When I was young, I did not think too heavily about personal meaning in my Jewish involvement. We were a family of shul-goers and Torah readers, and our Jewish experience was defined by driving the 20 miles back and forth to our synagogue in Pittsfield, MA several times a week for Hebrew school, for Shabbat morning services, and for other types of Jewish involvement. Being Jewish meant showing up; that was the essential means through which we identified.
For many of us who came of age in the 20th century, being Jewish was about joining a synagogue, spending holidays with family, marrying a member of the community, and trying to make it in the New World despite prevalent anti-Semitism. The desire to be connected to a community, to identify with a people and a faith, was what built great synagogues like this one. Identity was defined by membership, and institutions like this were as much about social life and status as about Judaism.
And, as has often been observed, the Jews are just like everybody else, only more so. Robert Putnam, the professor of public policy at Harvard, demonstrates over and over in his book, “Bowling Alone,” that the concept of membership and group participation as an essential part of our identity peaked in the middle of the 20th century and has been on the decline since.
Today, membership is not enough to sustain identity for most people. As I have said here before, the data show that the fastest-growing religion in America is “None.” (Note: not “nun.”) Americans are far more isolated from one another, and often alienated from faith and ethnic groups. We are, as Putnam suggests, bowling alone. The “social capital” that Putnam describes as the glue that held our society together has largely eroded.
The greatest philosophical challenge of our time, and indeed the challenge facing most faith communities, is meaning. Our sense of how we derive meaning from our lives has changed tremendously.
Today, everything is individualized. It’s not about “us.” It’s all about “I” and my iPhone. (This is somewhat i-ronic, since most of us are today carrying devices that connect us into one central data location, where we are little more than bits of information.) The task, therefore, of the American synagogue is to create meaning on a personal basis for all who enter, to attempt to reach the individual heart and soul of everyone in its orbit.
So how exactly do we do this? The Torah gives us a few hints. Today in Parashat Mishpatim, we read the following (Ex. 22:20-21):
וְגֵר לֹא-תוֹנֶה, וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ: כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. כָּל-אַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם, לֹא תְעַנּוּן.You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan.
And there are many other such formulations. Over and over, the Torah exhorts us to pursue acts of hesed, of lovingkindness - for the sojourner among you, the widow, the orphan, the poor, the worker who depends on his daily wages, and so forth.
(BTW, the word “ger,” which in modern Hebrew means a convert to Judaism, is better understood traditionally not as a convert, but as a non-Israelite who lives among Israelites. That is, a ger is a stranger, one without family connections or property, and therefore presence in the margins of society.)
We understand and appreciate the plight of those in need, in all their forms of need, because we came from a needy place. We were subjected to the very worst treatment that humans can concoct. We were slaves, and we emerged from slavery as a nation.
The verse is crying out to us: slavery symbolizes what it means to be oppressed, disenfranchised, downtrodden. We understand this. And the Torah reminds us of this many times; I have not actually counted the number of times that this occurs, but an anecdote floating around out there says that it’s somewhere in thirties. Regardless, it’s far more than the number of times that we are commanded to keep Shabbat or kashrut. (And as you may know, there is no explicit Torah commandment to pray three times daily, or to read the Torah, to recite Qiddush on Friday night, etc. That is another indicator of how important hesed is, relative to those things that we consider essential parts of Jewish life.)
And it is this mitzvah, the mitzvah of recalling slavery for the purposes of doing good works for others in need, more than any other mitzvah, which has the potential to infuse our lives with meaning.
Our holy mission as Jews is to work to improve the welfare of others: to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to house the homeless, to uplift those whom society has neglected. Our mission is to ensure that all people are treated justly, and to fill our lives with acts of righteousness. That is why we are “Or LaGoyim,” a light unto the nations of the world.
The Viennese psychiatrist and survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, Victor Frankl, published an extraordinarily influential book a year after the end of World War II: Man’s Search for Meaning. What Frankl learned in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz was that in an environment designed to break the human spirit, those who had the best chances of survival were the people who had a sense of purpose. And, Frankl confesses, the ones who survived were not the brightest, the cleverest, or even the strongest physically. “The best of us did not return,” he says.
“There is nothing in the world… that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life. There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’ I can see in these words a motto which holds true for any psychotherapy. In the Nazi concentration camps, one could have witnessed that those who knew that there was a task waiting for them to fulfill were most apt to survive.”
Frankl goes on to speak of a uniquely modern problem that he calls the “existential vacuum,” the sense felt by many of his patients that life is meaningless. And if, as Frankl notes, as many as 60% of Americans found life somewhat meaningless in 1946, all the more so today: as we are continually distracted by our devices, as we work longer hours for less money and watch helplessly as our children run from activity to activity solely for the purpose of impressing an Ivy League admissions committee, as we recede into the ever-more solitary environment of our comfortable living rooms and digital nests, the existential vacuum has grown.
But there is a way out of the vacuum. What gives our lives meaning? It is doing for others. It is extending our hands to those in need, in all the ways that we can. That is the holy purpose to which we are called: Gemilut hasadim - acts of lovingkindness.
The mitzvot of Jewish life, including the Top Ten that we read last week and the many more that we read today in Parashat Mishpatim, give our lives a framework for holy living. But following Jewish law - observing Shabbat, kashrut, tefillah, holidays, etc. - is not enough for most of us. Whether we pursue the 613 mitzvot with zeal or not, we must add to that the layers of activities that make Judaism a fully meaningful pursuit: reaching out to others for the purposes of hesed.
Almost every synagogue that I have ever visited contains a sculpture or other artwork displaying the tablets that Moshe brought down from Mt. Sinai, and we must always remain close to our textual tradition. But the real, essential role that synagogues must play in the future is to provide structure for going beyond these basic rules, beyond those tablets, to build communities that provide meaning for individuals. We have to create meaning. We have to be platforms that give our members, and the wider community, the chance to fulfill their holy purpose: to reach out to those in need through works of lovingkindness.
Rabbi Seth Adelson