In the Search for Meaning, Where Do we Look?

If you don’t know what you’re living for, you haven’t yet lived.

– Rabbi Noach Weinberg

There is a familiar story of a man searching the sidewalk for his keys and looking frantically under the streetlight. When questioned by a passerby as to where he may have lost his keys, the man admits that he lost the keys inside his house. Since the light was so much brighter outside under the streetlight, however, he thought it best to look there.

            We read this and think – what a fool, looking for his lost object in obviously the wrong place, just because it is the “easiest” place to look. But at least this fool knows what he lost and where he lost it. Can we say the same? Many of us are not only looking in the wrong place for our lost objects, but we are even not sure what we’re looking for. And yet, we are driven to search on and on. To what end?

            According to Freud, the primary drive of man is the pursuit of pleasure. “Not so,” said Nietzsche, “the primary drive of man is the pursuit of power.” Viktor Frankl, the famous Viennese psychiatrist who suffered for three years in concentration camps during the Holocaust and who endured the murder of his entire family and pregnant wife, nevertheless founded “logo-therapy,” which is the theory that the primary drive of man is not pleasure or power, but the search for meaning.

            Many of us have an inner ache, a discontented restlessness, without knowing why. Viktor Frankl coined the term, “Sunday Neurosis,” an existential anxiety that is formed from the vague awareness people get that their lives are empty and meaningless when they are not otherwise distracted by the work week. Some remained bored and apathetic; others try to fill the void, but cannot succeed because we cannot fill a spiritual hole with non-spiritual stuff. Yet, we keep trying.

            So if man’s primary drive is the search for meaning, where do we look? If it’s not in the Himalayas, the ashram, the shrink’s couch, the self-help section of the bookstore, the office, the lab, the studio, the field, or even the sanctuary, then where?

            In the Torah portion, “Nitzavim” Moses tells us exactly where to look. “It is not in heaven. Nor is it across the sea. Rather, the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and your heart – to perform it.” Moses spoke these words to the Jewish people on the last day of his life – knowing that it was the last day of his life. The stakes couldn’t be higher. What is this matter “that is near and dear that we are to perform”? “To love God, to walk in His ways, and to observe His commandments.” In a word, to embody the Torah.

            Wait – did I just lose you? “Sorry,” you say, “but Torah is not the meaning of my life. I’m outta here.” If your view of Torah is that it is a bunch of dry, archaic “do’s” and “don’ts,” commanding strict, automaton-like adherence to meaningless and empty ritual, then I would totally agree with you. I wouldn’t find that meaningful in the slightest. But that’s not my view of the “matter of Torah.”

I care not for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it.

– Abraham Lincoln

And so, if your religion doesn’t make you a better person, better spouse, parent, friend, and lover of your fellow, it’s not the “matter of Torah”. If your religion doesn’t make you compassionate and yearn to alleviate suffering, it’s not the “matter of Torah”. If you are not inspired to love justice and truth and strive to live humbly with integrity, then it’s simply not the “matter of Torah”.

            The “matter of Torah” that Moses tells us to look for is within us, in our hearts. It has to be real, and we have to own it. Otherwise, it may as well be high up in the heavens or across the distant sea – it means nothing as it is too far out of our orbit to be relevant. But let’s be clear. It is we who push Torah away, who say it’s not relevant or accessible. And as long as we keep this lie on our lips we will keep looking for meaning under that streetlight.

            That doesn’t mean we get to decide on our own what Torah is or what it means. It doesn’t mean that we can overlay the Torah with the imprimatur of our emotions, political viewpoints, etc. Many phenomena exist objectively and independent of us. Certain things just “are,” like gravity, which doesn’t need our “buy-in” to be real and to affect us. On the other hand, while Torah also has an independent truth and reality, Torah very much wants our “buy-in.” God wants our partnership.

            And that is the challenges – to take the light of an independent Godly reality, and, through loving God, walking in His ways and observing His commandments, understand that it is our reality also. We ask God to “circumcise our hearts,” to remove the spiritual impediment and barrier that keeps us locked in the illusion of separation from God – and each other.

