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The Question of Meaning

04/06/2015 08:24:00 AM


The Question of Meaning
Rabbi Ed Feinstein-Valley Beth Shalom

My favorite time of week is Wednesday mornings. At 8:05 AM on Wednesday mornings, I lead minyan with the Day School second, third and fourth graders. After we’ve gone through the basic prayers, we play a game I like to call “She’elot u’teshuvot” Questions and Answers. The kids call it “Stump the Rabbi.” Anything you want to ask the rabbi, this is your chance. Sometimes we get questions about sports, science, or TV shows. But mostly, kids will ask remarkably deep religious questions:

If God created everything, who created God?

Great question. If everything in my experience has a beginning; if the existence of any thing is based on the existence of something else, how can there be an uncreated Creator? Or to put it in Rabbi Schulweis language, what is the ontological status of non-contingent being? Smart kid.

“Can you think of something that has no beginning?” I ask in return. Eventually, one of the kids will answer: yes, time. Time has no beginning. Because if it did, we could ask, what time was five minutes before? Time has no beginning. Time is an “always.” God is an always. God has always been and always will. So God has no birthday. And God doesn’t die. God is an always.

We’re studying Breshit, Genesis. If Adam and Eve only had two kids, and they were both boys, how did the world get full of people? (To which the fourth graders who are enjoying sex education all scowl, “Eyuuuu!”)

Another great question. You told us that the Torah is true. What happens when I find something in the Torah that makes no sense? Do have to believe it?

So I ask the kid: “Do you think the guys who wrote down the Torah were stupid?” “No, of course not,” the kid replies, “they were probably some of the smartest people ever.” “Well, don’t you think this question occurred to them? Do you think they knew that Adam and Eve and two sons couldn’t fill the world with people? If so, then they must have meant something else by the story. What could they have meant?

If all of humanity comes from a single set of parents, what does that make us? It makes us family. All of us. Even people who don’t look like us, don’t live like us, whose values are different than ours, we’re all family. And if we’re family, we’re responsible for one another; we need to care for one another. That’s the real truth of the Torah’s story.

My mom was just diagnosed with breast cancer. I’m really scared. If I pray really hard, will God make her better?

The hardest question. You know I was sick too. I also had cancer. I was also really scared. And then I discovered angels. All sorts of angels appeared in my life. Angels don’t have wings or harps. Angels look like regular people, but they do extraordinary things. A doctor using a machine called a CAT-scan found the tumor, and another doctor did a very difficult surgery and removed it. Scientists discovered medicines to keep the cancer from coming back. Kind nurses held my hands when the medicine made me sick. Friends came to care for my family and me. They made us meals, and took care of the kids, and sent movies and cards. All of them were angels. And because of them, I got better. So let’s pray that God sends your mom angels to make her better too.

Given the chance, kids will ask wonderful questions. But every year, there was one wise guy, one fourth grader who would wave his hands wildly in the air. Try as I did to ignore him, I had to call on him. He stood up, big grin on his face and shouted: “Ok rabbi, what’s the meaning of life?” Then he burst out laughing.

I confess that the first dozen times this happened, I wanted to strangle the little brat. Maybe revoke his bris. It took a dozen or so times before I stopped to really grasp what happened.

He thinks, “What’s the meaning of life?” is a stupid question. Even if you ask your rabbi. Even if you ask it in the synagogue. Where did he learn that? Who taught him that?

I don’t think it’s a stupid question. When I sit in the waiting room of the oncology clinic, it’s certainly not a stupid question. In the family room of the mortuary, it’s not a stupid question. In my study, with individuals and families struggling with stressful lives, with success and failure, with the joys and disappointments of raising children, with disease and health, life and death, it’s not a stupid question. I have spent my adult life wrestling with that question.

Soon, my indignation at this petulant kid turns to a deep inner sadness. Who is this kid? He is my failure as a rabbi, as a teacher of religion. And he is our collective failure as a religious community. He’s not alone. He belongs to a whole generation – a generation we’ve all but lost.

I taught him Judaism. But evidently I didn’t teach him anything. I taught him so many “how’s,” so many ways to do Jewish. I taught him how to recite prayers, how to light Hannuka candles, how to wave the Lulav and hold the Etrog. I taught him the meaning of discrete symbols and rites and rituals. But I never taught him how to make his whole life into a symbol. I taught him how to read Hebrew but I never taught him how to read the meaning of sacred moments. I told him lots of stories. But I never taught him how to tell his story; how to shape the narrative of his own life. In synagogue, we talked of Israel and of Jewish survival, we never talked about him and his survival. The prayerbook praises God, exalts God’s greatness and goodness, it doesn’t show him how to find his greatness, his goodness.

