Posts Tagged ‘Jewish purpose’



Anyone who has raised children is familiar with this scenario. You give your child an instruction; they ask “why.” You tell them a fact about something and they ask you “why.” You tell them you have to go on a trip for a few days and they ask you “why.” Why, why, why – kids are great at asking “why” to the never-ending annoyance of parents. How many times does the answer become, “because I said so?” Which of course never satisfies the curious child and just creates frustration for everyone. Yet, in our impatience to get the child to go along with us, or to just listen to what we say, we often forget how poignant the question of why is.

For there is a “why” behind everything we do. There is a “why” behind every organization, every human gathering, and every political or religious movement. If there is no “why” then the rest has no meaning. If there is no “why” then human activity is empty. Yet, we probably spend much less time thinking about our “why” than we do those other question words, namely our “what” and our “how.”

That is the premise behind Simon Sinek’s book, “Start With the Why.” Sinek writes that most organizations, be they businesses, non-profits, or political movements, focus on what they are doing and how they are doing it. Many organizations do these things quite well, businesses make profits; politicians get elected. But, Sinek proposes, what separates the successful from the game changing; the business making a profit from the business changing an industry, is knowing your why. He gives a great example – Apple versus Microsoft. No one disputes the success of Microsoft. Its presence in the computing world is almost ubiquitous. However, when we think of innovation, not just in computers, but an array of products, the revolutionary company is Apple. Yes, we have yet to see if that remains the same in the absence of Steve Jobs, but, Apple is a company that for 40 years understood its why – to be the cutting edge in expanding the use of computerized possibilities for consumers. Name a company in the last 20 years that has started more trends than Apple. The reason? Apple knew its why.

Here is another example. No one can deny the influence of Disney. What built Disney’s success is summed up in the company’s why – “dare, dream, believe, and do.” Disney is much more than just a profitable corporation. It is a company that changed family entertainment several times, through movies, animation, and theme parks. Only a company that knew its why would dare to produce a film like “Fantasia” in 1940; marrying classical music, film and animation. Disney’s history is to be a game changing company.

Sinek is not just discussing profits. He is trying to finger that fine line between being a success, and being a change agent. You can do very well and be quite comfortable knowing what you do and how to do it. But the “what” and “how” are not inspiring. A why, if you know your why, can inspire. And, by the way, making money is not a why – that is a result. What employee of a company is inspired by the company’s ability to increase profits? Sure, if the company increases compensation, it can manipulate loyalty in its employees. That is not inspiration; that is manipulation. What makes an employee loyal through a company’s tough times, when raises are not forthcoming?   For Sinek, that loyalty comes from the company’s ability to know its why, to communicate it, then to use that why to inspire its employees and eventually its customers. A why is no less than your raison d’etre, your purpose.

Tonight I would like to speak with you about our why – first the why of Judaism; second the why of our congregation, Temple Israel. In truth the sermon I gave last year about how we create a big tent for those who are anywhere on the Jewish spectrum; from intensely Jewish to exploring Jewish possibilities – well that sermon should really come after this one. That sermon was about our how and our what. Creating that big tent is not our why – it is how we express our why. The various programs and activities are our what – the means for carrying out our how. Now if all of this is starting to sound like Abbot and Costello’s baseball routine, “Who’s on first,” bear with me a few moments. Although “Why” might be Abbot and Costello’s left fielder, tonight it becomes the center of everything.

Perhaps you think our big tent approach is inspiring. Yes, it is a wonderful characteristic of our congregation. However, I will tell you that those who are seeking Judaism, be they Jews returning to the fold or non-Jews on a path to Judaism, well, they are not seeking Judaism because of our big tent. Rather something in Judaism has inspired them and our congregation’s attitude, our how, draws them to Temple Israel as an institution. This raises an important point. Institutions in and of themselves do not inspire. Ideas inspire. Beliefs inspire. Judaism inspires. If we are an institution that lives the inspirational ideas of Judaism, we know our why. As a result, our how becomes more powerful.

I point out all of this not to critique what we do. Instead, I want to put what we do and how we do it into a larger context, to provide a frame of meaning. I want us, institutionally and individually, to move into this next year thinking about our meaning, our purpose. I want us to think about our why.

Let’s start globally. All religions have a why, a purpose which inspires its adherents. That purpose is bound intrinsically in the foundational stories of the religion. Here is an example. A key foundational story of Christianity is the conversion of Saul of Tarsus on his way to Damascus. Saul had been among the doubters of the early Christians. He describes himself as a Pharisee who persecuted early Christians. Here is the account Saul gives of this event in chapter 26 of the Book of Acts.

