Purpose – in a single sentence

A young President Kennedy received a visit from Congresswoman, Claire Boothe Luce.  She told to him: “A great person is a sentence.”  She explained, “Abraham Lincoln had a sentence, “He preserved the union and freed the slaves.” FDR had a sentence, “He lifted us out of a Great Depression and helped us win a world war”.  “Mr. President” she continued, “you don’t have a sentence you have a muddled paragraph because you’re trying to do seventeen different things.” 

Daniel Pink’s One Sentence Project encourages everybody – from corporate leaders to team coaches – to unearth the sentence that captures her or his ultimate purpose.  His project has touched a cord with students across the nation.  A sixth grader wants her sentence to be, “She found a cure for the cancer that took her grandfather’s life.”

The rhythms of the month of February entertain us with the Super Bowl, Valentine sweets, the music of the Grammy’s, and motion picture distinction at the Academy Awards.  At a time when revered institutions like the Supreme Court and the Papacy are pulled into the food fight of our political Primaries, Constitutional Rights to privacy and property are not the only protections being threatened.  Our sense of purpose too requires fresh expression.

Our sages consider which single verse captures the essence of the Torah.  For one rabbi the sentence is, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). For a second, it is the opening verse of the Shema.  A third, prizes daily devotional deeds, citing, “One lamb you shall offer each morning followed by another each dusk” (Num. 28:4).  Yet this week’s Torah portion, in detailing priestly vestments, conveys the surpassing essence of God’s Torah in two words Kodesh l’Adonai “Holiness to God” (Ex. 28:36).  These words appear upon the High Priest’s headpiece (tzitz).  Tradition links this forehead apparel to the mitzvah of tzitizit (from tzitz), the fringes featuring the thread of techeilet (originating in the tzitz Ex. 28:37), that adorn the four quarters of our garments.  In other words, surround yourself with daily reminders of “Holiness to God.”

Last week, upon concluding a tour with Greek Orthodox Seminarians as part of their world religions course, one of the visitors respectfully asked, “What is your community’s larger purpose?”  Thanking him for such an important question, I replied, “We grow practicing Jewish learners who try to generate goodness in the world.”  This is what ‘Holiness to God’ looks like.

February is also Black History Month.  Author Harper Lee (of blessed memory) wrote To Kill A Mockingbird, which has for generations “introduced a majority of American teenagers to the grammar of race discrimination in our country.”  What is your sentence?  From the forehead of the High Priest to frontlets between your eyes, may your sights be directed toward purposeful, well-navigated life.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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