And now I look again, I recognize him.

Four children sit at our Seder table. The one who asks, “What are the rites and rituals and laws of the Passover?” – this child is privileged by the tradition as the Hacham, the wise one. But the child who asks, Mah zeh l’cha, What does this mean to you? How does this narrative of Passover fit into your personal narrative? What difference does this tale of slavery and freedom make in the pattern of your daily life? This one who asks the question of meaning is deemed Rasha, the wicked one.

Then there’s the last one: she’aino yodeh lishol, the one who doesn’t know how to ask. What Jewish kid doesn’t have at least one question? He doesn’t even ask, when do we eat? He just sits there in silence. Who is he? It’s not that he’s inarticulate or mute. He can talk. He’s just given up on us. His is the silence of resignation. He was yesterday’s Rasha. Yesterday, he took the risk of asking the question of meaning. And he found himself castigated, scolded. So he learned the lesson and he shuts up and sits silently. Because he believes that we have nothing to offer him, that we have no sense of life’s meaning, no direction toward life’s purposes.

In 1990 and again in 2000, the Jewish communities of North America did a major population study. They found about 5 1/2 million Jews in America. But when asked, what is your current religion? 20% check the box labeled “none”. None-Jews. Not Orthodox, not Conservative, not Reform, not Reconstructionist, not Renewal, not Zionist. None. Resigned and silent in the belief that we have nothing to answer the most important questions of life. We failed them. We’ve convinced a generation of Jews that the question: What’s the meaning of life? is a stupid question. Even if you ask your rabbi. Even if you ask in shul.

So where do they go for answers? If not in the synagogue, where do they go to get a straight answer to that question? If not in Judaism, then where in American civilization can you go to get an answer?

I’ll tell you where to go. Go to Gelson’s Supermarket. That’s right. Go to Gelson’s. For Gelson’s is really American civilization. Go to Gelson’s, and count how many different kinds of tomatoes or spaghetti or soap you can buy! My Bubbie would say, go get me a tomato. Today, we have to ask, do you want a tomato from Chile or Mexico or Modesto, roma., heirloom, cherry, beefsteak, brandywine, hot house, vine ripened, pink, purple, orange, striped or sun-dried tomato. How do you decide? That’s Gelson’s America!

American civilization is all about freedom. The genius of American civilization is the capacity to amass enormous technological power, and with that power, to purchase freedom unprecedented in human history. We live longer, healthier lives than people ever lived. We have unlimited choices and opportunities. We can go more places, enjoy more luxuries, pursue more interests, experience more wonders – we have more freedom than people of any previous generation of human beings.

Unprecedented freedom. But when we ask, what shall we do with all this freedom? American culture has no answer. As a result, we have a population that has more leisure time and greater spending power than any people in human history, and not the foggiest idea what to do with it all.

Gelson’s America. You can have whatever you want. So what do you want? Do you know what you want? Do you need what you want? What’s worth wanting? America has no idea!

These questions makes us pensive. We don’t want to ask too hard. We don’t want to ask: What for? Toward what goals? For what higher purposes?

We’re afraid to ask. Because if we had to face these questions, we would reveal a great emptiness, a great void within. And that emptiness drives us crazy. So we run to fill it up. With all our might, and all our heart, and all our soul, we Americans pursue distraction.

I’ve always wondered why American civilization is so invested in entertainment. I think I know why. A human being needs a sense a purpose, as surely as we need air, food, water and companionship. Remove that sense of purpose, and the human being lives with a gaping hole in the soul. That hole is unbearable. It needs to be filled with something, with anything. We’ll fill it with work, with shopping, with food and sex and alcohol and drugs both legal and illegal. But most of all, we fill it diversion, distraction, entertainment. We fill it with the American god, fun. What won’t Americans do in pursuit of fun?

My daughter went with her friends to Six Flags Magic Mountain. When she returned home I asked her how it was. “Great, Abba! We went on the biggest, scariest roller coaster in the world!” “The biggest?” I inquired. “Yes! The biggest. We waited three hours in line.” “How long was the ride?” I wondered. “About a minute.” “You waited three hours for a ride that lasted a minute? Did you at least bring a good book?” “Oh Abba, you’re no fun!” Indeed.

Henry David Thoreau once said, men today live lives of quiet desperation. He’s wrong. People today live lives of mild amusement. We’re having fun.

