February 22, 2019

The search for meaning

The basic accoutrements of any typical workspace: a computer connected to the Internet, a phone, a desk with some drawers, a printer. Maybe a coffee maker, a small fridge for snacks. These are the bare minimum you need if you have realistic hopes for getting any real work done.  

With that in mind, I ask us all to look around this room, and to wonder, “why did we come here? What could we possibly be hoping to accomplish here? You won’t  find as much as pencil in this room. It’s pretty much an empty space, the only equipment we have is a book. The same book everyone else in the room has (though I hasten to point out that they are very beautiful books), containing the same words that we’ve been using since before there was an Internet, or for that matter ballpoint pens. It’s so low tech a space, that it wouldn’t even know what low tech means. Yet here we are. And with the distinct expectation that we’re going to get some work done .  Why did we come here? Why did we come here?


Poor Uzza. Uzza the son of Avinadav.  Up until the horrifyingly dreadful moment, it had probably been the best day of his life. Having been chosen by King David to guide the ox-drawn “new wagon” that David had commissioned specifically for the purpose of carrying the Holy Ark of the Covenant from its obscure resting place in the hill country to David’s new capital, Ir David, Uzza  marched at the head of the 30,000 strong royal procession on the most glorious day of Israelite history since the time of Joshua.  And when the procession paused at Goren Nachon, and the oxen stopped short just a little bit, Uzza did exactly what he should have done. 6:6 Poor Uzza. 6:7.

Poor Uzza, and poor David, who was incensed at God for this pritza, this Divine eruption (bursting forth) targeting Uzza, 6:8. How could God so utterly ruin this day? This day that was destined to retroactively confer profound meaning upon his years of struggle, running from Saul, being regarded in polite circles as a Godless rebel and outlaw. Today, through glorifying the Ark of God , the Ark of the Covenant, David’s life would become a life of meaning, a life of service to God and country. Why would God subvert that? Why did God do this to him? 6:9 (second half)

Meaning. Days filled with it. A life pervaded by it. Who does not strive for meaning?  In an essay provocatively titled “The Problem with Meaning,” David Brooks acknowledges and understands the great attraction that Meaning  has for us.  

“A meaningful life is more satisfying than a merely happy life. Happiness is about enjoying the present; meaning is about dedicating oneself to the future. Happiness is about receiving; meaningfulness is about giving. Happiness is about upbeat moods and nice experiences… meaning is an uplifting state of consciousness. It’s what you feel when you’re serving things beyond self.

[and taking a subtle swipe at our non-spiritual culture, he adds that “achieving meaning” ] is one of the few phrases acceptable in modern parlance to describe a fundamentally spiritual need.”

And yet, he begins the next paragraph with the word “yet”.  At the mere sound of the word King David pounds the table in objection. What “yet”? What could be wrong? Should we not be pursuing a life of meaning? Well, here’s what essayist Brooks argues:

“Yet it has to be said, as commonly used today, the word is flabby and vacuous. The philosophy of meaningfulness emerges in a culture in which there is no common moral vocabulary or framework.  ..it is built solely on emotion, it’s subjective and relativistic. [its] fundamental question is, do I feel good?

There are no criteria to determine what kind of meaningfulness is higher. There’s no practical manual that would help guide each of us as we move from shallower forms of service to deeper ones. There is no hierarchy of values that would help us select, from among all the things we might do, that activity which is highest and best to do.”

These are certainly fighting words. But even as we the readers are asking essayist David what he would then have us do, King David  – King David fast forwarded three months – is already nodding his head in knowing agreement. Three months after the Uzza disaster, David tries a second time. This time though the Ark is not placed upon a “new ox-drawn wagon.” This time it is carried upon the shoulders of kohanim, which is the way that God had commanded it be done, the way that God regarded as the most fitting, the most honorable. And this time, the procession pauses not so that the marchers can rest, but so that offerings can be made to God. This time, the Ark reaches its destination, where it will ultimately inspire the building of a House of Worship that will serve the nation. Because this time it was not about David achieving a personal sense of meaning.  It was about the objective spiritual needs of the nation, being addressed.

The reason that we come here today, is that when we read and sing from this book, together in this place, it magically pries open another book. The Sefer haZichronit, the book of memories, memories of the deeds and decisions, the plans and projects, that played out over the past 12 months. We quietly rejoice over many of them, in particular those accomplishments which were the direct result of the work we did in this space one year ago. But we also wince, as we read of the things that we now know were dumb or hurtful or wrong, things for which we are already sorry and have already apologized.

But in a certain way even more importantly –and this is something we might not ever do were it not for being in this place on this day – we reread and revisit the book’s most perplexing entries of all. And we’ve all got them, every one of us.   The deeds and decisions that even now seem to us to have been RIGHT ones: decisions that were appropriate and proper, words that were  accurate and honest,  efforts that we certainly thought would be truly meaningful to us and to others, and yet somehow, we don’t how,  they wound  up killing Uzza so to speak,  inflicting harm or sowing divisiveness or arousing anger  – leaving friendships we care about, causes we care about, people we care about, damaged and broken. There they are, in our Sefer HaZichronot, and I’d propose that we come here to this place to ponder these especially.  Is it possible that it all happened due to circumstances that we could not have anticipated and could not have controlled? Absolutely. We’ve all been to places like that. 

But it’s of course also possible – and we don’t know till we hold it up to the light of the Yami Noraim – that it unfolded the way it did because I had falsely persuaded myself  – perhaps out of fear, or frustration, or even out of passion,  that it was the right and honest and  just thing to do or say. Or perhaps it all unfolded in the unfortunate way that it did because  I allowed my urgent need to do something meaningful, to prematurely shut down the process of careful thought, and anticipation of potential outcomes that the situation demanded? Perhaps I forgot to pray on it first.  Perhaps in my ardor I forgot to consult with the teachings of our religious tradition about what is ultimately right and good, and what it is that God desires of me? 

This is why we have come here, to this uniquely unmodern workspace. With its long silences, and strange tekiot. With its ancient words and its real-life community. To get beyond what seems right and what feels meaningful – and which sometimes backfires in an awful and unexpected way, to praying for the insight and wisdom to find and have the strength to do, the ultimate right and the good.