Ki Tissa – Finding Meaning

My father is a great religious skeptic.  He used to explain his disbelief by say: “If I saw the sea split, maybe then I would […]

My father is a great religious skeptic.  He used to explain his disbelief by say: “If I saw the sea split, maybe then I would believe.”  His statement reminds me of a moment in this morning’s portion.  The Children of Israel did see the sea split.  But for them, that was not enough to sustain faith.

Not only did they see the sea split, but when they were hungry, manna appeared and when water was scarce it to was provided. They witnessed Torah being given on Mt. Sinai. You would think they would respond with faith and trust.   How could the Children of Israel possibly have worshiped the golden calf?  Given all they experienced, it makes no sense!  Moses is a little late coming down the mountain, they demand a golden calf be built – and they sing, dance and worship around the calf.  These people seem constantly dissatisfied, forever complaining and consistently rejecting God who rescued them from Egypt.

Yet – maybe there is more to this story.  Rather than seeing the Israelites as terrible, faithless, flawed people, there are many ways to understand this story where we don’t blame them.  Perhaps the story teaches the powerful lure that idolatry possesses.  Maybe it reflects the fact that they saw Moses as Divine, and when he seemingly disappears, they panic.  Rabbi Ron Levine, who also is a psychotherapists teaches that the story is about how we revert to infancy when confronted with traumatic transitions.  Rabbi David Wolpe takes this interpretation in a different direction and teaches that we can see them as infants. They were used to having their needs met and cared for – and therefore were utterly unable to function independently. As slaves, they may have been mistreated – but their needs were taken care of.  They knew who they were and what they were meant to do – just like a baby.  And this infantilizing continues as they leave Egypt – God splits the Sea, every detail of life is taken care of: food, water, shelter, directions.  Maybe they are not to blame – no one taught them to make their own decisions and find their own truth.

When you are taken care of, you never develop your own sense of purpose and meaning.  Left adrift, in moments of crisis, we revert to the familiar – for the Israelites it was physical idols like they had in Egypt.  When they build the golden calf, it is not that they are faithless – but they are lost spiritually.  The scene teaches us that the essence of a life well lived is the ability to find personal meaning and purpose.

One of the most important books I have ever read, and I urge you to read and re-read, is Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. He is the founder is a type of psychotherapy called logotherapy. The Greek word logos means “meaning” and logotherapy teaches that the most important motivating force for each person is the struggle to find meaning in his or her life.

My mentor Rabbi Sam Chiel once gave a beautiful sermon about how Victor Frankl came to develop his philosophy of meaning and how we find it in practical ways.

It was in the concentration camps that Frankl came to understand that a life well lived is grounded in understanding what brings us personal meaning.  He describes a moment of discovery as he arrived at Auschwitz.  He had hidden a copy of his PhD thesis, his first book, in his coat.  Upon arrival at the camp he was told to take off his coat and put it in a pile.  He begged the Nazi guard not to take his coat, but of course they did. It ended up in a pile of confiscated coats. Victor Frankl felt like he lost everything.  This book was his life’s work. He wrote: “And now it seemed as if nothing and no one would survive me; neither a physical nor a spiritual child of my own!  So I found myself confronted with the question whether under such circumstances my life was void of any meaning.”

Then something remarkable happened.  He was given the worn-out rags of another person – one who most likely had died.  He put his hand in the pocket and found a single page that had been torn out of a prayer book that had the Shma written on it – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” He realized the meaning wasn’t about his scientific study, but about but something deeper – finding that which you treasure!  The man who wore the jacket before him had found meaning through his Jewish faith and it kindled in Frankl the idea people need to invest time learning about meaning and purpose and acting on those things.  The Children of Israel hadn’t been able to develop their own meaning and purpose – so when crisis hit they reverted back to infancy.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl teaches that survival came first from being lucky; and then from knowing your purpose.  He wrote about all kinds of purposes people had: for some it was to see family. For others it was to hold onto tradition. For others it was to make a world where hatred never occurs again. From these insights, he wrote his classic book – broadening the message to each of us no matter the circumstance – we are truly alive only when we have purpose.