My own confession: For 25 years, we had a TV, a 19” Panasonic color TV, with a rabbit ear antenna. I bought this TV from one of my graduate students who was moving to Israel. It died. So the kids said, “Abba, you buy a new TV every 25 years, let’s get something good.” OK. So we went to that temple of bourgeois joy, Best Buy, and we found nirvana. My salvation is a 34” Sony, Trinatron, Wega, flat screen, high def, with attached surround sound. It came in a box as big as my first apartment. It took Nina, me, the three kids, my neighbor and his two teenage sons to shlep it in and set it up. And then my son said, Abba, when you had the old TV, the rabbit ears antenna was fine. But now that you own a fine piece of digital technology, you need to get…cable. So along came Dmitri, a nice Russian Jewish immigrant, and today I am wired.

When I was a kid, we had channels, 2,4,5,7,9,11, and 13. Then came UHF, and we got 28 and 34. If there was nothing on, you turned off the set and went outside to play. Do you know how many channels I’ve got now? I’ll tell you…. Enough so that you don’t have to really watch anything. You can spend an entire evening flipping through them. And if that won’t do, there’s On-demand and TIVO and Pay Per View, so that there’s never a time when there’s nothing on. (You know that you can now get a TV installed in the car too!) That’s just the TV. Step into the den and switch on the computer. How many websites are there? According to Google, about 7.2 billion pages. I have kids, we have play station, not to mention VCR and DVD.

If you should step outside your home, there’s more. A few minutes from home is the cinaplex with 28 screens and the mall with 200 stores. I was born the same year Disneyland opened. Disneyland was unique then. Now, within a few hours drive, there are at least six theme parks. They put a new park right where the parking lot used to be in Disneyland. It’s called “California Adventure.” It’s supposed to be entertaining – even if you already live in California! When we got to the ticket booth, the young woman there asked me if I’d like to visit the California Adventure. I told her I just drove two hours on the 405 to get there. That’s all the California Adventure I can stand in one day.

Why such an enormous cultural investment in entertainment? Because when we find ourselves with nothing to distract us, we grow bored, and in that boredom we discover our emptiness, our purposelessness, the meaningless of so much of our lives. We uncover the hole in the soul. And that hurts too much. So we fill it up.

Instead of purpose, we have fun. Instead of meaning, we have distraction. Do you know the definition of idolatry? Idolatry isn’t the worship of tree and rocks. Idolatry is when we allow the lower parts of the self to usurp the place of the highest in us. The idol is a false solution to a real spiritual need, a cheap and easy answer. Isn’t it interesting that the most popular TV show is called “American Idol”? And what is American Idol? It is our collective cultural fantasy that any one of us can be a star. Any one of us can rise out of the invisible, anonymous crowd, and gain the sweet immortality of fame. I can be someone! Just give me a chance to show you!

One morning, after the kid and his fourth grade buddies had their laugh, I got back at him. I answered his question. I asked him to stand up again. “Don’t worry. You’re not in trouble. You’ve asked a very important question. And I want to give you the answer.”

Almost 500 years ago, there lived a young rabbi in Tzfat, in the North of Israel. His name was Isaac Luria. Like you, Luria asked questions that everyone else thought were unanswerable. But he searched for answers. Here’s how he answered your question:

When God created the world, God created a perfect, beautiful world. Everything was in its place, complete and perfect. Only one thing was missing. The world was dark, static, lifeless, without energy or motion. So God began breathed life and light and energy into the world, and the world came alive. The problem was, God so loved the world, God breathed in too much energy, too much light. And light blowing too much air into a balloon, the world exploded. In a huge big bang, the world exploded, sending pieces every which way. That’s our world, taught Luria. We live in the world of broken pieces, shattered fragments, shards and ruins. But each one of these broken pieces still carries sparks of God’s light and light. Our job, as human beings, is to gather the pieces and put them together. Tikkun, the job of repairing God’s broken world, is our task in the world.

There is a corner of the world that only you, with your abilities and interests and aptitudes, only you can make whole. You’re task is to find that place, and apply all your energy and skill to make it whole, to make it right. That’s the meaning of your life. That’s how you live a life of meaning.

The answer to the question, what’s the meaning of life, isn’t a philosophical discourse or theological formula. The answer is found in doing, in acting. That’s the deeper truth of the Jewish tradition: The language of meaning is made up of deeds not words. Meaning is located in a pattern of sacred acts.

The first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shnuer Zalman taught that there will always be moments in life when we’re ready to give up and lie down in defeat. We give up on the world, on God, on the meaning. When those moments come, taught the Rebbe, you must go and do one good deed. One act of selfless loving. Go hold the hand of a sick person. Go teach one child to read. Go feed one hungry person. Fill your hands with Tikkun, with goodness, and suddenly you will feel God’s presence in your hands.

