is different. As one blogger recently put it, “March Madness is the culmination of hundreds of hours of blood, sweat and tears. It is a group of unpaid athletes brimming with school pride and playing with emotional intensity that only comes with playing on the national stage.”
There is a sense of meritocracy in the Tournament; of hard work, effort, and sacrifice for the greater good being rewarded with team wins, since the best teams in college basketball are not necessarily those with the best individual players. The passion of the players and coaches in the Tournament is palpable, from the shouts of joy to the tears streaming down players’ faces as they realize that their year, and for some their career, is over. This passion somehow works its way through the television and into our own hearts as we cheer on our favorite teams or shriek with delight as this year’s Cinderella teams make buzzer-beating shots. I challenge you to watch the famous CBS video montage, “one shining moment,” at the end of the Tournament and not feel your heart race!
But I think there is a deeper reason why so many millions get engrossed in the NCAA Tournament. It offers us a bonanza of something we rarely get to experience: unpredictable and exciting results. So much of our lives today are on auto-pilot. We have our work routines, our home routines, our usual Starbucks stops, etc., that we thirst for what is new or novel. The randomness and unpredictability of the Tournament provide this in abundance. In the homogenized, gentrified world in which so many of us live, the Tournament’s inherent uncertainty offers us something we rarely find, especially in real-time.
The sad truth is that this is what Judaism is supposed to offer us. Our rituals and our religious calendar are supposed to give us breaks from our quotidian existences. Shabbat and other holidays are supposed to provide respites from, and a reorientation of, our normal work-weeks. Praying during the day, whether in formal services or extemporaneous prayers, take us out of our automated consciences and give us the opportunity to access the sublime. Unfortunately, we, as Jewish leaders, are failing in our efforts to transmit this crucial experiential legacy. We are not providing the kind of targum (translation) of how our texts and rituals have the potential to be transformative, to shake us from complacency and satisfy our desire for authenticity and creativity.
March Madness reminds us that we all need experiences that feel genuine, organic, and even miraculous. We crave these breaks from our ordinary lives, these chances to feel truly alive. The NCAA Tournament offers this to us for two weeks each year. The challenge for Jewish professionals is to find ways to transmit our heritage, our culture, our Torah in the same way. We have the potential for 52 weeks of Madness; it us up to us to deliver.
p.s. Florida is looking tough to beat this year, and don’t forget to pick at least one 12 seed to upset a 5 seed!
At the conclusion of Yom Kippur services, the rabbi was standing at the door shaking hands as the congregation departed. As he saw Joseph coming out of the synagogue, the rabbi grabbed Joseph by the hand and pulled him aside. Impassioned by the holiness of the day, the rabbi said to him, “You need to join the Army of God!”
Joseph replied, “I’m already in the Army of God, Rabbi.”
The rabbi questioned, “Then how come I don’t see you except for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?”
Joseph whispered back, “I’m in the secret service.”
I’ve often wondered what it is that brings people to enlist in the secret service exclusively for the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe. For many, I believe it is a sense of nostalgia for tradition. For others, it is a source of community. Some come for the beauty of the Hazzanut, of the Cantor beautifully chanting sacred melodies. Some even come because they enjoy praying.
But I think for many, the reason we come to synagogue on the High Holidays is the safety of the boredom we encounter. We know that if we sit (and often stand) for hours on end, in uncomfortable dress clothes and in poorly air conditioned buildings, we have “done” our Jewish thing, done our introspection for the year. We can check off the box. It is the holiday equivalent of taking our medicine: if we successfully endure the High Holiday services, we have done what is expected of us (by society? by deceased parents whose guilt-trips about Jewish identity still weigh upon us? by a God of Judgment lurking somewhere in the dark recesses of our minds?). And we can move on with our “real” lives about as quickly as we digest the lox and bagel at our break the fast meal.
The truth is, though, that our boredom serves as a protective barrier during the High Holidays. The purpose of the Days of Awe, from the liturgy to the haunting melodies, from the shofar to the sacred task of teshuvah (repentance/turning from our prior ways), is to shatter our delusions of safety and comfort with existential questions, alerting us to the precariousness of our mortality and challenging us about the quality of the life we have been living. The reason for coming to shul is not to endure boredom but to confront the messiness of life. So as we embark on the year 5774 on Wednesday evening, I hope that we will have the courage to reject boredom during the Days of Awe. I pray that rabbis and laity alike will use the sacred tools of the Yamim Noraim to challenge ourselves to lead more mindful, more meaningful, and more holy lives in the coming year.