How to Behave as Jew in the Wider World: Toldot 5775

One of the wonderful things about Torah is that there are so many different lenses through which to read it.  Tradition uses the word Pardes, meaning orchard, as an acronym of four styles of Torah interpretation.  The peh is for p’shat – the plain sense meaning of the text.  What did these words mean to the ancient reader who spoke the language and lived in the society that the Torah describes?

The resh is for remez – hints that are alluded to in the Biblical text.

The dalet is for d’rash, or midrash, (fancy word: exegesis).  This is the attempt to explain silences, contradictions, and problems in the text in ways that are not possible from within the text itself.

And finally, the samech is for sod, secret, which refers to the hidden kabbalistic, or mystical truths which are hidden beneath the surface of the text.

All four methods of biblical interpretation are valid, and all four are Jewish.  All have the capability of revealing religious truths.  Whenever we study Torah, it is crucial that we understand which method of interpretation we are using.

This morning, I am going to request that we suspend our skepticism for the next few minutes and immerse ourselves fully in midrash.  In the midrash, Jacob is a good, pious person.  Easau is wicked.  And Lavan is a liar and a cheat.  For now, we need to accept that particular understanding of these characters.

Parashat Toldot introduces us to the third generation of the Patriarchs.  Rebecca is pregnant with twins, and they are already struggling in her womb.  It is such a difficult pregnancy that she wonders if it is even worth it to be alive.  The Torah tells us that she goes to inquire of the Lord, seeking a prophecy which will explain what is going on inside her body.  The nature of her sons is then revealed, with a prophecy that the older will serve the younger.

The midrash (Genesis Rabbah 63:6), as we might expect, expands the story.  Whenever Rebecca would walk in front of study houses and synagogues, Jacob would struggle to get out, and whenever she would walk next to houses of idolatry, Esau would squirm to make his escape.

Another midrash (Yalkut Shimoni Toldot 110) identifies the location from which Rebecca seeks out God’s answer to her travails.  She travels to the Beit Midrash, the academy, of Shem and Ever, where the answer is revealed.

Who are Shem and Ever, and why do they have an academy?

Shem is one of the three sons of Noach, who survives the flood and begins humanity’s repopulation of the earth.  We do not know much about him from the Torah, only this:  When Noach gets drunk and passes out naked, the middle brother Cham does something inappropriate and unforgivable.  Shem, with the youngest brother Yefet, do not look at their father and respectfully bring him a cloak to cover himself.  As a result, Noach curses Cham and blesses the other two children.

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem… May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem…”  (Genesis 9:26-27)

Notice that this blessing associates Shem with God.  It also refers to tents, in which the younger brother seems to be finding shelter.  Thus, Shem seems to have been a monotheist, and a man of some standing.

Ever, the other Head of School, is Shem‘s grandson, and we have no distinctive information about him from the Torah.

From these scant details, the Rabbis develop a sophisticated narrative about the state of monotheism before Abraham.  Shem, later joined by his grandson Ever, establish a tent, understood metaphorically as a Beit Midrash.  There, they teach about God and God’s commandments.

But, you say, the Torah has not been given yet, so how is it possible that there can be mitzvot?  According the Rabbis, the seven mitzvot of the children of Noach have been given, and it is these which serve as the curriculum of this proto-yeshiva.  Among these commandments, which our tradition understands as applying to all of humanity, is the requirement to have societies governed by laws that are administered justly and fairly.  To create such laws certainly necessitates extensive learning, and that is the kind of learning taught by Shem and Ever.

So who makes up the student body?

One of the valedictorians is Abraham.  It is in the Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever that he receives his introductory instructions in theology.  He first learns about God from them.  But was not Abraham an iconoclast, the first person to bring monotheism into the world?  Not in this midrash.  The difference, however, is that Abraham brings his message of monotheism out into the world.  He proselytizes, so to speak, and quite effectively, whereas Shem and Ever are cloistered in their ivory tower (or tent).

