Your life’s purpose in 20 seconds

“Please don’t tell me you’re marrying someone who’s not Jewish. Because I’ve already had two of those this week.” And so began my meeting with the rabbi who I wanted to perform our wedding ceremony.

Undeterred, I forged ahead. That I wanted him to marry us alongside a minister, the minister of the church where my then-fiancée ran the music program, for some reason failed to elicit a more positive response. He asked question after question – How much had we discussed our differing religious views? Had we worked out exactly how we would blend two faiths into one home? Did I understand that the gaps we would need to bridge were not only religious, but also cultural? None of it mattered. My defenses were inpenetrable. We were getting married, with or without a rabbi.

“What about children?,” he asked, making one last ditch attempt. Had we thought about how we would raise them? Had I considered that religion can become a bone of contention once the children come along?

“No problem there,” I breezily told him. “Neither of us really want children. We’re not planning on having any.” He paused for a second, doing little to conceal the pained expression on his face.

“You know, the future matters. A Jew is responsible for leaving a legacy. Judaism requires a Jew to plant a tree, to write a book, and to have children.” We’re still not having children, I insisted. No plans to write a book either. Planting trees? – ok, that part I can do.

There’s a wonderful Yiddish proverb: “Man plans, God laughs.”

Fast forward two decades – we’re an observant Jewish family living near Jerusalem. We have two beautiful children who are the light of our lives. Oh yeah, and that book we had no plans to write was just published last week. “Man plans, God laughs.” In this case, I’m imagining one of those hysterical, uncontrollable, unstoppable belly laughs.

Our book, Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope, is all about the “God laughs” part of life’s journey. When we were preparing Doublelife for publication, people would inevitably ask us about the book. I was told I needed an elevator speech for such occasions, a 20-second synopsis that would somehow convey the essence of 200 or so pages. At first, I tentatively offered, “Well, it’s our story, our spiritual journey.”

Hmmm – needs work. Doesn’t say much, and doesn’t sound so interesting. And anyway, who are we to be writing our story and setting it down in a book? “Elevator Speech – Take Two” – I started saying, “When I met my wife, I was a very assimilated Jew and she was the Minister of Music in a Texas mega-church. Today, we’re an Orthodox family living in Israel. The book is about that space in between.”

Better – at least it gets people attention. But not quite there, because that’s not what the book is about at its very heart. What it’s really about – which doesn’t sound quite as snappy in an elevator speech and takes a bit longer than 20 seconds – is what it means to be Jewish. Why be Jewish. How we discover who we really are and who we are meant to become. How we overcome obstacles that seem all but insurmountable. How we turn our darkest moments into our greatest triumphs. The path our own lives have taken simply has become the vehicle with which to convey these deeper truths.

Actually, it wasn’t quite accurate of the rabbi to say that a Jew has an obligation to write a book. More precisely, a Jew has an obligation to write (or have commissioned) a Torah. And although that literal obligation remains, in a certain sense we all do have an obligation to write a book as well. And we all do write one, whether we intend to or not. Let me explain.

Torah means “teaching.” We all teach, we all leave a legacy, we all “write a book” by how we live our lives. Each of us embodies a piece of the Torah, our own special teaching for humanity. And whenever we fall short of fulfilling our life’s unique purpose, the Torah is diminished, the world misses out.

The Torah is vast. – Jewish tradition holds that it contains 70 faces. But the Torah is incomplete without each one of us – Jewish tradition also holds that each Jew represents a letter in the scroll of Torah (and since the Torah begins with the first human being, then by extension, all of humanity). Remove one letter, and the Torah cannot be used. Remove the uniqueness of even one of us, and the world is incomplete.

Many had urged us to write a book simply because my wife’s and my journey to Jewish life happens to be a bit uncommon. But for a long time we resisted, wondering why we should write about ourselves. Ultimately, however, with 700,000 or so intermarried families in the U.S., a noticeable rise in conversions to Judaism, and a generation of Jews (and dare I say, the world) searching for spiritual inspiration, we wrote with the hope that our journey might offer a light to others (after all, if we could wind up as a Jewish family, considering our starting point, then just about anything is possible).

We all have a story that only we can tell. We all lay claim to a letter in the scroll of Torah that only we can write. We all have a contribution that only we can make. It’s something all of us can do – indeed, must do – whether our story happens to get written down in a book or not.

About the Author
Harold Berman is the co-author of "Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope," the first true life account of "an intermarriage gone Jewish." Harold was the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts and has held senior positions throughout the Jewish communal world. His musings on Jewish life and spirituality have appeared in numerous print and online publications.