Something happens to you when you are teaching a kid to read, or planting a tree on a barren hillside, or hammering a nail into a new home for a displaced family. The sense of futility and cynicism and depression that shadow us everyday are replaced with a sense hope and the open possibilities of life. We grow inside. We become more than ourselves. We leave behind our own pettiness, the aggravations and irritations of daily life. The worries and anxieties, they all disappear; displaced by a profound sense of joy in our power to touch the world in significant ways. Prof Jacob Needleman calls it “moral mysticism.” The tradition called,

What is a mitzvah? One of the great words of the Jewish vocabulary. Mitzvah means commandment. And it means good deed. Mitzvah is an act of self-transcendence, of self-enlargement. In doing a mitzvah, I discover parts of myself that I never revealed before. I discover my power touch the world. I discover that I matter. The paradox of mitzvah is that by performing a selfless act, I discover a new and bigger and better self.

Simcha shel mitzvah is bot fun. The joy of mitzvah isn’t fun. It’s not an escape, a distraction, a diversion. It is confirmation of my purpose and place in the world. I am the hands of God. And I am the eyes of God. And mine is the heart of God that rejoices when the poor are brought home and the hungry are given bread and the despairing are given hope. Taught Abraham Joshua Heschel: “No one is lonely when doing a mitzvah, for mitzvah is where God and the human being meet. To meet God means to come upon an inner certainty of God’s realness, an awareness of God’s will. Such meeting, such presence, we experience in deeds.”

The Jewish tradition taught, s’char mitzvah mitzvah. The only reward one gets from a mitzvah is the chance to do another. And that’s enough. That’s all we need. The chance to know again, what Heschel called, “ineffable delight of sacred deeds.” A reminder that I matter, that I can touch the world.

Do our kids know this? Do they know the language of mitzvah, the joy and reward of doing good? Who will teach them? How will they learn it? Has there ever been a time in their lives when they were asked to give up something of value, because someone else needed it more? Have they ever been asked to act selflessly in defense of a principle? Raised on endless hours of TV – at home, in the car, at every waking moment – has anyone taught them that there is a happiness available to them that isn’t purchased at the mall?

I am asking you tonight/today to make a pledge for this new year. Not just the monetary pledge that supports the synagogue. That’s important too. But this is a pledge of something more precious. I want you. I want a few hours of your week, your month. In Hebrew, the word Hesed means an act of kindness, of loyalty, of love. We’ve established a Hesed Connection, connecting VBS volunteers to causes and projects all over the community. They need you. But even more, you need this. You need it to heal your cynicism. Your need it to uproot your depression and despair and restore your hope. You need it to show your children that there is purpose in life and joy in living with purpose. Right outside the door to the sanctuary, there are projects waiting for you.

My fourth grade friend raises his hand again. “I have two more questions. You said there is a place in the world that I have to take care of. How will I know where my place is?

It will find you. It always will.

OK and when I find it, how will I know how to repair it, how to make it whole again?

That’s why you have to finish the fourth grade. That’s why you’re in a Jewish school. Any school could prepare you for college. We’re going to try and prepare you for a much bigger challenge – repairing God’s world.

Everything we teach you is dedicated to helping you.

You learn Torah, because Torah is the blueprint to show what the world was supposed to look like.

You do mitzvot. Because not only is the world broken. We’re broken. And while we’re busy fixing the world, we must fix ourselves, make ourselves whole. Every ritual we do in Judaism is about making you whole inside, so you can make the world whole.

And you come to the synagogue for prayers. Because when you go into the world and encounter its brokenness, it’s going to break your heart. The world’s brokenness can be so painful, so dispiriting, so dark, you’ll be tempted to give up. Come to shul. Come to shul, wrap yourself in a tallit, and join the prayer. We don’t pray for God to come and fix the world. That’s our job. We pray for the renewal of our courage and resolution and compassion.

The opposite of Judaism isn’t Christianity or Islam or even atheism. The opposite of Judaism is to say, I give up. What is, is what is meant to be, and it can’t be fixed. That’s our only heresy. The opposite of Judaism is moral surrender and despair. The opposite of Judaism is to wrap yourself in your “privatism” and say, I don’t hear; I don’t see; I don’t care.

Because when you give up on the world, you also give up on yourself.

The practice of Judaism will not make you thin, or rich, or smart, or good looking or popular.

That’s not what it is designed to do.

Judaism is designed to give you a life of meaning, of purpose, of importance. And practiced carefully, it does that exceedingly well. That’s the meaning of life.

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Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780