My challenge today is to think deeply about your personal meaning and purpose. In the aftermath of the golden calf, Moses focuses on helping the people develop personal meaning and communal purpose.  For Moses purpose comes from living with holiness – so he goes back up the mountain to write the tablets.  Only this time, he does it differently.  The first time God write on the tablets.  The second time, Moses writes them himself.  Purpose can’t just be given – you have to work for it.  A piece of my purpose is those tablets, it is Torah, tradition, mitzvot. Moses also found purpose in connectedness.  As much as the Israelites disappointed and angered him – he stood up and defended them, even when God was ready to obliterate them.  What is your purpose?

One of the primary ways that Frankl suggests that we find meaning is by “doing the deed.”  He explains that asking ourselves questions about life’s meaning does us no good.  We find life’s meaning through “right action and right conduct.”  Every part of life has deeds connected to them that are “right action and right conduct”.  To be a spouse means to listen and care.  To be a parent is to set limits while also encouraging growth and independence.  To be a child is to care for your family.   To be a friend is to rejoice together and help each other during difficult times. Think about every area of life – and that which is the “right action and conduct.” To find meaning, we begin by doing!

Moses and God learn that without deeds – the children of Israel will not internalize faith!  Immediately following the golden calf, God threatens to disengage from the Children of Israel, having an angel lead them to Israel lest God in anger destroys them.  Moses creates a way for relationship to rebuild via an act: He sets up the tabernacle as a distance outside the camp.  Whoever wants to receive Divine guidance has to go out – walk to the site, and receive instruction.  That little act – the deed of walking to a different place sets the stage for a new stage of development.  Later in the portion – immediately following God’s revelation to Moses of his essence there is law not to worship molten objects – and what follow that law? A holiday list.  We wean from our infant reversion to childhood and creating molten idols by the act of observing holidays.  Holidays internalize belief and values, they connect us with fellow human – they are sacred deeds which shape our souls.

Frankl writes poignantly that another way to find meaning is through suffering.  How we react to the difficult moments in our life are what ultimately give us strength and insight that define purpose and meaning.  For Frankl, his suffering deepened his compassion and his resolve.

Finally, Frankl teaches a third way to find meaning in life is through love – loving and being loved.  In his book he tells about a day when he and his companions were marching to their place of slave labor.  It was dark; the cold was bitter and numbing. They stumbled over stones and puddles and the guards kept shouting and driving them with rifle butts.  The man marching next to him whispered: “If our wives could see us now!  I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”  That remark made each of them begin to think of his own wife.  Frankl pictured her; he imagined her voice, her smile, her encouraging look when he was unhappy.  He realized that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. He writes: “Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: the salvation of man is through love and in love. I understand how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.”

As they worked, were tortured, and did backbreaking work – he kept on having imaginary conversations with his wife and was sustained by his love for her.  He subsequently learned that his wife had been only a few hundred feet away in another section of the camp, but neither of them knew it, and she subsequently died at Auschwitz.  In describing their relationship and every loving relationship he used the words of the Song of Songs: “Set me as a seal upon thy heart. For love is strong as death.”

The love Frankl describes transcends death – thus we have the powerful moments of hearing the voices and messages of our beloved relatives during the Yizkor service and through observing Yahrzeit.  And the love he describes is not limited to spouse – it can be with a dear friend, relative, member of community, or even God.  Moses had that type of love with God.  At the end of the portion, Moses goes into the Tabernacle and emerges radiant with light.  It is in relationship that we find meaning and purpose.

Let’s understand the story of the Golden Calf and its aftermath as a story that teaches the centrality of finding meaning and purpose. The Israelites needed to learn who they were, what they stood for, how to find their own way. They came to do that through deeds, growth through life’s difficulties and love.  May we too find our purpose and meaning – no matter what age or what moment in life we find ourselves.  That is the key to a life well-lived.  Shabbat Shalom.