The Meaning of Meaning

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“Walk through the door and you’ll know you are in the right place.”                                                             – R. Levitz

The question stopped me in my tracks. In response to an article, On the Meaning of Meaning, by Seph Fontane Pennock, I wrote to Seph, sending him a saying by Tal Ben-Shahar that I liked, namely, that happiness lies at the intersection of pleasure and meaning. Seph immediately fired back a question: “What is meaningful – to you?” Thankfully, he narrowed it down to my personal viewpoint, but I as I formulated one answer after another in my head, I realized I had no ready response. Weeks went by, and the question continued to nag at me. How can I write, teach, or urge people to pursue meaning, when I can’t put my definitive finger on what it even is? I use the word all the time, and I can write pages about it, but I couldn’t find that one pithy Zen-like line that would sum it all up.

Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl is known for opening the eyes of modern psychology to the concept that the essence of man lies in his search for meaning. And so, if this is my true essence, my fundamental nature as a human being, how can I be so dense? Why is this so hard to nail down? Our Founding Fathers guaranteed us the right to the “pursuit of happiness.” No guarantees, of course, and as we well know, even when we attain “happiness,” it is transient, and off we go on the chase ad infinitum.   Sustained happiness, on the other hand, is not derived solely from pleasure and positive emotions, but has another essential ingredient: meaningfulness.   Maybe, as the title of Viktor Frank’s famous book would suggest, it is the very search for meaning – that is meaningful. Perhaps it is simply the process of being open to seeing and experiencing the possibility of meaning that is offered to each of us moment-by-moment, right here, right now.

Inch Deep Versus a Mile Wide

Nitzavim, or Nitzavim/Vayeilech when it’s a double Torah reading, occurs on the last day of Moses’ life. The stakes couldn’t be higher, the words truer, the plea more from the heart. We also read these Torah portions right before Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, where we pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life for the coming year. The Days of Awe are sobering and naturally, our thoughts run to the lofty side; we want to grow and change and be better, do better. It’s also a time of year for emotional hyperbole. We beat ourselves up for being sinning miscreants and promise to be righteous and praiseworthy from now on. You don’t have to take my advice, but I suggest that you go small, and take it moment by moment. For in looking for the grand gesture, you may miss the opportunity right in front of you, missing both the forest and the trees.

In Nitzavim, the last day of Moses’ life, Moses tells the Jewish people that Torah is neither far away and foreign, nor unobtainable and unnatural.

“It is not hidden from you and it is not distance. It is not in heaven, [for you] to say, ‘Who can ascend to the heaven for us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it? Nor is it across the sea [for you] to say, ‘Who can cross to the other side of the sea for us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?’ Rather, the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and your heart – to perform it.”

How many times have I read these few lines without understanding the huge lesson they contain? We don’t even have to look outside of ourselves – we are hard-wired for holiness and meaning. It’s our natural state of being. Perhaps that is why Torah is compared to water and Abraham, Isaac, and Miriam were well diggers. Futilely, we try to quench our thirst with exotic waters, ignoring the wellspring within.

And so perhaps, ultimately, the search for meaning is who you are as you face whatever the next moment has to offer.   Moses is telling us that our authentic self is our godly nature and that we naturally yearn to express our core essence in our words and deeds.

Recently, I joined a Meet Up group that hosts musical gatherings in people’s homes. On the evite, along with the address, were the directions: Walk through the door and you’ll know you are in the right place.  In other words, in case you are not sure which house is his, if you open the door and hear the sound of music, you have found what you are looking for.   We know the right thing to do; we really do, but in over thinking it, or knocking on the wrong door, we lose touch with our essence and contort ourselves to justify doing whatever we want to do.

Peeling the Layers

As the saying goes, “less” is “more;” and so the less inauthentic we are, the more godliness we can reveal. Thus, our lives become meaningful as the natural consequence of meeting the moment with our best selves. We are said to be “thirsty souls,” and so may we satisfy our thirst from the well of Torah that runs deep within, and may the magic and meaning of the moment unfold and reveal itself to us.

 References:

On the Meaning of Meaning

Devarim/Deuteronomy 30:11-15.

The True Cost of Deception

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“Integrity is telling myself the truth. And honesty is telling the truth to other people.”

– Spencer Johnson

It All Depends….

