Questions are so much more powerful than answers, aren't they?

But, what if instead, I headlined this with "The reason you are here".

You might not believe that the answer to this unbelievably complex question could possibly be given in this space.

How can a blog post...or even anything of greater length, offer a reasonable answer, especially if there is no dialogue taking place?

Doesn't the answer depend on your own traits, your view of the world...ultimately your own individuality?

In our culture, individuality is overrated. We live in complicated times in which so many issues of great consequence are whittled down to one's own self-interest. For one, there is an over obsession with our outward appearance. It might have started with the penchant for "selfies" which comically captures this concept, but the reality goes far deeper. Decades ago, the classic book "Bowling Alone" (Putnam, 1995) spoke about the decline in social capital.

In addition, the explosion of social media has created a ripe venue in which we can promote ourselves (either posts of joy or unfortunately even loss) for others to respond to. Both Instagram and Facebook are built upon this notion and reinforce it with every scroll and click.

Societal breakdown is the result of these and so many other factors ---- and it seems to have gotten worse. We have lost our capacity to think beyond ourselves and our own self-interest.

What do we need to learn that we haven't yet?

How will things begin to change?

The Zohar, (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, 2nd and 3rd century CE) part of the literature of Jewish mystical thought, sees things from a totally opposite perspective. An updated commentary (Laitman, 2007) gives us this stunning frame of reference (updated translation my own):

After being born in our world, you are obliged to change your heart from egoistic to altruistic, while living in this world.
This is the purpose of your life, the reason behind your appearance in this world, and it is the goal of all creation.

So, our work is the opposite of what is trending. Talk about Judaism being counter-cultural...this will not be easy. The shedding of ego is not just a nice idea, and it absolutely does not mean a loss of our individuality. On the contrary, we are to use our unique gifts in service of the whole, not just for our own glorification. This takes work and focus on a daily basis.

We understand the concept of being egotistical, and sometimes think that it applies to others, but not ourselves. When we see someone taking up too much space in a room, or vying for attention, the word egotistical comes to mind. But that's not the spiritual concept of the word.

In order for you to give up your ego, you need to recognize that you are answerable to something, some entity, greater than yourself. That is where the lack of ego comes from. What you do must be for the sake of some greater purpose.

The Torah contains an exorbitant amount of information for constructing a good and benevolent society, but it means nothing unless we are consciously acting in ethical ways.

Living through Torah means that our consciousness is raised with every decision, everything that comes out of our mouths, every action we take.

Thought. Intention. Behavior.

Not so simple...but now we have what to strive for.

Updated: Sep 15

Lately, I've been immersed in reading wisdom from Mussar* masters and what is common to their writings is the importance of keeping yourself aware of being in God's presence all the time. Whaaa??? How do I possibly begin to do that? And it's hard to come up with reasons for how, in our materialistically minded culture, we begin to think of living in the spiritual realm at the same time. Not to mention, the challenging notion of God being a presence in our lives in the first place.

So, how might we possibly begin to think about that...especially now, mere hours before Yom Kippur...the culmination of a month of introspection (Elul) plus these 10 days of returning to our most pure selves.

I want to share a concept I heard that helped me work this through, although not exactly with all the details I'll provide. [I believe in properly attributing content, but don't remember where I heard a slightly different version of this story, but if it sounds familiar and you know the source, please let me know].

Pretend that you've been interviewing for a new position at different firms, and are now awaiting an interview with a human resources professional representing a company that is at the very top of your list. The position you're interviewing for is Director of Investor Relations. Your interview is scheduled soon, and you are glad that you'll have these final minutes to prepare a bit more. Into the room saunters a disheveled person, with wrinkled clothing and unkempt hair, whom you clearly surmise couldn't possibly be there to interview for this job of Director. Their overall demeanor is haphazard and sloppy, and not only that....they proceed to ask you for information! "Why are you here? Where do you come from", "What job did you have before this?", and even asking what you ate for breakfast! Needless to say, you try at first to politely ignore them, and then you actively brush them off so you can finish rehearsing your responses to the most difficult questions. Your "subtle" hints don't work, and the person is beyond annoying, asking more questions. So you raise your ante, and act a bit more aggressively so you can get on with what you're there for.