Who are you Lord? The Lord answered, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles – to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”

After this experience Saul becomes Paul, the author of most of the epistles in the Christian Bible. You can see the why of Christianity in the story. Through faith in the salvific power of Jesus, one’s sins can be removed. That person can ascend to heaven to join all those sanctified by faith in Jesus. This “why” of Christianity, that God sacrificed part of himself through taking on the suffering of the cross, thus providing humanity a way to salvation – is inspirational. And Paul’s personal why becomes to spread this among the gentiles. Yes, Christians debate the details of the how and the what – how important are deeds versus faith, how exclusive is the heavenly club that includes Jesus believers, what are the necessary rituals – the list of possible hows and whats is almost endless. But the why is very clear. It provides purpose for every church, every Christian sect, every individual Christian.

So what is the why of Judaism? That too gets lost in the debate of how and what Jews are supposed to do. But it is also present in the foundational stories of our people. The Jewish why is different from the Christian why. This is beautifully articulated by one of the great orthodox scholars of the last century, Joseph Soloveitchik, in his book “Halakhic Man.” The title is his term for the Jew, who I would say understands his or her why. Listen to Soloveitchik’s words, “The ideal of halakhic man is the redemption of the world not via a higher world, but via the world itself.” His term for those who believe we must be elevated to heaven is “homo religiosus.” Here is his contradiction between homo religiosus and halakhic man. “Homo religiosus ascends to God; God however descends to halakhic man.” In other words, the why of every Jew, the why of Judaism, is to work to bring that which is divine, that which is godly or heavenly – into this world. Rather than elevate individuals to heaven, Judaism teaches that every act has the potential to infuse our world with divinity.

How we do this and by what means are much debated. Those debates represent the differences between the various Jewish movements. A typical argument in the Jewish world is not between faith and acts, but between the importance of ritual acts versus ethical acts; between ritual piety and commitment to social justice. Whatever details you embrace, whether you observe more or less tradition, the why remains absolutely the same. Judaism attempts to find ways to take the divine from heaven and to express it in our world.

As with Christianity, this purpose, this why, is reflected in our foundational stories. Let’s take a few moments to look at the most powerful, most poignant foundational story of all Judaism, the Exodus from Egypt. I would wager that most people, most Jews even, would say the Exodus is the story of the journey from slavery to freedom. Perfectly true, but that is a story within a much larger story – the story of a distant God coming closer and closer to the children of Israel, until God’s presence dwells among the actual Israelite camp. You can glean this story from the arc of the entire book of Exodus.

Exodus opens with a description of the Israelites’ oppression in Egypt. Then, we learn of the birth and early life of Moses. It is not until the end of chapter 2 that God is even mentioned, finally noticing the outcry of the Israelites. So what does God do? God recruits a leader for the Israelites – Moses – who is invested with the ability to lead the people. For the first parts of the story, God is very distant, only communicating with Moses – often in seclusion or in the wilderness. Even after the Israelites leave Egypt and are trapped at the Sea of Reeds, God does not just appear to rescue the people. Rather God tells Moses to raise his hand and tell the people to move forward – in other words if they expect God to act, first the people must act.

At Sinai, it is Moses who is on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments. While the people of Israel, are not directly experiencing the act, they witness the lightening and the thunder. The relationship between Israel and God has taken a step closer. After the apostasy of the Golden Calf, the people construct the mishkan, a portable sanctuary that is to rest in the middle of the Israelite camp during their travels through the wilderness. As the Book of Exodus draws to a close, God’s presence settles into the completed mishkan. God’s journey, from a remote non-presence, to a daily presence in the center of the community, becomes complete.

There is a midrash illustrating this interpretation of the Exodus story. Pesikta d’Rav Kahana teaches that in the beginning of time, God’s presence resided in this world. After Adam sinned it began to withdraw. As succeeding generations sinned, God’s presence with drew farther and farther from our world. Then began the work of righteous men, beginning with Noah, then Abraham. The works of these men drew God’s presence ever closer to this world until finally the work of Moses and the Israelites, upon completing the mishkan, made it possible for God’s presence to exist once again in our world.

Our daily lives are supposed to be lived in a way that invites and promotes and maintains God’s presence within our communities. Yes, the method for doing this has changed over the centuries just as Judaism has changed. But that does not change the underlying purpose – the why of Judaism. In Leviticus the community’s dedication to increasing the presence of God is expressed through the sacrificial system. Those sacrifices were a smoke signal to God, if you will, that the Jewish community was addressing issues that were repelling God’s presence. Inspiration came from everyone’s ability share in the responsibility for maintaining God’s presence. All were able to participate in the system, as the sacrifices were egalitarian. The level of sacrifice you brought was determined by what you could afford.