In the Babylonian Talmud’s Tractate Avodah Zarah (BT Avodah Zarah 14b), which deals with Judaism’s laws against idolatry, a tradition is recorded that Abraham himself studied that same tractate.  When he studied, however, it was comprised of four hundred chapters.  He really had to know his stuff if he was going to go out into an idolatrous world and convince people of the existence of the One True God.  In our Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah is only five chapters long.

A generation later, Abraham sends Isaac to the Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever after his near-sacrifice on Mount Moriah.

You can probably guess by now that Jacob will end up enrolling in his father and grandfather’s alma mater as well.

According to the midrash, Esau and Jacob spend their first years with their lives somewhat intertwined.  They have yet to fully differentiate.  By the time they reach their thirteenth birthday, their personalities have been revealed and they start to go their own ways.  The Torah describes the respective characters of Esau and Jacob.  Va-yi-h’yu Esav ish yodea tzayid ish sadeh, v’Ya-akov ish tam yoshev ohalim.  “Esau was a man who knew the hunt, a man of the field, while Jacob was a simple man, a dweller of tents.”  (Genesis 25:27)

The midrash (Genesis Rabbah 63:10), noting that Jacob seems to be spending a lot of time in tents, identifies them as the same tents of Shem and Ever.  In other words, he enrolls in the prestigious Beit Midrash that his ancestors had established generations earlier.

He goes back later for graduate school.

This morning’s Torah portion ends with Jacob fleeing from Esau’s wrath after he steals the older twin’s blessing.  Rebecca urges her favored son to travel East to her brother Lavan’s home in Haran to wait for Esau’s temper to cool.  Isaac then offers Jacob a parting blessing and sends him on his way.

Rashi, based on a midrash in the Talmud (Rashi on Genesis 28:9), then performs some detailed calculations.  He looks at the various ages of the characters that are described at different points in the story, and comes to the conclusion that there are fourteen missing years between the time that Jacob leaves home and when he arrives at his uncle Lavan’s household.

Where did he go in the meantime?

You can probably guess by now.  What do people typically do when the economy takes a downturn?  They go to graduate school.

Jacob reenrolls in the Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever.  Why is it so important that he spend this time learning?  Because of where he is about to go.  Jacob leaves penniless, but his destiny is to become wildly successful in his time abroad.  Jacob will prosper in Lavan’s house.  But there is an inherent danger, as Lavan is not a good influence.  He is greedy and duplicitous.  There is a real risk that when Jacob is away from home, outside of his parents’ influences, he will assimilate Lavan’s value system.  How can Jacob spend so much time with Lavan without becoming him?

He needs an inoculation from the influence of his no-good uncle.  That is where school comes in.  Education is what will enable Jacob to retain his values despite his environment.  Intensive Torah study inside the academy will prepare him to live a life of Torah out in the world.

Jacob might also need some time to mature on his own.  After all, the fact that he is running for his life is kind of his own fault.  He has outnegotiated Esau for the birthright, stolen the blessing from him, and lied and tricked his father.  Perhaps Jacob needs to go back to school for some moral reeducation as well.

As it turns out, Jacob does well in Lavan’s household.  He spends twenty two years there, builds a family, and acquires great wealth.  Jacob eventually must leave, however, as it is not his home.  He knows that to fulfill his destiny, he must separate and go back home.  One of the first things he does after returning to the Land of Israel is to force all of the members of his household to throw out any personal idols that they have brought with them.  Those idolatrous values from Lavan’s home will have no place in Jacob’s household.

On one level, these midrashim about the Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever are anachronistic.  They retroject the Rabbis’ values of Torah study into an ancient time which clearly had different priorities and institutions.  On the other hand, by using recognizable contemporary symbols, these midrashim are able to tell us something about what was important to the Rabbis in their own time, which may help us better understand the situations we face in the present.

In sending Jacob to yeshivah, the midrash does the same thing as I did a few minutes ago when I described Jacob’s return to yeshiva as graduate school.  This is one of the ways that Torah comes alive for us.

