Va'era: Torah, Shabbat, and the "Purpose-Drive Life"

D'var Torah; Shabbat Va-era

Rabbi Art Levine, Ph.D., J.D.
January 20-21, 2012 – 26 Tevet 5772

Torah, Shabbat, and the "Purpose-Driven Life"

Do you lead a "purpose-driven life?" If that phrase sounds familiar, it may bring to mind the title of a popular book written by Dr. Rick Warren, Pastor of the enormously successful Saddleback Church based in Lake Forest, California.

In this week's Torah portion, G-d instructs Moses to tell Pharaoh exactly what Pharaoh's purpose in life is! Moses is to tell Pharaoh that, whereas He could have effaced Pharaoh and the Egyptians from the earth:

וְאוּלָם בַּעֲבוּר זֹאת הֶעֱמַדְתִּיךָ בַּעֲבוּר הַרְאֹתְךָ אֶת ־כֹּחִי וּלְמַעַן סַפֵּר שְׁמִי בְּכָל ־הָאָרֶץ:

"Yet, I have spared you for this purpose: in order to show you My power, and in order that My fame may resound throughout the world." (Exodus 9:16)

We know how this intention plays out in Exodus. G-d "hardens Pharaoh's heart" (Exodus 4:21) and then "removes" us from bondage, "rescues," "redeems," and "takes" us as His people, (Exodus 6:6-8). We commemorate these actions through the four cups of wine at the annual Passover seder.

But what if we consider the "I have spared [literally, ‘made stand'] you for this purpose" verse from Torah to be a principle generally applicable to each of us, rather than one pertaining only to Pharaoh? Is this a reasonable extrapolation?

The odds of our individual existence are astronomical. [See, for example, http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2011/11/18/142513598/are-you-totally-improbable-or-totally-inevitable ]. We can simply not think about this and go about our lives pursuing our own daily agendas. Or, we can consider it and choose to believe that our having beaten these unimaginable odds has been just chance. This would mean that we are merely incredibly fortunate cosmic lottery winners, with our lives and survival bearing no particular significance beyond this.

Or, we can instead infer that we have been "spared" non-existence, or "made to stand," for the very purpose enunciated in Torah: to experience G-d's power (however we understand that) and to be exemplars of that power to the world. This, of course, is Judaism's perspective (with these objectives to be achieved through Torah study and mitzvot observance, prayer, and righteous behavior). But, it is not only Judaism's perspective.

According to the on-line introduction at www.purposedrivenlife.com:

The most basic question everyone faces in life is: Why am I here? What is my purpose? Self-help books suggest that people should look within, at their own desires and dreams, but Rick Warren says the starting place must be with God and his eternal purposes for each life. Real meaning and significance comes from understanding and fulfilling God's purposes for putting us on earth.

I agree with Pastor Warren that "Why am I here? What is my purpose?" are basic questions we should often ask ourselves. I also agree with him that much of our society urges us to pursue our desires and dreams. After all, America's Declaration of Independence described the "pursuit of happiness" as a G-d given, inalienable right!

Our consumer-oriented society has embraced that philosophy. We are bombarded with messages subtlety or blatantly furthering this self-centered theme: notice how many ads focus on "You," rather than on the product or service.

Judaism and other religions are correctives to this egoism. Shabbat, in particular, is a weekly call and opportunity to ask:

  • Why am I here?
  • What is my purpose?
  • Am I grateful for the on-going miracle of my life?
  • Grateful to whom or what?
  • How do I express that gratitude?
  • What do I wish the legacy of my life to be?
  • What is my plan to create and strengthen that legacy?
  • In which ways am I contributing to causes beyond myself/my family?

These are not questions that secular society and life bid us ask our spouses, children, grandchildren, and ourselves. But, religion and Shabbat do so.

Here, then, is a great irony. It is precisely through living a life with greater purpose than ourselves, rather than a life spent "pursuing happiness" that we are most likely to actually experience happiness.

This, and every Shabbat, may we reflect upon living "purpose-driven" lives.

Shabbat shalom!

* * *

Comments!

As I mentioned last week, I would like to begin sharing some of the comments I receive. Here are two interesting responses (with attribution by permission) to last week's d'var torah "A Shameful and Foolish Policy." Please keep your responses coming, and indicate whether you prefer them to be posted anonymously or for attribution!

Rabbi Haim Asa:

I have been reading the LA Times since my arrival to California in December of 1954 and I have cancelled my subscription a number of times and may do so again in the near future. It is a waste of time to say anything further about the LA Times and their editorials.

Our tradition, contrary to the feeling and philosophy of many of our Reform and Conservative Jews raised in the West with the utopian values of myopia, gives us the permission as cited by you and your references to "take a life" in order to "save lives." My generation of Holocaust survivors was raised on the motto of "Never Again."

The President, the Prime Minister, and the Mullahs of Iran have stated openly that they will destroy the Jewish State and its inhabitants. Guided by my philosophy of "Never Again" I totally agree with your Dvar Torah praying that none of us will "stand by helplessly and watch it happen again."

Matthew Glick:

That's a fine, fine line. In order to accept that Moses' actions were correctly cited in defending the hypothetical Israeli assassination of a scientist in the employ of a mad nation, one must accept that to kill not only the Egyptian beating the Hebrew was correct, but to also kill the man who made the whip he used. I am by no means a Talmudic scholar, but I can safely presume that no argument could possibly exist that this action would be considered fully justified.

To kill a man in the act of murder, to destroy one life in defense of another, is right and true--our torah and our moral compass cannot be clearer on this, with multiple examples that are readily discussed in the light of day. To use our torah to justify the murder of another man, solely because his work may cause great danger due to the actions of another? This is the type of dangerously slippery justification that the Egyptians and their spiritual modern descendents would have approved and carried out in the secrecy of night.

Dershowitz' book The Case for Israel rightly decries the international community for holding Israel's foreign policy to a higher standard than any other country on the face of the earth. That is correct, in my opinion, but does not allow for the absolute truth that the morality behind the Judaic system of laws is, de facto and de jure, a higher standard that all nations, including Israel, should ascribe to. While the assassination of this man was perhaps a necessity, I cannot see where we as Jews should do anything but mourn his loss, as we mourn the Egyptians who died at G-d's hand during the Exodus that Moses led.

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb