You know we are very proud of how well we teach our children lessons from the Torah and Jewish sacred texts. Just the other day one of our teachers asked if anyone in the class knew the words to the 23rd Psalm. One girl raised her hand and quoted, “The Lord is my shepherd. That’s all I want.”
In many ways, that’s the real question of tonight’s sermon – how do we know what we really want out of life? And what happens when you reach your goals and are still unfulfilled and unhappy? What do you do when you realize that all you’ve ever wanted isn’t enough? And for some the most important question of all is, “How do I know what I really want out of life?”
In the Torah portion for this Shabbat, Vayeshev we find the heart-rending story of Joseph and his brothers. Now we all know that Joseph had the bad fortune of being his father Jacob’s favorite son (out of 12 mind you), and that his brothers had the bad luck of knowing that Joseph was his favorite.
There is a curious moment in the Torah text when after Jacob sends Joseph on a mission to find his brothers who are tending the flocks in another village, and bring back a report on how they are doing, he meets up with an un-named “person” on the way. What the Torah literally says is this: “A person found him and beheld he was wandering in the field and the person asked him, “What do you want?””
According to the rabbis, this mysterious person had understood the essence of Joseph’s real quest in life – the challenge to know what he really wants.
They understood this person to be an angel/messenger of God whose job it was to teach Joseph, and through him each of us that whenever we find ourselves wandering on life’s paths, when our soul weeps inside us from despair and doubt, or loss or confusion, we should remember first to ask ourselves what it is we really want and yearn for. Only when we are first clear about our goals will we discover the road to achieving them.
You see in the Torah our ancestors understood that from time to time they would come upon a kind of “spirit guide” who would help them regain perspective, focus and commitment to the life and values they were choosing to live.
Jacob met such a spirit guide in last week’s portion by the Jabok river with whom he wrestled and from whom he was given the name Yisrael. From this encounter we have learned throughout the millenia that we, too must be God wrestlers. This is really our life-long task and challenge – to forever be in the process of wrestling with our higher selves, searching for a higher, nobler, grander vision of life and humanity.
In our work, in our personal relationships, in our family life with our friends – the task is fundamentally the same. We must forever be answering that spirit question that was put to Joseph on this Shabbat – “What do you want?”
So how do we know in life what we really want? How do you know?
Listen to this Hanukah story from the pages of holocaust history:
Rabbi Hugo Gryn tells the story of being in a concentration camp in 1944. At a certain point during the winter he relates, “My father took me and some of our friends to a corner in our barracks. He announced that it was the eve of Hanukah, produced a small clay bowl and began to light a wick immersed in his precious, but now melted margarine ration.
Before he could recite the blessing I protested at his waste of food. He looked at me, then the lamp, and finally said, “You and I have seen that it is possible to live up to three weeks without food. We once lived almost three days without water. But you cannot live properly for three minutes without hope.”
What a lesson – regardless of our goals, regardless of our successes, regardless of our failures and frustrations and fears, we cannot live three minutes without hope. This Sunday we begin Hanukah – a festival of freedom, a festival of light, a festival that reminds us of our indomitable will to live – the real “miracle” of the holiday has nothing to do with oil lamps and everything to do with soul lamps.
The real miracle is that for over 4,000 years we have kept the light flickering and alive. For over 4,000 years in spite of Babylonians and Romans, of Spanish Inquisitions and Crusades, of pogroms and Holocausts, we are still here. A tiny, miniscule, statistically irrelevant people – perhaps one tenth of one percent of the world population – and yet, we are still here.
The true secret to Jewish survival lies in faith in ourselves and faith in our future. It reminds me of that story I read of this woman who phoned in an order to the florist after a neighbor had died. She wasn’t prepared for the question when asked what message she wanted on the card. “Message? Well, I guess, ‘You’ll be missed.’ ” When Jan visited the funeral home, she was very pleased at the beautiful arrangement, but then was mortified when she read the card: On it was written, “I guess you will be missed.”
That’s how we feel as Jews – I guess we’d be missed if we weren’t here. And what of us personally? What do we do to insure that our lives have meaning? That we remember that the most important things in life aren’t things.
We do it by living our lives each day such that we too will be missed. Live your life so that you make your mother proud. Someone once said you should live your life so you never have to hide your diary.
Isak Dinesen, in her book OUT OF AFRICA tells the story of a young man from the Kikuyu tribe who worked for her on her farm for three months. Suddenly he announced that he was leaving to go to work for a Muslim man nearby.
Surprised, Dinesen asked him if he were unhappy working for her. He told her that all was well, but that he had decided to work for a Christian for three months to study the ways of Christians and then work for a Muslim for three months to study the ways of a Muslim. After experiencing both, he was going to decide whether to be a Christian or a Muslim. Dinesen was horrified. She wrote that she believe that even an Archbishop would have wanted that information ahead of time.
So imagine that a Kikuyu tribesman came to lived with you for three months to determine whether to become Jewish; whether to emulate your life; whether to adopt your personal life goals, ambitions and dreams as his or her own.
That’s the secret to fulfillment, happiness and satisfaction. Live your life as if you’ve invited a Kikai tribesman to live with you; set your sights higher, dream your dreams grander, then you will discover that all along what you’ve really wanted is there in the still, small voice within your own soul