It is said that that the definition of insanity is to repeat the same thing and hope for a different result. Nevertheless, today, I joined Weight Watchers for the umpteenth time, with gritty determination that this time it will be different, and as I sat in the unfamiliar room, I took stock of my surroundings while waiting for the meeting to start. On the wall hung a poster with the slogan: “Keep your why nearby.” Worth the price of admission right there, I thought, as the crux of any endeavor is to align what we do with why we do it.
If I could sum up the directive of Eikev, where Moses uses his remaining days to instruct, inspire, and strengthen the Jewish people as they were about to cross the Jordan River without him, it would be those same words: “Keep your why nearby.” As long as we were still in the desert, we lived in a sort of cocoon, not just with each other, but also with the overt presence of God. We were cared for with daily open miracles. Foes were vanquished; transgressions punished.
Like a newborn emerging from the womb, however, we were headed to an entirely different reality and experience. We wouldn’t see an obvious connection between our actions and subsequent reward and punishment. We would face individual and national challenges where we would have to rise to the occasion or fall dismally apart. And so, whether in the heat of battle, the challenge of the market place or the grind of daily living, we could come to feel disconnected from God.
And instead of dwelling together in an orderly encampment around the Mishkan (the portable Tabernacle), we would become spread out over the land; eventually throughout the globe, as we would be forcibly exiled from the homeland we were about to conquer. How would we remain a unified people connected to each other under those circumstances? How would our hearts break when we hear news of Jews being murdered thousands of miles away, and what would we be willing to do about it?
What is Your Why?
Says the famous visionary Simon Sinek, “Everyone has a Why. Your Why is the purpose, cause or belief that inspires you to do what you do.” During the 40 years of wandering in the desert, we were learning laws, laws, and more laws. Why? What was the point of it all? Declares Moses; the point is to love God, to attach to God, to emulate God and to walk in His ways. But what does that look like outside of the desert? It looks like acts of loving kindness to each other: taking care of the needy, the poor, the widow, etc. Unless these tenets drive the “why” of what we do, the “what” will be rather inconsequential.
Give and Take
The stone tablets of the Ten Commandments are rounded at the top. It is not a coincidence that these shapes allude to a woman’s breasts. Kabbalah teaches a beautiful idea that God’s giving the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people is like a mother nursing her children. Just as an infant needs to suck, however, so does a nursing mother need to give milk. And so the role of giver and taker is as one; giving and taking need each other for fulfillment. When we give to the poor, for example, it is not a one-way street; the giver and recipient are part of a bigger reality that embraces them both. Thus my life does not revolve around a self-centered “I” but encompasses a greater communal and shared identity; and those of my actions, which are rooted in empathy, will have a greater and more meaningful impact.
The Why of Relationship
How does this play out in relationships, especially marriage? Successful and happy marriages are based less on conflict resolution and more on sharing (and consciously keying into) a mutually created culture of a shared “why.”
According to relationship expert John Gottman:
Marriage isn’t just about raising kids, splitting chores, and making love. It can also have a spiritual dimension that has to do with creating an inner life together – a culture rich with symbols and rituals, and an appreciation for your roles and goals that link you, that lead you to understand what it means to be a part of the family you have become….Developing a culture doesn’t mean a couple sees eye to eye on every aspect of their life’s philosophy. Instead, there is a meshing. They find a way of honoring each other’s dreams even if they don’t share them. The culture that they develop together incorporates both of their dreams. And it is flexible enough to change as husband and wife grow and develop.
And so the poster on the wall reminds me that if I want to achieve a certain result, keeping my “why” nearby will keep my values in the foreground so that the choices and decisions I make are congruent with my goal. Without a strong commitment to my own “why” my behavior will be haphazard and ineffectual. Simon says: “Values are not simply posters on the wall. In order for a culture to be strong, your values must be clear and your values must be lived.” So what is your “why,” how will you keep it nearby, and how will you honor the shared cultures of your life?
 John M. Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (Three Rivers Press: NY) pps. 243-244.