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09/08/2010 - Finding Our Purpose (Rosh Hashanah Eve, 5771)
Rabbi Evan Moffic
Rosh Hashanah Eve, 5771
One of the best-selling children's book of all time-and one that I happen to have memorized-is Goodnight Moon. It tells of a little boy's bedtime routine. He lies down. He looks around his room. And then he says goodnight to everything he sees.
Good night cow jumping over the moon
Goodnight light And the red balloon
And goodnight mittens
And goodnight socks
Goodnight little house
And goodnight mouse
Goodnight noises everywhere
That's it. All is calm in the world. He goes to sleep. What makes this simple story so powerful? Part of it is the rhythm. The words unfold with a familiar and comforting tempo. Another part is the sense of completion. The boy names every object he sees. When he's done, his world is complete. He is at peace. He's ready to sleep.
There are, however, deeper explanations of the book's power. Going to sleep-whether we are children or adults-is hard. We feel anxiety, unresolved issues, fears of the future, concerns for our children and friends. We yearn for the ability to name and resolve our concerns as the little boy does. We yearn for that comfort and sense that all is right in the world. Yet, we know life is not that simple. We cannot name and understand every object we see. We can become confused, scared, frustrated. As we grow older, we learn that the world is infmitely vast and complex. We can approach this complexity in a number of ways. We can seek to return the simplicity of the little boy's room. We can try to make our world small and airtight-to live only with the familiar and comfortable.
But Jewish tradition gives us a different path. It asks us not to despair amidst the challenges and complexities of life. Rather, on Rosh Hashanah, we take a chesbon haneJesh-a review of our soul-and search within it for meaning and purpose. We review the past year. And we also ask whether we are heading in the right direction as we begin another. We check in with ourselves and ask whether we are heeding our own sacred purpose.
Indeed, rather than asking four questions as we do on Passover, we ask one: Who are we? What are we here on earth to do? I first asked myself this question on a trip to Israel. When I was sixteen, my grandfather took me and my cousins there. It was a ten day trip for grandparents and grandchildren. My grandfather, who was 82 at the time, was the oldest person on the trip. He walked slowly and with some pain. My grandmother was in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. Yet, he insisted on taking us. He pushed himself to go. Throughout the trip, he would usually stay on the bus while we climbed Masada or visited the Galilee. But we'd talk each night after dinner. He'd tell us how excited he was to be there with us.
During this trip, as I was developing a love of Israel, I was discovering something about my family and about being Jewish. They were connected. I saw my life, and my choices, as connected to what my grandfather and my people had done. A new path, a new possibility opened before me. The path did not unfold rapidly or directly. Yet, a decision, a choice my grandfather made transformed my future. It led to what Christian thinkers often call a "calling"-a desire to serve and devote our lives to something larger than ourselves. Itis not just rabbis or priests or ministers who have callings-each of us do.
Figuring out our calling can be overwhelming. What is harder than understanding ourselves? What is more challenging than determining what unique gifts we bring to a world of over six billion people? But I am absolutely convinced that it is not impossible. Indeed, next week, on Yom Kippur, we will read the beautiful words of Moses in which he assures us that it is possible. As we read from Deuteronomy, "Surely this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. Itis not in the heavens, that you should say, 'Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?' No, it is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do."
To do: We can uncover our purpose when we look at what motivates what we do. What in our heart helps us get up each morning? An initia answer might be our family. We work hard to support those we love. We center our lives around our children or our elderly parents. We wake up early, endure Chicago traffic, sit at our computers late at night, so that we can create a prosperous and happy life for our family. We fret when our children and grandchildren face difficulties, and celebrate in their successes and character.
Yet, while family is essential, when it comes to questions of purpose, it is not an end in itself. Caring for our family is, I think, like breathing. It is a core part of life. Yet, we do not exist simply to breathe. Similarly, our children do not come into this world just to provide us with a purpose for living. They are not mean to be, as Rabbi Harold Schulweis put it, Jewish GNP--Gross Naches Producers. As parents, we care, nurture and support our children. We help them develop their talents and find their calling and purpose, just as we uncover our own.
The way we uncover our own is captured by the Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankl. Frankl wrote the clasic text Man's Search for Meaning. The meaning of life, he argued, is not some secret that we uncover by reading the right book, meeting the rught furu or even hearing the right sermon! No, it is something that is unique to each of us, and it is something that is not so much discovered as created. We create the meaning of our lives through the actions-large and small-that we take. At the same time, it is not just random actions that we accumulate and then decide consitute or purpose. It is the actions we take as part of a conscious decision to devote our lives to something larger, more significant, more enduring than ourselves.