            Tradition teaches that when we are in the womb, an angel teaches us all of Torah, but that we forget it when we are born. We only “forget” it on the conscious level, however. After birth, the memories of all of our experiences lodge within us on a cellular level – how much more so that which we learn as we are forming in utero? That is why learning Torah is re-discovering Torah, and uncovering a truth we already hold within.

            When our hearts beat with the knowledge of this truth within us, then the “matter” is in our mouths. It drives our speech and our actions. It’s who we are at our core. When an inauthentic persona does not imprison us, we are free to live in the joyful vibrancy of a congruent life.

            While we are necessarily concerned with finding the meaning of our lives, let us start by finding the meaning of life itself. Then, we will find our real purpose and ourselves. Then, the object and the light will coincide, and, unlike the fool, we will be looking for the right thing in the right place…where it always was and where it always will be.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. What are three things you are looking for in your life? Where have you been looking for them? Do you feel you are looking in the right place? If not, where do you feel you need to be looking that you have perhaps been avoiding?
  1. We often mistakenly believe that if we have certain external things, that we will be happy, fulfilled, successful, etc. What are those things for you? How do you think they will change things for you and why?
  1. Close your eyes, take a deep look within, and focus on all the strengths, abilities, talents and gifts that you have internally. How can you use what you already have and what you already are, to find the other things you are looking for in your life?




How to Use the Power of No

no Until you learn how to confidently say No to so many things, you shall always say Yes to so many things. The real summary of a regretful life is a life that failed to balance Yes and No. Yes! A life that failed to recognize when to courageously say No and when to confidently say Yes!

-Ernest Agyemang Yeboah

I like to have guests at my Shabbat table, and depending on the themes of the weekly Torah portions, the table discussions can get a little heated. If you are apt to read the Torah and be offended, then welcome to the Torah portion, “Ki Teitzei.Ki Teitzei means, “when you go out to war with your enemies,” and it opens with the rules a man must obey when coming across a “beautiful woman on the battlefield.” Since the Jewish people were getting ready to leave the desert and enter the Promised Land, where they would be engaging in battles for years to come, this was a very likely scenario.

So what were the rules? Could he rape her? No. Could he keep or sell her as a slave? No. Could he cut her head off and tweet the video? Definitely not. What, then, could a man in those circumstances do?

He could simply leave her where she was, or if he desired her, he had to bring her home, and wait during a cooling-off period where the enticement of her looks would diminish by stripping the woman of her finery, her ornaments and her ability to look seductive. During that time, the man could not touch her, but afterwards, if he is still desired her, he had to marry her – or else he was required to set her free and compensate her for her “ordeal.”

“But what if the woman didn’t want to marry the guy?” you could ask. “Didn’t she have a say in the matter? And she had no choice about being confined in his home for 30 days in a degrading way while he made up his mind about marrying her?” And you could reasonably conclude that this is sexist and horrible, since any procedure, which could end up forcing a woman to marry against her will, is unquestionably offensive.

One response is to put this in the context of the ancient world. According to commentators, in anticipation of battle, women would put on finery and make themselves beautiful to entice Jewish men, because winding up with a “nice Jewish guy” was a heckuva lot better than their other choices. Also, compared to the battle ethic of the ancient world (your typical rape, murder and pillage) the Torah scenario is positively enlightened and compassionate. Thanks to ISIS, and their ilk, I no longer have to contextualize this. Has anyone noticed that the “ancient world” is not so “ancient” anymore?

The Power of Emotional Mastery

But there is a much more profound response to these objections. The major theme of Ki Teitzei has to do with emotional mastery, to having deliberate and reasoned responses to emotionally charged situations. And so a deeper read of “when you go out to war with your enemies” could be this: “when you go out to war….with yourself,” referring to the struggle with those aspects of you that are base, unbridled and unbounded.