We’ve all heard the joke: How do you know when a lawyer is lying? When his lips are moving. Sadly, that joke is not reserved for the legal professions; but is endemic in the public arena with fake politicians and fake news, and in other areas such as fake goods, fake food, fake charities, fake political agendas, etc. Blatant fabrication seems to be the new norm.

And what is the truth anyway?  In my inbox today was a promotion for a continuing legal education seminar, entitled, “Lawyers and Lies,” which looks at the difference between what we are supposed to learn in kindergarten – such as honesty being an unquestioned virtue – and how the law sees it. And so lawyers are held to something called the standard of “Required Honesty,” which is how the Professional Rules of Conduct play out depending on the relationship between the attorney-speaker and the subject. Anyone who takes webinar is guaranteed to learn how cultural values shape what we call a lie, and explore negotiation ethics as to the difference between bargaining and lying, and the line bewteen outright fabrication and effective lawyering.

Blessings and Curses

Ki Tavo is known as the Torah portion of “blessings and curses,” and describes a curious ceremony, like a mass verbal referendum, which was to take place when the Jewish nation people would enter the Land of Israel. They will encounter two mountains: Mount Ebal, which is barren and bleak, and Mount Gerizim, a lush and verdant slope. Half of the tribes are to ascend one mountain and half the other, while the Priests and the Holy Ark remain in the middle. The priests turn towards each mountain and utter 12 proclamations that bring either blessings or curses upon the Jewish people, to which they will reply “Amen.” Refrain from doing these prohibitions, and God will bless the Jewish people with economic prosperity and safety. Violate them, and the Jewish people will be cursed with economic disaster and foreign conquest.  

So what are these 12 specific behaviors that teeter us between blessings and curses? Are they simply the Ten Commandments – plus 2? Oddly, on their face, they have nothing to do with what we think would be the central tenets and behaviors that would be paramount to driving national destiny. Rather, the prohibitions are for things like setting up secret idols, abusing one’s elders, secretly moving property lines, committing incest and variations thereof, being a hit man and killing innocent people, issuing unjust verdicts against the oppressed, taking advantage of the disabled, etc. What these behaviors have in common are that they are done in secret. Further, it tends to be someone in a position of power or control that is violating the foundations of relationship, civic duty or social norms. Finally, the victim has no recourse or protection. How many prominent figures have gone down after being exposed for privately committing the very behaviors they publically protest? How many people craftily put forth a clean and honest image while every night they sweep their dirt under the proverbial carpet? And how many victims of abuse fear retaliation – or not being believed – more than the violence?

Behind Closed Tents

In the Torah world, there is no such thing as, “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, or whatever goes on behind closed doors or the privacy of one’s home is OK.” The Jewish people were about to stake their claim in the homeland and become a functioning society. Ki Savo is trying to root out that which corrupts and destroys an organism from within – the cancer of hypocrisy, which can only live in the shadow world of secrecy. Such a people could never fulfill its mission: to serve God, be His emissary, and be a light unto the nations; hence to violate these precepts is to write their own ticket of destruction and exile.

You’re Not Smarter Than God

These two mountains, Gerizim and Ebal, are two peaks of the Ephraim range of mountains, which to this day still show a striking contrast in their appearance. The famous commentator, Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, points out that there are no obvious reasons for this being the case as they arise from the same soil, get the same amount of rain, the same amount of sun, etc. “In the same way, blessing and curse are not conditional on external circumstances but on our own inner receptivity for the one or the other, on our behavior towards that which is to bring blessing.”

The ceremony on the mountains is a reaffirmation of the covenant between the Jewish people and God and His commandments.   The hallmark of a covenantal society is that it is holistic; we are all in this together, we are responsible for each other, and the actions of individuals affect society at large. Apparently, as long as your behavior falls within the parameters of “Required Honesty,” you can legally fool others. You can even fool yourself. But you’re really deluded if you think you can fool God.

The Cost of Deception

To be honest, must we verbalize every thought that pops into our heads? Of course not! In fact, not telling your friend that you don’t absolutely love her new haircut is a good idea. On the other hand, if we do some honest self-reflection, we can usually find some discrepancies between our principles and our behavior. Unlike the shifting sands of cultural values, the Torah line between subversive corruption and what you can get away with has never changed.  Ki Tavo is warning us that the cost of the deceptions that betray our values, deceive others and surreptitiously unravels the very fabric of society is not a price we can afford to pay.

References:

Ki Tavo – The Pursuit of Happiness

Ki-Tavo: Blessings and Curses