Time moves slowly, but you're finally called in. Aha! Now you get the chance you were waiting for and prepped for, all these weeks. Now you can 'show your stuff'!

Okay, now that you've pictured all that (and have been honest with yourself about your own reactions) pretend for a minute this scenario.....

When you arrive, the interviewer tells you that the person in the waiting room was a 'plant'...placed there on purpose to see how you would handle a difficult relationship.

What's going through your mind now? What would you do differently? How much are you regretting your behavior of just a few minutes ago?

Got that? Okay, so here's another replay.

Pretend that everything about the first situation is the same. Exactly. The only difference is that now, prior to walking into the waiting room, the receptionist told you in advance that the firm has added a new component to the interview to judge prospective hires. Now, you will also be evaluated on how you handle a random individual who enters the waiting area and behaves in a challenging way.

So, what will change about your behavior? Think about this. Why will you naturally be more patient? Why will you be forgiving? Why will you work hard not to judge this person on their outer appearance?

If you're like most of us, you'll change because now, you realize that your interactions will be noticed. You are being judged. Your actions are no longer anonymous. What you do counts.

What if, instead of 'getting on with what you're here for' as I said above, the waiting area is part of what you're here for.

What if we conducted our lives that way? What if we behaved as if we are constantly being evaluated on our actions? Yes, that is just so intimidating....but I think it's what the Mussar masters were going for in recommending how exactly we begin to change our behavior.

We begin to think that we are not just in a waiting room. Our life encompasses all and God is the One with whom we will have an accounting. We are not anonymous. Our actions are being noted.

G'mar Hatimah Tovah. May you be sealed in the Book of Life.

*Mussar: (in brief) with ancient Jewish spiritual roots, it's the practice of step-by-step character development.

Updated: Aug 26

Our tradition tells us that the sole purpose of Torah is for us to refine our character, and the way toward that end is through action, namely, by doing mitzvot (commandments).

Sounds clear enough, however when you consider that there are 613 commandments, it might seem overwhelming---like dealing with a "mountain of mitzvot"...but let's delve further.

By exploring the Hebrew origins of the word, we will gain insight into its deeper meaning. The Hebrew, מצוה (mitzvah), is derived from a two- letter root "tzav" - צו which is also the root word for צות which means team or staff.

Wow--- so the commandments are to be a team effort, a partnership. But it's a partnership not only horizontally, between us and other people (bein adam l'chaveiro), but a team effort vertically, between us and the One (bein adam l'Makom).

As a team, we are to bring to the world a sense of justice, kindness, compassion, and love. No one can do this alone. In fact, it is totally not possible to be responsible for doing all the mitzvot.

Traditionally, there are 613 mitzvot (Rambam - Maimonides, enumerated them), however some can be enacted only by Kohanim (descendants of the Temple's priestly class), while some are only possible while in Israel. Then, there are some that are commanded to you if you are a first born, a male, etc. etc.

Going back to our first point, we are all supposed to be doing this as a team effort.

So, if your area of expertise is in fundraising, and yours is in are to use those unique talents and skills in accomplishing mitzvot that are part of your purpose here. So, the original intimidating list of 613 is not too threatening when viewed in this light. In addition, we share this responsibility!

Just as one finger is part of a hand, so are you also, part of an entity. It's why we are called Am Yisrael (עם ישראל) the people of Israel, an entire nation. We are all responsible for each other's purposeful living. In the Torah, we are not addressed as individuals, but as a community. The directive for us to be holy is said in the plural (K'doshim ti'hiyu).

Yet, we often neglect to ask each other for help in that respect. When studying Biblical text about offerings that were brought to the portable mishkan, sanctuary, it struck me that the entire community was responsible to make sure that the offering met certain purity standards. That was so illuminating for me, especially when in these times, we tend to 'go things alone', mind our own business, and not get too involved in other's affairs.

The ancient idea that you would care about my holiness is an awesome concept. Not only should I think about what mitzvot I might bring in the world, but it is my responsibility to help you do so as well.

Moreover, we forget that HaShem created this partnership. We can remind ourselves that we are not in this alone, we can ask God for help. It makes sense to go to the Source for guidance! We often use the medium of prayer to ask God for health, peace, healing....but at any time, any place, we can ask God for help in order to fulfill the goal of bringing Torah into the world through mitzvot of kindness and compassion.