The purpose of the laws of “the beautiful captive” is not to result in an orderly marriage; rather, they are to prevent the marriage in the first place. The very objective of the process is to give the guy time to see the woman – not as a mere beautiful object – but as her authentic self. He has to be able to picture her as the mother of his children and someone who will be by his side for the rest of his life. He has to see her as compatible with his Jewish values and lifestyle.

He has to see her as not just satisfying his desire for instant gratification in the immediate present but as a total commitment to the future. And if she is not to be a full-fledged wife, then she can’t be something other, like a slave. Rather, she must be compensated and set free.

The Power of Choice

In the last few weeks of his life, Moses was cramming in his final words of advice and so the laws of Ki Teitzei come one after another. To what end? As slaves in Egypt, the Jewish people were not free to say “no” to the Pharaoh, and thus they had little to no free will. In the desert, the Jewish people lived with “strict justice,” meaning that punishment was quickly and visibly meted out. While they had free will, they also had the clarity of cause and effect, and so if you said “no” to God’s laws, you weren’t going to be around long to brag about it.

Once the Jewish people would leave the desert, however, and live in the Land, it was going to be an entirely different story, and that was Moses’ concern. They would not be slaves to anyone, nor would they live with “desert clarity.” They would have to figure out on their own how to say “no” to that which should be negated in their life.

And that is where emotional mastery comes in. Torah doesn’t permit us to have whatever we want, just because we want it. We cannot discard someone from our lives improperly or divest them of rights to suit our emotional needs. We can’t put things together that don’t belong together, and we can’t make admixtures of things that deny the unique individuality, needs, and purpose of all living things. Each person and each situation have its carefully circumscribed borders of protection.

Understanding and respecting the sensitivities, the boundaries and the proper uses of all things – whether human, animal or even vegetable – is the basis of mastery over those emotional urges, which could cause us to violate someone or something else.

The Power of Yes

So the battle is between you – and you – to develop a healthy way of dealing with exclusion. Certain things, certain people, and certain situations simply do not belong in our lives, nor do they belong with each other. It’s about understanding the “Law of Exclusion” and going to war against that which blurs our boundaries.

A slave cannot say “no.” Only a human being with autonomy and free will say “no.” And that is precisely what makes a “yes” so powerful, so meaningful. Therefore, saying “no” to that which will bring you down is saying “yes” to that which can elevate you, make you grow, and sanctify your life. And that is certainly worth fighting for.


Internalize & Actualize:

  1. In what ways are you at war with yourself? Are you winning or losing the battles?
  1. Is there a situation you are currently dealing with that you are reacting to in an emotionally inappropriate way? This week try to remove yourself from it, and then, with some distance, revisit how you are thinking and feeling and note if anything has changed.
  1. What is a part of your life that shouldn’t be? How can you begin to separate yourself from it (or from that person) who is unhealthy or toxic for you? Recognizing that something or someone doesn’t belong is the first step in the process.



Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue

I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight.

– Jeremiah 9:24

A Necessary Repetition

If you are a Jewish kid who graduated law school – and actually got a job – chances are that your proud parents gave you a picture to hang on the wall of your office (or windowless cubicle) with the famous quote, “Justice, Justice, Shall You Pursue,” which comes right at the beginning of the Torah portion, “Shoftim,” meaning, “Judges.”

As I type the words of this chapter, programmed to assume that I have made a typo by repeating the same word, Microsoft Word highlights the second “justice” in red for me – alerting me to my “mistake.” If only Moses had a laptop with spell check and typo correction, he could have fixed a lot of “typos,” because we see this same duplication in other places in the Torah, such as when God calls out Abraham-Abraham, or Jacob-Jacob, or Moses-Moses. Is it bad editing – or is it deeply meaningful and transformational? And is there a connection between the phrase “justice-justice” and the duplicate names?

When God says, “Abraham-Abraham” or “Moses-Moses,” etc., it is tender and intimate. Think of cuddling a baby or speaking the name of your beloved – we often say their names twice, because, well, once is just not enough to convey the depth of the emotions we can feel. Repeating a first name in that manner is a verbal caress.