So what are the Rabbis trying to tell us in these midrashim?  They are making a point about how we can best prepare ourselves and our children to deal with the world successfully without taking on the bad qualities of that world.

One lesson they may be imparting is how to best prepare oneself to maintain one’s values within a wider society that does not share them.  That sounds pretty relevant to me.  Judaism has always struggled with finding a healthy balance between engaging with the world, incorporating positive elements from other cultures, and resisting the negative ones.

Let me share an example.  This coming Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is known as Black Friday.  Over the last several years, we have seen Black Friday pushed back earlier and earlier onto Thanksgiving, giving consumers more opportunities to buy stuff and giving retail workers less opportunities to celebrate Thanksgiving.  It creates a sense of competition between stores to move up their openings times so that their competitors do not gain an advantage.  And it creates competition between consumers who feel that they need to be first in line in order to get the best deals.  The result is a cheapening and weakening of Thanksgiving, which in my opinion is the one national holiday that most Americans seem to take seriously.

The Canadian organization Adbusters created a campaign a few years ago called International Buy Nothing Day, on which people are urged to not spend any money on Black Friday.

As Jews, we do not really need to set aside a day for anti-consumerism.  We already have Shabbat, which instead of once every 365 days, occurs once in seven.  Nevertheless, every year when Black Friday roles around, I am so happy to be Jewish, and to not have that pressure to go out and get the best deals on Christmas presents.  I would put Black Friday in the category of things from the dominant culture for us to avoid.

But we have assimilated much that is good into our tradition as well.

In recent decades, we have incorporated into Judaism values like feminism and social action while struggling to resist messages that promote violence and encourage immodesty.  How do we inculcate the moral strength to stick by the values of our ancestors?  Through learning.

The lesson here is that a deep education in Torah lays the essential moral groundwork for going out into the world and behaving as a Jew ought to behave.  It was that education, at least according to the midrash, that was available to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  It was that education that made it possible for Jacob to go abroad, away from the protective influence of his parents, retain his values in a foreign culture, and eventually return home with those values intact.

Jewish Sovereignty and Its Possibilities – Chayei Sarah 5775

In 1913, Sigmund Freud, the father of Psychoanalysis, wrote a book called Totem and Taboo, exploring issues of archaeology, anthropology, and religion through the perspective of psychoanalysis.  Freud was an Austrian Jew who was totally secular.  He did not observe Jewish traditions in any significant way.  He could not read Hebrew.  Yet, he felt himself to be a Jew, and he never renounced his Jewish identity.

In 1930, Totem and Taboo was translated into Hebrew.  In the preface to this version, Freud, writing from his home in Vienna, describes how he feels about his book appearing in the revived and modernized language of his ancestors.  You’ll have to excuse him.  He writes about himself in a somewhat disjointed third person.

No reader of [the Hebrew version of] this book will find it easy to put himself in the emotional position of an author who is ignorant of the language of holy writ, who is completely estranged from the religion of his fathers—as well as from every other religion—and who cannot take a share in nationalist ideals, but who has yet never repudiated his people, who feels that he is in his essential nature a Jew and who has no desire to alter that nature. If the question were put to him: ‘Since you have abandoned all these common characteristics of your countrymen, what is there left to you that is Jewish?’ he would reply: ‘A very great deal, and probably its very essence.’ He could not now express that essence clearly in words; but some day, no doubt, it will become accessible to the scientific mind.

Thus it is an experience of a quite special kind for such an author when a book of his is translated into the Hebrew language and put into the hands of readers for whom that historic idiom is a living tongue….

Freud is so moved by the translation of his book into Hebrew, but he has no idea why.  Something about the revitalization of the ancient national language of his people in their land has awoken in him a profound sense of identity, even though his active participation in Jewish life is negligible.  How can that be?  What has been awakened in the father of psychoanalysis?

Something quite ancient.

This morning’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, begins with the death of our first matriarch.  Abraham, the lonely widower, must now attend to her burial.  Abraham has a problem, however.  He has no place to bury her.  Although God has promised that his descendants would inherit the land, he has yet to take possession of any property.  He is still wandering.

