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Reflections from a Spontaneous Journey

Sunday, 18 September, 2016 - 11:02 am


It was quite remarkable when an alumnus visited and shared that he is quitting his job to spend six months out of the country learning a foreign language and volunteering. He had a good job, in the career of his preference, and was living amongst friends. Understandably I asked, “What happened?”

With full sincerity he felt that he was not providing value to the world through his marketing job. He felt what difference would it make if people purchased product A or product B? He went on to describe how his practice of Judaism has lapsed because as he put it, “It provided no meaning.” While his friends were satisfied with following the routine, for him the lack of substance was disturbing. So he decided to pursue a fresh perspective by leaving the country and ridding himself of the pollution created by routine. 

Earlier that morning I had dropped my eldest son Mendel at the airport for his return flight to Israel to resume his Yeshiva studies. Driving back from the airport a longstanding craving arose to return to Yeshiva as well. I located a cheap ticket online and asked Chanie how she’d feel if I went to Israel for a over week of Yeshiva. With a twinkle in her eye she replied, “Absolutely. Go for it.” 

Though her response was certainly authentic I was hesitant to purchase the ticket. After all, for the next 10 days with Brandeis in session (though iLearn was not scheduled to start until after my return) she would be shouldering these and our family responsibilities alone. 

It was then that the alumnus came by for his pre-arranged visit. His commitment to drop everything and seek substance made such an impression on us that as soon as we closed the door behind him Chanie and I looked at each other and simply knew that by the following evening I would be on a Turkish Air flight to Israel.

During the flight a question was pestering my mind. What are the faculties, skills, abilities, or whatever you prefer to call it, necessary to achieve a life of value? That you can live a life, regardless of your job and relationship status, that is engaged yet still have a sense of hunger, motivating you to seek a life of substance.

The follow-up question that lingered was, does Judaism provide the resources to develop these faculties?”

During the layover in Istanbul airport as I was meditating in preparation to don my Tallit and Tefillin for the morning prayers, three keywords came to me which provided the basis for the answer to my questions. 

Strength, Knowledge and Imagination. 

Allow me to explain.

How does one transform from an insecure, herd following, materialistic-defining, unimaginative and uninspiring individual to one who is the opposite? How does one become more than they currently are? The answer lies in one principle and three faculties.

The principle: There is a Being that brought everything into existence. This Being as you may imagine, is unrestricted by what it created and is similarly beyond its creations’ capacities to comprehend. Yet, it created within man an element of Itself, which highlights the capacity to be unrestricted. 

The first faculty is strength; the ability to overcome habit, to shift routines and dominate impulse. 

It’s the familiar that makes you comfortable and at ease and it’s why you may avoid anyone new and rejects what is different. It comes at a cost, because it make you prisoner of the small world of habit surrounding yourself. 

And while you can dominate others with ease by intimidating them with feigned power in the form of social standing, wealth or intelligence, you cannot fool your impulses with faux strength. For only authentic inner-strength will be effective to dominate your impulses, and that is a muscle that must be developed.

The second faculty is knowledge; to actively pursue ideas and concepts that are new to you, and to examine and re-explore the ones you are familiar with. To use your mind to broaden your awareness and encounter a world beyond your isolated self, or perhaps a world within yourself, yet undiscovered.

Knowledge is propelled by both a curiosity and an honest self awareness of your own ignorance. The realization that far more than you do know, you don’t know. That if you want to make more of yourself you need to venture and explore beyond the isolating walls of the familiar.

The third faculty, and perhaps the most important one, is imagination; it is both a venture into the beyond and an absorption into the within. To explore the unknown and what cannot be fully comprehended; what is beyond the limits of your knowledge. It is also a journey into a time in which you are not present, in the past and the future. 

These three faculties are muscles, because like a muscle they gain strength when worked out and deteriorates when neglected. 

Notably, Judaism is built to develop these three muscles. Mitzvot create discipline and strength, Torah breeds knowledge, and Prayer nurtures imagination. It’s actually more sophisticated than that, and each of these elements of Judaism possess these three faculties, but this essay is not the place to expand on it. 

With the capacity to be unrestricted, a result of being created in G-d’s image, the thrill of overcoming our impulses, discovering new horizons and imagining life beyond, life is can always be stimulating and meaningful. So even if you find no meaning in the work you do, or bored by the unceasing routine, the excitement of life must occur within you in a ceaseless way.

My visit in Israel began in Lod, where I studied 25 years ago and where my life was transformed, setting me on the path I find myself today. Then I stayed in Tzfat, Ashdod and Jerusalem. I visited numerous institutions and communities of very diverse orientations and engrossed myself in study, prayer and reflection, testing to see if these faculties are necessary in all these environs, and indeed they are.

To my dear alumnus who helped stimulate this journey, our self worth comes only from who we become by developing our strength, pursuing knowledge and journeying with our imagination; evolving into a sensitive, humble and courageous being.

To the current students at Brandeis, my goal this year, as I mentioned in my most recent essay is to impact your lives. It will be achieved by developing your own strength, knowledge and imagination so that when you leave college you can hold any job and live meaningfully and understand that life is not defined by work or wealth.

Thank you Chanie for this gift. It’s yours.

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