Posts Tagged 'Meaning'

Worth Reviewing

This week we start reading the Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah.  At the start of Devarim, this week’s Torah portion and  we read:

These are the words which Mosche spoke unto all Israel beyond the Jordan; in the wilderness, in the Arabah, over against Suf, between Paran and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Di-zahab. It is eleven days journey from Horev unto Kadesh-barnea by the way of mount Seir. And it came to pass in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first day of the month, that Mosche spoke unto the children of Israel, according unto all that the Lord had given him in commandment unto them; ( Deuteronomy 1:1-3)

The entire book of Deuteronomy is a retrospective of what happened to the Israelite people in the previous 40 years. Deuteronomy, the name of the book in English itself, literally means “second law”. The whole book is a repeating of the stories we have learned about in the previous three books of the Torah. It must be important if it is worth saying twice. As we start this book it is interesting to reflect on what is worth reviewing?

I was thinking about this recently when I ran into a colleague in the Non-For Profit Jewish world in Penn Station late at night on my home from a visiting camps. My colleague was leaving New York after a conference here in the city and had some time to kill before his train. We took this chance meeting as a chance to catch up. Both of us live our lives as observant Jews working for the larger Jewish community. It is interesting in that neither of us grew up that way. In this context it seemed completely natural when he asked me to share my story. He wanted to know how my Jewish journey got me to where I am today.

The first story that came to mind was a memory I have from 1993 when I was a student at Yeshivat HaMivtar. Every Wednesday Rabbi Dovid Ebner would give a Mussar class after lunch. It was the highlight of my week. Rabbi Ebner has a vast knowledge of the Jewish canon and the human soul. In the tapestries of his talks he was able to weave together strands from all over the Bayt Midrash into a stunning and inspiring works of art. Still to this day I feel that his profound truths impact me. While I do not recall the larger topic he was speaking on during the day in question I fondly recall one class. He often brought quotes from a wide diversity of Traditional Jewish sources, but that day Rabbi Ebner said, “The other day I was doing hazara on Catcher in the Rye.” Hazara is the traditional practice of relearning canonical works that are worth reviewing. I remember that moment so well. Rabbi Ebner invited me into the Bayt Midrash in a way I had not felt in the past. I did not have to give up other libraries to show up and be present. The opposite was true. I actually felt and still feel a profound sense of obligation to the entire library of the human experience. Why couldn’t J. D. Salinger be in conversation with the Rambam? If they could both be there, maybe I also should be there. That was the moment that I recall metaphorically pushing all of my chips into the middle of the table. I was all-in for a Modern Orthodoxy that saw that truth regardless of its origin or artistic expression was worthy of review.

We are what is worth prioritize to review. In the process we create memory and meaning. With our starting the book of Deuteronomy I pause to reflect what is worth our review?

 

 

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Redeemable Building

Why did we merit redemption from Egypt? It would seem that it was foretold to Abraham that they would be redeemed.  But there are still a number of Midrashim  that explore how the  Israelites own merits redemption. Many of the reasons seem to be around their retaining particular mitzvot and symbols of Jewish identity.  Rav Huna said in the name of Bar-Kappara (Midrash Vayikra Rabba 32:5) that we did not change our names or our language, we did not speak lashon ha-ra, and everyone observed the laws of arayot (forbidden relationships). And yet another midrash (Midrash Lekach Tov on Parshat Va’eira) explores if we were redeemed because we retains  distinctive clothing. Most of these cases seems to have to do with with their words/names. How do words create the precondition to redemption?

I think this is interesting when we juxtapose it with the story of the generation of the Tower of Babel. They wanted to make a great name for themselves and they all spoke one language. For some reason similar behaviors were met with very different outcomes. For this generation after Noah, they were met with destruction of their life work, confounding of their common language, and dispersal throughout the world. For the Israelites it also spoke to the end of their labor of building, but Egypt still has those landmarks. We still have our names, language, and we still have one homeland.

We move from Exodus from Egypt in this week’s Torah portion to next week’s Torah portion when we will be standing as Sinai as “one nation with one heart”. In this week’s Torah portion as we are leaving Pharaoh is in hot pursuit. We read, ” Egypt was journeying after them” (Exodus 14:10) On this Rashi comments that this verb ‘was journeying’ is in singular because they were with “one heart as one man”.   The comparison is robust. Common purpose and unity seems redeemable and not uniformity. We are never really building buildings, we are always trying to build communities. We build community with the words we use. It is in these communities that names have meaning. Community is where many of us will find enduring meaning and maybe even our own redemption.

– I am sorry that a draft of this got posted by accident.

For Nothing

Our lives gains purpose when we find a cause bigger ourselves and we commit our lives to that cause. What a tragedy to discover that your life work was for nothing? Just think about the people who toiled in building the Tower of Babel  about which we read in Noah, this week’s Torah portion. They might have been just a swarm of people, but this project gave them purpose. There they were in valley of Babylonia spending night and day making bricks to construct into a Tower. And then their plan was confounded.

Similarly we will read in the story of Exodus that Pharaoh increased the burden upon the Israelite slaves by maintaining their quota of brick production while cutting their supply of straw. Frustrated by their increased work load they came to complain to Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “HaShem look upon you, and judge; because you have made our very scent to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants” (Exodus 5:21). Prior to this decree they were slaves, but they could at least take pride in the fruit of their labor. After the decree their perception of themselves became a reality.  It seems that the last straw was not the limited supply of straw, but the degradation of working all the time and not being productive.  They felt worthless and smelly.

Hevel Hevalim– Vanity of vanities  it just feels that our lives have no meaning when we have nothing to show for our work.  This is something that I am not sure I would not be abel to bear. According to Victor Frankl our primal drive as human beings is meaning. Can you imagine the devastation of spending your life working on a tower only to have it be destroyed? How do we know when we are living lishma for our values and when we are just making castles in the sand?

 


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