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William Hamilton

What’s it mean?

What’s it mean? What to do about it? These two questions are floating through our minds all the time. When you learn about something or when you actually live through something, you get to: 1) assign its meaning, and then, 2) decide what’s to be done about it. 

A lot of life is contained in these two questions. For the things you don’t control, which is most of what shows up for you on any given day, you still do get to interpret and act upon. 

One of the things I’ve noticed over the past week here in Israel is how easy it is for the most troubling incidents and proclamations to grab and hold people’s attention. This is hardly unique to Israel. But because we’re in a place where the stakes are so high and journalistic topspin has become so essential, the most regrettable moments are even more flammable. 

I guess the problem arises when people’s self-worth starts to depend upon condemning wrongs. Deploring despicable things may be important, it may be required for the promotion of righteous things, but it doesn’t pave a very dependable path toward human flourishing. 

Bottom-feeding can lead people to spend too much time near the bottom. More time, that is, than is absolutely necessary. 

Today, on this International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we can focus on an alarming data point, such as: 23% of young adults in the Netherlands believe the Holocaust is a myth. It may be true, but it’s not all that’s true. 

We can also assign more meaning to data points that are spirit-lifting. Like the beautiful story of the Abadi family from Syria who saved 527 Jewish children from the Nazis. Or like the tasty and touching story of how a survivor turned a simple falafel sandwich into an occasion to savor resilience. 

In this week’s portion of Torah, we first meet a familiar question from the Passover Seder (Ex. 12:27): “What’s this avoda mean to you?” What meaning do you assign to it? Curiously, the Hebrew word avoda, which here means ritual, is the same word for slavery and slave. How can the same word hold such different meanings? Perhaps this is the Torah’s way of reminding us how much we get to assign meaning, when answering: What’s it mean? 

As we enter Shabbat, when we pray for quieter and safer days ahead, may we appreciate how interdependent the two questions with which we began can be. After all, what you do about it, also answers, eventually, in some way, what it means

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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