As Above – So is Below

There is another concept at work in this double name-calling that is more applicable here, and that is the idea of “as above, so is below.” There is a heavenly version of ourselves, and there is an earthly version of ourselves. The heavenly version represents our potential, the person we could be. The earthly version, on the other hand, is who we are and how we are showing up in the world as the sum of our choices. Think of two portraits: one is hanging on heaven’s walls, and the other one is you, walking around.

When God calls out Abraham-Abraham, etc., we are to understand that in the case of Abraham, Jacob and Moses, these two versions are aligned. There is not a “heavenly Abraham” in contrast to an “earthly Abraham.” The Abraham above was the same as below – congruent and unified between his ideals and his actions.

That’s not true for most of us, however. On the other hand, that’s why we’re here – to close the gap and come as close to that heavenly portrait as possible. Living up to our potential, being congruent and authentic, behaving externally in a way that mirrors our highest internal values, is admittedly a big challenge. As a rabbi was fond of saying to me, however, “we are all works in progress.”

But that idea doesn’t work well with ideals. A society where earthly justice is really out of sync with heavenly justice is not a “society in progress;” rather, it is an unjust society. What we can tolerate in ourselves and on an individual level is intolerable when perpetrated on a grand societal scale. For justice to be “just,” it has to be authentic, congruent and actualized. Like the proverbial pregnant woman, you can’t have just a little bit of it.

Righteous Justice

But who must act justly? We must act justly. And who enacts justice? We must enact it. It’s in our own hands. So can imperfect beings ever create an earthly justice that aligns with heaven? We imagine heavenly justice as strict and severe and we tremble at the idea of facing the Heavenly Court because that is one tough bench to get over.

Maybe there is another alignment going on. In Hebrew, the word, “Tzedek,” which means “justice,” also means “righteousness.” Perhaps the dual use of the word “justice” means that we cannot pursue “justice” without also being “righteous.” That would be perverted justice. Think of the Nuremberg Laws that legitimized the Nazi regime. They were “codes of law,” but utterly lacking righteousness, and in no way aligned with heaven. And we cannot think we are “righteous” unless we are also “just.” Yann Martel, the author of Life of Pi, wrote:

These people walk by a widow deformed by leprosy… walk by children dressed in rags living in the street, and they think, “Business as usual.” But if they perceive a slight against God, it is a different story. Their faces go red, their chests heave mightily, they sputter angry words. The degree of their indignation is astonishing. Their resolve is frightening.

This hypocrisy is perverted righteousness. The Hebrew word “Tzedaka,” which means “charity,” comes from the same word, “Tzedek,” which means “justice” and “righteousness.” Thus, unless righteousness is rooted in kindness, in compassion, and in being a giver and caring for the poor and needy, etc., it is not “just.” Being “right with God” but not with your fellow man is not aligned with heaven.

In the Torah portion of Shoftim, “justice” is not a single word, because it is not a single concept. The double word is its own congruence. That’s the alignment to strive for – justice that is righteous and righteousness that is just – rooted in kindness, caring, and giving. Says Robert Frost, Nothing can make injustice just but mercy.”

And when we pursue that kind of justice here on earth, we are not only closing the gap between our earthly and heavenly selves but maybe we are, in fact, mirroring the Heavenly Court. If only we could create such a society and live in such a world, truly, wouldn’t it be like heaven on earth? Now how transformational is that?

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. Can you think of a time you were just, but not righteous? Meaning you may have done the “right” thing but at the “wrong” cost? What was the outcome? In hindsight, how would you have handled it differently?
  1. What about a time you may have been righteous, but not just? You may have had the right intentions, but still did the “wrong” thing. How could you have handled that differently?
  1. How would you describe the “you” that is earthly, that is below? Now how would you describe the “you” that is heavenly, above? What are some very practical ways that you can bridge the gap between the two of them?



Believing is Seeing

“What we do see depends mainly on what we look for.

In the same field the farmer will notice the crop,

the geologists the fossils, botanists the flowers,

artists the coloring, sportsmen the cover for the game.

