Doing and Understanding the Meaning of Our Lives

Delivered by Rabbi Bill Kuhn this past Shabbat.

I am glad to see that you’ve all survived the 3rd great blizzard of 2014.  I am sure all of us were faced with challenges of some sort or another, but it is good to gather together here in this sacred and safe place to enjoy the warmth of the spirit of our congregational family.

I have always been amazed  by what happens to people when faced with a common threat.  During a big snowstorm, people will help each other.  You may not even say hello to a neighbor normally, but during a snowstorm, you’re shoveling their walk and checking on them to see if they’re ok.  TV stations suspend their regular programming to bring you live coverage of the snowstorm and to report on how people all over the region are faring.  They show film of young strapping men getting out of their cars to lend a hand to a total stranger whose car is stuck in a snow bank.  A common threat can transform us from competitive, closed uncaring people into kind, compassionate loving mensches.

I believe we feel this same phenomenon when we come here to share Shabbat services every Friday night.  We do feel under a common threat.  Not from a snowstorm, but from a spiritual storm – a life storm.  All week long we deal with this tempest known as life.  We are tossed from wave to wave, dealing with stress and pressures of life, illness, economic challenges, relationships, balancing family life.  But there in our sanctuary, we may find refuge, calm, security, friendship, compassion, caring, connection, joy, prayer, uplifting music, meaning.  Here we find the miracle of community.

And if we will let down our guard, and allow ourselves to admit it, we are all dealing with the greatest storm of all – the search for the meaning of life.  Here, we ask the questions: why do I exist?  Why was I created?  Why do I walk this earth?  What is my purpose in life?  What is the meaning of my life?

This is the essence of Judaism and this is the identity of our congregation.  We know that life is challenging, and we know that Judaism and our congregation offers a treasure, a source of meaning for all.

This is why Rodeph Shalom exists: to help people find meaning, substance and connection.  And it all begins with Shabbat.  Every Friday night you can come here and be lifted up, touched.  You can be changed.

But our services begin with a very strange ritual – the lighting of the Shabbat candles.  Since we do this every week, we don’t really think about how strange this ritual is.  But if you think about it, it is totally irrational – we light candles. Our Reform Movement began in early 19th century Germany during the Age of Reason.  Everything had to make rational sense – there needed to be an intellectual basis for everything.  And yet, from the earliest Reform P.B.’s, including the Union P.B., every Shabbat service began with lighting the candles.

Lighting candles is not rational.  It is mystical, spiritual, symbolic, non-sensical.  And yet, it is one of the most powerful rituals of Judaism.  And we do it even if we don’t understand it.

In this week’s Torah portion, “Mishpatim,” “Laws,” The Israelite people receive a long list of laws which govern their daily lives.

And at the end of the portion, after Moses reads all of these laws to the people, the people said “Na’aseh v’nishma” “We will do, and we will hear.”

This seems to be backwards.  Usually, you would want to hear and understand the laws before your promise to do them.  Yet the Israelites said “Na’aseh v’nishmah” “We will do, and then we will understand.”

Why does the Torah say it in this order?  Sometimes, you just need to do something to truly understand it.  You need to perform the ritual of lighting the candles before you really understand what it means.

You need to commit to coming here to be a part of our Shabbat community every Friday night before you understand the power of being her.  “Na’aseh v’nishmah” “We will do, and then we will understand.”

When we come into this space, we bring with us our thoughts and cares of the past week.  We are worried about so much: our own health or the health of our loved ones, we are concerned for our children, our parents, our spouses or partners.  Some are suffering from economic crisis, loss of a job, or worried whether they have chosen the right career, or whether they can ever afford to retire.  Others suffer from marital strife or divorce or loss of friendship.  These are just some of the cares of our lives that burden our hearts.  When we enter these doors, we feel embraced and welcomed and accepted and loved; our griefs and trials are softened.  Our joys are heightened.

We enter into this sacred place and we participate in this uplifting transformative and compelling worship experience, that is warm, inclusive, welcoming, meaningful, and we are comforted, and raised to a higher spiritual plane.

Out there, we feel vulnerable, as we deal with all of the cosmic forces that are beyond our power to control.

In here, we feel empowered by the ritual and prayer that imposes from and order on the chaos of life.  We try to make meaning of the cosmic experience of life.

This is why we light the candles.  In the beginning, when God created the universe, there was “tohu v’vohu” the world was all “chaos – void and without form.”

And God said “Let there be light” – light was order, wisdom, enlightenment.

When we light the candles, we are imitating God’s act of creation of light, wisdom, enlightenment, order over chaos.  And the warmth and spirit of the lights lift us to a higher spiritual plane.

And the warmth of the relationships we build with each other, and the connections we make here – give us a feeling of joy and comfort – and we know that God is found within those relationships – as we build the miracle of community.

Na’aseh v’nishmah” “Let us do, and then perhaps we will understand the meaning, not only of the soul of Jewish ritual and prayer, but perhaps we will discover the very meaning of our lives.