Abraham turns to his neighbors, the Hittites, and asks them to sell him a plot of land so that he can take proceed with his wife’s funeral.  He identifies the Cave of Machpelah, owned by Ephron son of Tzochar, as his intended property, and offers to pay full price for it.

“No, my lord…” Ephron objects, “I give you the field and I give you the cave that is in it; I give it to you in the presence of my people.  Bury your dead.”  (Genesis 23:11)

What a deal!  Abraham should take it, shouldn’t he?  No.  He should not.  Abraham can read between the lines, and he understands that if the land is merely given to him, it will not be truly his.  Ephron or his descendants could come back to Abraham or his descendants and repossess it.  Abraham knows that he must pay.  Ephron knows this too, by the way.  So they enter into a back and forth negotiation, resulting in a final purchase price of 400 shekels of silver.  Abraham pays and takes possession of the land in the presence of all the Hittites, so there is no question that he now owns it.  This is the Jewish people’s first foothold in the land of Israel, nearly four thousand years ago.

This property remains highly significant.  At the end of the Torah portion, Abraham himself dies.  Isaac and Ishmael, estranged half-brothers, return to the Cave of Machpelah to bury their father together.  Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah would also be buried there in subsequent generations.

At the end of the book of Genesis, Abraham’s descendants are all living in the Diaspora, in Egypt.  His great grandson, Joseph, has risen to be the Viceroy, second only to Pharaoh.  At the moment, life is good for them there, but they know in their hearts that Egypt is not home.  As death approaches, Joseph calls his family to him and makes them swear an oath.  “I am about to die,” he says.  “God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob…  When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.”  (Genesis 50:24-25)  This is Joseph’s dying request: for his bones to be returned to the land of his ancestors.

It would take many generations to fulfill Joseph’s instructions.  The family of Abraham would transform into the Israelite nation, and be enslaved by a new Pharaonic administration.  When Moses arises to lead his people to freedom, centuries later, he still remembers the oath.  On the night that they leave Egypt, Moses makes one extra stop to collect Joseph’s bones so that they can be returned to the land of the Patriarchs.

The story ends at the end of the book of Joshua, where we are told that Joseph’s bones are finally laid to rest in Shechem, on land that Jacob had purchased from the children of Hamor for one hundred kesitahs.  We see that from the very beginnings of our people, connection to the land of Israel is intimately tied up with our national identity.

Perhaps this explains why Freud is so moved when his book is translated into the language that is being spoken by his fellow Jews who are trying to reestablish Jewish sovereignty in Israel.  Freud and Joseph both feel the same sense of longing for the land of their ancestors.

In 1950, soon after the formation of the State of Israel, the Knesset passed Chok Ha-Shvut – the Law of Return, giving Jews everywhere the right to live in Israel and become citizens.  In the debate preceding its passage, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion outlined the philosophy behind the Law of Return.

The Law of Return…. comprises the central mission of our state, namely, ingathering of exiles. This law determines that it is not the state that grants the Jew from abroad the right to settle in the state. Rather, this right is inherent in him by the very fact that he is a Jew, if only he desires to join in the settlement of the land…. The right to return preceded the State of Israel and it is this right that built the state. This right originates in the unbroken historical connection between the people and the homeland, a connection which has also been acknowledged in actual practice by the tribunal of the peoples.

According to Ben Gurion, the authority to pass the Law of Return does not come from the State of Israel.  The Law of Return does not exist because the Knesset said so.  It is, in fact, the other way around.  The Knesset exists because the Jewish people have a core connection to the Land of Israel that extends back in history to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, originating in God’s Promise to Abraham and Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah for four hundred shekels of silver.  Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people.  This has always been an essential aspect of our national identity.  This has been true both during times of Jewish sovereignty, as well as when our people lived in exile.  The longing to return home has always been a source of hope for our people.

Why is sovereignty over our land so important to us?  Because it provides us with the opportunity to put Jewish values and principles into practice.  When we lived as an exiled people, always as a minority within a dominant culture, much of our values could only be dealt with theoretically, in the study hall or on the bookshelf.