In fact, Frankl said three things can shape that decision. "We discover meaning in life," he writes, "by doing a deed; by experiencing a value; and by suffering." These three are not indivisible. In fact, the often coincide.
Last year a wonderful rabbi and leader, Alfred Gottschalk, passed away. He was President of Hebrew Union College for 25 years. Dr. Gottschalk told the story of how he grew up in Oberwessel, a small German town. He was eight years old when Nazi storm troopers burst into his school room and shouted for the Jewish students to leave. Soon thereafter came I came Kristallnacjt, "the night of broken glass." Synagogues were destroyed and Torah scrolls burned. The next morning, Dr. Gottschalk's grandfather took him to the stream behind their desecrated synagogue to retrieve the torn fragments of the congregation's Torah scroll. "Alfred," his grandfather said, "Someday, you will put the pieces back together." In the moment, and wight-year old boy found his purpose. He transformed an experience of suffering to a life of deeds grounded in the values of the Jewish people.
"Im Ein Ani Li, If I am not for myself," Hillel asked, "Mi Li, who will be for me?" How profound and beatiful. If I am not for myseld-if what I do dies not come form my heart, Mi Ani-why am I doing it? When what we do doesn't reflest our ideals and commitments, it doesn't meet our purpose. Inded, we can be very good and successful at something, yet still find it lacks meaning. Even further, we may not be doing it as well as we could. Professor Daniel Pink published a book this year entitled Drive. It is about what truly motivates high performing people. What he found was that money and stature are not nearly as important as the "deeply-felt human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world." How powerful and true!
Sometimes it's hard to meet these criteria. We're not always going to feel in control and creative and great about what we are doing. Every job and important thing in life-like parenting-has its difficulties and drudgery. Yet, there are practical ways we can figure out what brings out our best. If, for example, I go a few days or a week without writing, I know it. My spirit feels drained and my mind wanders. Yet, all I have to do is start again, and the passion returns. Each of us has similar passions we can follow. When our work touches our deepest selves, the routine, as Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, can become the amazing.
Part of the beauty of Hillel's set of question is that it tells us that only doing what we love is not enough. What we love needs to connect us to something larger than ourselves.
"U-ch'she'ani Le'atzmi, If I am only for myself, Mah Ani, what am I?" Happiness does not come through individualized experiences. Satisfaction does not arrive simply when we do only what makes us feel good. Let us not be afraid to ask ourselves whether what we do makes the world a more humane, just place. As theologian Frederic Buechner put it, "The kind of work God usually calls us to do is the kind of work (a) that we need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done....The place God calls us to is the place where our deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."
What a beautiful phrase-the world's deep hunger... Each of us brings a dish to help meet that deep hunger. When we help meet that hunger, we also meet our own. Nothing nourishes us like giving of ourselves.
As a rabbi, I learn this every day through the families of community members who have passed away. When I ask family members about the deceased's life, rather than talk about work or money, they talk about family and character. Indeed, I have noticed that the ones who are most missed are not necessarily the most successful and famous. They are the ones who enhanced the lives of others. They are the ones who, like my grandfather, constandy did small acts that helped their communities and the people they loved. And, invariably, family members tell me that the deceased gained more from their kindness than they gave. In lifting up others, they found themselves uplifted.... If I am only for myself, what am I?
''Ve-im Lo Achshav Eymatai-And if not now, when?" One of the best ways to uncover our purpose is to start doing something now; Pastor Rick Warren of California wrote the best-selling book of the last decade. Entided The Purpose-Driven Life, it is a Christian thinker's perspective on what can bring meaning and focus to life. One of Warren's insights resonates with Hillel's imperatives as well. As Warren writes, "If you want your life to have impact, focus it! Stop dabbling. Stop trying to do it all. Do less. Prune away even good activities and do only that which matters most. Never confuse activity with productivity. You can be busy without a purpose, but what's the point?"
Indeed. Discovering our purpose gives a point to our lives. A story is told of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin, the leader of a famed nineteenth century Yeshiva. As a boy he was an indifferent student. One day he decided to abandon his studies and enter a trade school. He announced the decision to his parents, who reluctandy acquiesced. That night the young man had a dream. In it an angel held a stack of beautiful books. ''Whose books are those?" he asked. "They are yours," the angel replied, "if you have the courage to write them." That night changed the young man's life. Reb Hayim was on the way to discovering who he was meant to become.
The future does not exist. It is created by what we do. It is shaped by the choices we make. Will this Rosh Hashanah be the beginning of a new year and a renewed self? Will we shape our future so that it reflects our deepest hopes and beliefs? If we listen to the sound of the shofar, if we listen to ourselves, if we refuse, as Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, to die with our music inside of us, we can and we will. Ken Yehi Ratzon, may this be God's will.