Though we may all look at the same things,

it does not all follow that we should see them.”

  • John Lubbock

There’s a saying – “You can talk about politics and religion. Or you can have friends.” How many gatherings end on a sour note, and how many conversations end with hurt feelings when conversations turn to these subjects? It’s frightening how quickly a discussion can go from civil to caustic, each side usually advocating a one-dimensional version of reality as the uncontroverted truth.

Perception has come to be synonymous with reality, but perception depends less on what we see than who we are. Says Robertson Davies, “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” Basically, what we see when we look, is a choice, in that we see what we’re looking for.

Perception Bias

A few years ago, the theory of “Perception Bias” was tested by placing Joshua Bell, a world-class violinist, in the DC Metro. Playing some of the most sublime music ever composed, on a violin worth several million dollars, Joshua Bell played in front of thousands of streaming commuters, who wouldn’t even look at him. Curious toddlers – not yet permeated with perception bias – who wanted to stop and listen, were yanked along by impatient parents, who were not interested in a subway musician. I wonder if any of those who walked on by were among the concert-goers who paid a hundred bucks or more to hear Mr. Bell perform that very evening.

Our brains process billions of bits of information per second, yet we can only process a few dozen of them. Our brains choose which infinitesimal sliver – out of all the possible reality to look at – and then our bias tells us how to interpret that sliver. It’s all a choice – believe it or not. Thus, our perceptions are biased. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

This week’s Torah portion, “Re’eh,” which means “See,” tells us to look at the choices before us, to see life and death, blessings and curses – and to choose life. “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil . . . blessing and curse. Therefore, choose life, that you and your offspring may live.” Well, that’s pretty easy, isn’t it? I think anyone can get that one right. But just to make sure, we are told which choice to make, in case we lack in the clarity department. If we need to be directed to make the “obvious” choice, is it possible that the choice is not obvious? Maybe we don’t see things as clearly as we think we do. Or do we intentionally obfuscate? We must not be so sure what we are seeing – or else why be told which is the better choice?

Making Perception Bias Work for You

 First, we must be decide what it is we want to see, because we always and inevitably find what we are looking for. The Talmud teaches this concept that one who says he has looked but hasn’t found, don’t believe him. If he says he has found and hasn’t looked, don’t believe him. Only the one who says he has both looked and has found can be believed (Megillah 6). And yet no one is without perception bias – the question is how can we make that work for us instead of against us? The answer is that it’s a choice we make.

Do you want to find something to criticize in a person? You will. Do you want to find the negative in a situation? You will. Thoreau said that a faultfinder will find fault – even in paradise. You want to see the good in a person or a situation? You will. Do you wish you could see your life as filled with blessings and not curses? You can.

Moses tells us that when we choose to see Torah as life-giving and then make choices so as to live in alignment with that reality, we are choosing life. But it’s not easy and certainly not obvious, given the state of illusion of this world. Often, we are enamored of things and actions that are anti-Torah, and we make choices, in effect, where we are confused between blessings and curses; life and death.

The Torah is called the Tree of Life, and a tree has many branches and many leaves. Look at it. Look at it with the deliberate intention of seeing something good, of seeing something in a new light, anything really, that will help you be a better, kinder person, that will help you get a little bit closer to God and a little more loving of your fellow man. Just one leaf. And then choose it and act consistently with your choice. Learn the meaning of life, and then choosing the blessings life has to offer, becomes a no-brainer.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. Write down five things you don’t like about yourself. Be honest and blunt. Now, right next to those rewrite those very five things into something positive. This is not about finding five different things you do like, but about liking the five things you don’t like (ie. “I am fat and hate my body” vs. “My body has carried and birthed my children and given them life.”
  1. Being that we see what we are looking for, what are some things you want to be seeing in your life? Are you looking in the right places for them? Are you looking with the right eyes to find them? Why or why not? What can you do differently?
  1. Do others see you the way you want to be seen? What can you do differently so that when people look at you they see your beauty and the amazing person you truly are?