Our tradition has a lot to say, for example, about how to conduct a criminal trial.  The Torah, and later the Rabbis, imposed a high burden of proof.  Witnesses are warned repeatedly about the importance of giving true testimony.  A verdict is thrown out as untrustworthy unless someone can make a strong case on behalf of the accused.  Our tradition has an extensive theoretical tradition about how to conduct a trial fairly.  Only in the State of Israel is it possible for our Jewish people to wrestle with how to bring principles that were once theoretical into the real world.  The result has been that, except for the solitary case of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, Israeli courts have not executed a single criminal.

Another example is relevant right now.  This year is a shemitah year, the sabbatical year during which, according to the Torah, agricultural land in Israel must lie fallow.  Trespassing restrictions are lifted, and the poor are entitled to enter landowners’ fields to harvest whatever happens to be growing there.  Indentured slaves are released as debts are forgiven.  Shemitah, as it appears in our sources, reminds us that the land ultimately belongs to God, not ourselves.  It emphasizes the importance of social justice, and resets the economic inequities that inevitably develop so as to prevent multi-generational poverty.

There are many ways in which the laws of shemitah are incompatible with a modern, capitalist, globalized economy.  They were not practical in the ancient world either, and probably were never observed.  But with Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel today, we have an opportunity to bring the institution of shemita out of our books and into the marketplace.  What would it mean to create an economy that promoted the principles of social justice and ecological humility that are at the heart of shemita?  This has not yet happened in Israel, by the way, where people either ignore shemitah, or find a creative loophole by selling the land to a non-Jew so that they do not have to suffer the economic loss.

A third example has implications for health care policy.  I do not have to tell you that our Jewish tradition values children.  It is considered a mitzvah to have kids, although the reality is that this is sometimes a challenge, as expressed in numerous cases of barrenness in the Torah, including three out of the four matriarchs.  The Israeli health care system offers unlimited, free, state-funded in vitro fertilization up the age of forty five.  As a a result, Israel has the highest per capita rate of infertility therapy in the world.  This is a decision that is surely an expensive one, but one that has been deemed worthwhile by the State.  As an expression of Jewish values, this is only possible in a place in which Jews have sovereignty.

For Jews living and flourishing outside of Israel, sovereignty is also important.  It changes how we see ourselves, and challenges us to bring our expression of Jewish identity out of our homes and synagogues and into the world.  The pride and openness of being Jewish that we feel here in America is made possible, at least in part, by a flourishing Jewish community in the Land of Israel.

If this conversation interests you, I would like to encourage you to join a course that I am teaching on Thursday nights called Engaging Israel, from a course offered by the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.  My words this morning, along with some of the sources I have used, are taken from the topic of this past week’s class.  The overall goal is to explore our people’s connection to Israel and to identify how Jewish sovereignty in our ancestral homeland opens up new possibilities for the the expression and fulfillment of core Jewish values, whether a person is religious or secular, or living in Israel or the Diaspora.

Faith, Tzedakah, and Hope – Lech L’kha 5775

We take Abraham’s faith for granted.  He has been described as the Lonely Man of Faith.  Jewish tradition sees him as the paradigm for loving God.  Although it disturbs us, the story of the Binding of Isaac is seen as a story of Abraham’s selflessness, his willingness to go all the way in serving God.

But is it helpful for us to hold up such a “perfect” model of faith.  I’m not sure there are many people who can see themselves as truly following Abraham’s example.

On the other hand, maybe Abraham wasn’t the perfect man of faith that he is often presented as.  Perhaps Abraham had his moments of doubts as well.

This morning’s Torah portion, Lekh L’kha, opens with Abram (his name has not yet been changed to Abraham) as a seventy five year old man.  God promises him that he will be a great nation, and will inherit the Promised Land.  Abram obeys, and soon arrives in the unnamed land to which God leads him.  Things are going well at first, but then discord breaks out in the household.  Abram’s only living relative, his nephew Lot, is also a successful shepherd.  Their respective herdsman cannot seem to cooperate when it comes to pasturing the flocks, and so the two branches of the family are forced to split apart.  Abram is magnanimous about it, offering his nephew the first choice about where to settle, but the end result is that Abram is separated from his only family member in a foreign land.  He must be lonely.

