There is a familiar story of the man searching the sidewalk for his keys and looking frantically under the streetlight. When questioned by a passerby as to where he may have lost his keys, the man admits that he lost the keys inside his house – but since the light was so much brighter outside under the streetlight – he thought it best to look there.
We read this and think – what a fool, looking for his lost object in the obvious wrong place, just because it is the “easiest” place to look. But at least this fool knows what he lost and where he lost it. Can we say the same? Many of us are not only looking in the wrong place for our lost objects but we are not really sure what we’re looking for to begin with. And yet, we are driven to search on and on. To what end?
According to Freud, the primary drive of man is the pursuit of pleasure. “Not so”, said Nietzsche, “the primary drive of man is the pursuit of power”. Viktor Frankl, the famous Viennese psychiatrist whose entire family and pregnant wife were murdered in the Holocaust, and who spent 3 years in concentration camps, was the founder of “logotherapy”, a form of existential analysis based on the theory that the primary drive of man is not pleasure or power, but the search for meaning. To date, no one has topped or toppled Viktor Frankl’s views.
Many of us have an inner ache, a discontented restlessness without knowing why. Viktor Frankl coined the term, “Sunday Neurosis”, an existential anxiety that is formed from the vague awareness people get that their lives are empty and meaningless when they are not otherwise distracted by the work week. Some remained bored and apathetic; others try to fill the void, but cannot succeed because a spiritual hole can never be filled with non-spiritual stuff. Yet we keep trying.
When we are driven by this existential angst, we tend to look for love in all the wrong places. We look for God in all the wrong places. And like the fool, we search for significance in the most inappropriate places and the most insignificant pursuits. We put on a mask and develop a persona in order to feel “OK”, but live in fear that the mask will be ripped off and we will be exposed. A tragic example of that is Robin Williams, who supposedly confided to friends that he thought he could not be funny for the next generation and he was afraid that he just wasn’t funny anymore. Without the mask of that persona intact, he could not bear the pain of his existence, and his search ended in meaninglessness.
So if man’s drive is really the search for meaning, we have to know where to look. It’s not in the Himalayas, the ashram, the shrink’s couch, the self-help section of the bookstore, the office, the lab, the studio, the field, or even the sanctuary. So where is it?
In this week’s Torah portion, “Nitzavim” Moses tells us exactly where to look. “It is not in heaven. Nor is it across the sea. Rather, the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and your heart – to perform it.” Moses spoke these words to the Jewish people on the last day of his life, knowing that it was the last day of his life. The stakes couldn’t be higher. What is this “matter that is near and dear that we are to perform”? “To love God, to walk in His ways, and to observe His commandments”. In a word, Torah.
Wait – did I just lose you? “Sorry”, you say, “but Torah is not the meaning of my life. I’m outta here.” If your view of Torah is that it is a bunch of dry archaic “do’s” and “don’ts”, commanding strict automaton-like adherence to meaningless and empty ritual, then I would totally agree with you. I wouldn’t find that meaningful in the slightest. But that’s not my view of the “matter” of Torah.
Abraham Lincoln said, “I care not for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it.” If it doesn’t make you a better person, better spouse, parent, friend, and lover of your fellow, if it doesn’t make you compassionate and yearn to alleviate suffering, if it doesn’t make you love justice and truth and strive to live humbly with integrity, then it’s not the “matter” of Torah. It’s meaningless in any guise, a cheap imitator and hypocritical pretense of the worst kind.
The “matter” of Torah that Moses tells us to look is within us, in our hearts. It has to be real and we have to own it. If the “matter” is not internalized in our hearts, then it may as well be high up in the heavens or across the distant sea – it means nothing as it is too far out of our orbit to be relevant. But let’s be clear. It is we who push Torah away, who say it’s not relevant or accessible. And as long as we keep this lie on our lips we will keep looking for meaning under that streetlight.
That doesn’t mean that we get to decide on our own what Torah is or what it means, however. It doesn’t mean that we can overlay the Torah with the imprimatur of our emotions, political viewpoints, etc. Many phenomena exist objectively and independent of us. Certain things just are, like gravity, which doesn’t need our “buy-in” to be real and to affect us. Torah has an independent external truth and reality. We didn’t create it. Unlike gravity, however, Torah wants our partnership.
And that is the challenge – to take the light of an independent Godly reality, and, through loving God, walking in His ways and observing His commandments, understand that it is our reality also. We ask God to “circumcise our hearts”, to remove the spiritual impediment and barrier that keeps us locked in the illusion of separation from God – and each other.
It is said when we are in the womb, an angel teaches us all of Torah, but that we forget it when we are born. We only forget it consciously, however. After birth, the memories of all of our experiences lodge within us on a cellular level – how much more so that which we learn as we are forming in utero? That is why learning Torah is best understood as re-discovering Torah, and uncovering a truth we already hold within.
When our hearts beat with the knowledge of this truth within, then the “matter” is in our mouths. It drives our speech and our actions. It’s who we are at our core. Neither imprisoned by an inauthentic persona, nor enslaved to meaningless minutia, we are freed by the joyful vibrancy of a congruent life.
We are so concerned these days with finding the meaning of our lives. Start by finding the meaning of life itself – and you will find yourself and your real purpose. Then the object and the light will coincide, and, unlike the fool, you will be looking for the right thing in the right place. Where it always was and where it always will be.
As Rosh Hashanah approaches and we ask to be written in the Book of Life, we have to understand what life is all about. In our search for meaning, let us find ultimate meaning, and live a life that writes itself every day into the Book of Life.