Leviticus contains a lot more than sacrificial details. Tomorrow afternoon we will read from the Holiness Code in Leviticus chapter 19. That is a moral code, more powerful, I think, than the ten commandments. It is punctuated by the phrase v’ahavtah l’rei’echa kamocha, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Now the theology of Leviticus becomes clearer. Through our physical and moral acts, we can either attract or repel God’s presence. The entire system linking personal responsibility, sacrifices, and a moral code is meant to maximize God’s presence in the community – the Jewish why.

The various approaches to Jewish practice are just the means different Jewish groups try to express that why. For the orthodox community, it is about adherence to halakhah, to strict Jewish law, particularly ritual. Doing one of the mitzvoth is expressing God’s presence in this world. For the Reform movement the same goal, bringing that which is divine into this world, is emphasized not by ritual, but by acts leading to social justice.

Whatever the approach a Jewish group chooses (its how), there are some important common links. First, this is a human endeavor. God’s presence will increase only through human effort. Our actions count. That is why we are here on Yom Kippur, because our actions really do count. We affirm this in the closing to the most fatalistic prayer a Jew can recite, the Untaneh Tokef, through these words, “but repentance, prayer, and righteousness temper the severe decree.” Nothing is truly fated. Our actions can change everything.

Second, we make a free will choice to either live this Jewish why or to not live it.  Torah states numerous times to choose between blessing and curse. We are given potential paths and their possible consequences. We hold the power of choice. I would propose that the only true commandments given in the Torah are for us to see the choices, and then to choose. If we choose poorly the divine presence is reduced. If we choose wisely it is increased.

How do we bring all of this home? How do we now translate this discussion of the Jewish why into our community at Temple Israel? First, we judge each of our actions, activities, and decisions on the basis of whether or not they are consonant with our why. Is what we are doing increasing the Divine presence in our community? That measuring stick works whether we are talking about large scale projects such as our work with the Alzheimer’s Project or the simple individual interactions we have with each other. That measuring stick works for every activity taking place as a result of Temple’s Israel’s efforts, be it the Jewish Food and Cultural Festival, religious services, or Jewish education.

However, there is another layer. All Jewish institutions are unique communities that reflect its members, the area in which it is located and its affiliations nationally or even internationally. Each institution has an individual why, its core purpose for being. For example, this is Chabad’s why: every Jew is holy and can participate here. Chabad sees a special purpose in reaching out to Jews and teaching their method of expressing the Jewish why. Their approach is positive, not negative. A Jew going to Chabad is told that each mitzvah they do brings a spark of godliness into the world. Their emphasis is overwhelmingly on ritual acts. There is never a condemnation of your failure to do mitzvoth, just encouragement to do them.

Our synagogue’s additional why is shaped by our location, beliefs and affiliations. We are a progressive Jewish community in a midsized city that does not have many Jewish institutions. We are the largest Jewish institution, as you have heard me say, along the I-10 corridor west of Jacksonville all the way to, but excluding New Orleans. We are affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism, which has been a pioneer in outreach to non-Jews who find themselves somehow connected to a Jewish community. If anyone within many miles of Tallahassee has any interest in Judaism, they should come to us. So here is our Temple Israel why: every person is holy and if they have any desire to participate in Judaism, they are welcome do it here.

Now you have the why behind our big tent approach to Judaism – our how. We must be an open, accepting institution, one that does not judge on the basis of economics, sexuality, ethnicity, or religion of origin. We must provide a means for anyone who wishes to experience or explore Judaism. That experience must be consonant with Jewish tradition, yet flexible enough to embrace diversity of interests. We must maintain a high quality of programs, classes, and religious services that speak to the committed, knowledgeable Jew; yet conveys the beauty of Judaism even to the novice. Finally, everything we do must be an expression of the Jewish why – to increase the Divine presence in our world.

I believe that Temple Israel is positioned to do amazing things. I see every day how Judaism inspires people to bring God into this world. I see every day how our community is already doing that. Can there be a more worthy, more inspiring reason to be a Jew in Tallahassee? No matter what of our activities you might be doing or contemplating, know it all has purpose, it all is part of a larger reason – a why. Yes, I know; for Abbot and Costello, who is on first, what is on second and “I don’t know” is on third, but why – well, why is the reason we even play the game. Come, be part of the team.

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