Soon afterwards. Abram finds himself in a famine.  So he uproots his household and heads down to Egypt, where food is available.  There, he feels compelled to lie about Sarai his wife, passing her off as his sister rather than his wife.  Apparently, he feels that it would be better for Pharaoh to bring her into the palace under the assumption that she is available rather than risk being killed as competition.

These are not the actions of a secure individual.

Nevertheless, the subterfuge works, and Abram prospers greatly in Egypt.  We do not know about Sarai’s experience in the palace, however.  When God strikes the Egyptians with a plague, the Abram’s deception is revealed.  Needless to say, Pharaoh is not impressed, and Abram is expelled from Egypt.  Back to Canaan he goes.

Meanwhile, war breaks out between several cities in the Jordan valley and an alliance of foreign kings.  In the fighting, Lot is taken captive by the invading armies.  Abram marshalls his household and rides off to the rescue.  After restoring his nephew to safety, Abram once again returns to Canaan.

At this point, how might we imagine that Abram is feeling about his life?  He has left everything – his homeland, his culture, his family, his father and brothers, to follow a voice that leads him to the West with unspecified promises of land and progeny.  By now, Abram has put forth great effort.  While he may be wealthy, he is still a nomad, and he is still childless.  While Abram has been totally silent until now, I would think that he must be feeling his mortality.  “What have I done with my life?” he must be thinking.  “What is my legacy?  What do I leave behind me in the world.”

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, God appears to Abram for the second time in a vision.  “Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.”  (Genesis 15:1)

That’s it?!

It seems to rub salt in the wound.  All of Abram’s doubts and fears bubble to the surface, and he finally expresses the frustration and disappointment that has been growing in his heart.

“O Lord God, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless, and the one in charge of my household is Dammesek Eliezer!”  He then continues, “Since You have granted me no offspring, my steward will be my heir.”  (Genesis 15:2-3)

In the ancient world, if a couple was childless, their estate could be inherited by a loyal servant.  (Nahum Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary, Genesis, p. 113)  This is the only time in the Tanakh that Abram’s head servant is mentioned by his name, Eliezer.  It suggests that Abram’s statement is not rhetorical.  He truly is resigned to the fact that he and Sarai will not be having any children.  What then is to become of God’s promise that he will be a great nation?

God responds by reassuring Abram.  “That one shall not be your heir,” God responds, “but your very own issue shall be your heir.”  (Genesis 15:4)  Then God brings Abram outside and instructs him to look up.  “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them… so shall your offspring be.”  (Genesis 15:5)

Would that reassure you?

It did reassure Abram.  “And because he put his trust in the Lord, He (God) reckoned it to his (Abram’s) merit.”  וְהֶאֱמִן בַּה’ וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ צְדָקָה  (Genesis 15:6)

Rabbi Jacob Mann Rakovski, who passed away in 2012 and served for more than 50 years as the Rabbi at Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem, comments on the final word of this phrase, tzedakah.  (Iturei Torah, vol. 1, p. 105)  What does the Torah mean when it describes Abram continuing trust, or faith, emunah, in God to be tzedakah?

Rakovski says that by having faith at such a seemingly hopeless moment, Abram offers a tremendous gift to the world.  That gift is the ability to live a life with purpose and meaning, which is only possible through faith.

When a person lives without faith, Rakovski says, that person’s life has no meaning.  When such a person experience difficulties, he or she is inclined to ask, “what good is my life?  Why bother?”

Abram saved the world by demonstrating that there is, indeed, something for which to live, and thus, life is immeasurably precious.  That is why the Torah uses the word tzedakah to describe what Abram did.  His gift is a kind of tzedakah.

Abram may be unique in his ability to maintain faith in God’s promise that he will have children when he has not managed to do for the first 80-plus years of his life.  But the lesson to us is important.

Think about a time when you were disappointed.  When the things you hoped for did not come to be.  Perhaps it was a college program you were hoping to get into, a dream job that you could not get, a romance that did not develop the way you were hoping, not being able to have the family that you imagined.

To be human is to face disappointment.  Our challenge is to keep going when things do not turn out as we are hoping.  And that is where faith comes in.  I found it interesting that Rakovski does not actually specify faith in God, although I imagine that he probably implied it.

But I’ll suggest that when we have faith in something, whatever that something is, we are far better suited to deal with life’s challenges when they come our way, and we experience life’s blessings as far more momentous and meaningful when they happen.

In 2004, the This I Believe project was founded.  It was actually the resurrection of a radio program hosted by Edward R. Murrow in the 1950’s in which famous, and not-so-famous people were asked to speak about the guiding principles by which they lived.

At this point, more than 125,000 people have submitted essays about the values that guide their daily lives and give them a sense of meaning.

For several years, This I Believe essays would be read on NPR, and I had a chance to hear some of them during my commutes to Rabbinical School.  There was one essay in particular that stuck with me.  I would like to share it.  It is by Harold Taw, an attorney from Seattle and the son of Burmese immigrants.  He comes from a totally different tradition than that of the monotheistic religions, and yet the thing in which he believes, gives his life meaning and purpose.

I could say that I believe in America because it rewarded my family’s hard work to overcome poverty. I could say that I believe in holding on to rituals and traditions, because they helped us flourish in a new country. But these concepts are more concretely expressed this way: I believe in feeding monkeys on my birthday, something I’ve done without fail for 35 years.

When I was born, a blind Buddhist monk living alone in the Burmese jungle predicted that my birth would bring great prosperity to the family. To ensure this prosperity, I was to feed monkeys on my birthday. While this sounds superstitious, the practice makes karmic sense. On a day normally given over to narcissism, I must consider my family and give nourishment to another living creature.

The monk never meant for the ritual to be a burden. In the Burmese jungle, monkeys are as common as pigeons. He probably had to shoo them away from his sticky rice and mangoes. It was only in America that feeding monkeys meant violating the rules. As a kid, I thought that was cool. I learned English through watching bad television shows, and I felt like Caine from “Kung Fu,” except I was a chosen warrior sent to defend my family. Dad and I would go to the zoo early in the morning, just the two of us. When the coast was clear, I would throw my contraband peanuts to the monkeys.

I never had to explain myself until my 18th birthday. It was the first year I didn’t go with my father. I went with my friends and arrived 10 minutes after the zoo gates closed. `Please,’ I beseeched the zookeeper, `I feed monkeys for my family, not for me. Can’t you make an exception?’ `Go find a pet store,’ she said. If only it were so easy. That time I got lucky. I found out that a high school classmate trained the monkeys for the movie “Out of Africa,” so he allowed me to feed his monkey.

I’ve had other close calls. Once a man with a pet monkey suspected that my story was a ploy and that I was an animal rights activist out to liberate his monkey. Another time a zoo told me that outsiders could not feed their monkeys without violating the zookeepers’ collective bargaining agreement. In a pet store once, I managed to feed a marmoset being kept in a bird cage. Another time I was asked to wear a biohazard suit to feed a laboratory monkey.

It’s rarely easy, and yet somehow I’ve found a way to feed a monkey every year since I was born. Our family has prospered in America. I believe that I’ve ensured this prosperity by observing our family ritual and feeding monkeys on my birthday. Do I believe that literally? Maybe. But I have faith in our family, and I believe in honoring that faith in any way I can.

What do you believe in?  Maybe it’s feeding monkeys.  Or maybe it has something to do with serving humanity, or supporting the Jewish community, or following Jewish law and tradition, or raising a family.  When we can articulate the values and beliefs that inspire us to live lives of immeasurable meaning.  What gives your life meaning?  What gives you strength when things are not going well?  What inspires you to get out of bed each morning and face a new day?