A few years ago when I worked at the day school in Denver, the head of the upper division the 6th to 12 grade , retired, and the school decided to elevate the assistant head of the upper division to his position. I remember that Jason was a big thinker - he loved those Thomas Friedman / Jared Diamond / Elon Musk / Ted Talk type books and podcasts about how a fundamental rethinking of an idea in society could remake everything. A favorite idea he had was how the American educational system, and the way it was segmented into discrete disciplines -math, science, english, history - was a product of the early 20th century Henry Ford industrial line compartmentalization of America. You didn’t need a guy to build a whole car - you needed a guy to drill four rivets into the crank shaft and bolt a plate onto the transmission, and move the car down the line for the next guy. Thus, a student in a school in the old days learned that history was one thing and science was another and never the two shall meet.
Well, Jason had been reading the best ideas of modern educators, who talked about project based learning and interdisciplinary classrooms and maker spaces for kids to explore and STEAM education - that’s an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math - and how all these big ideas were forcing innovation in American schools that would completely remake the world we live in. Jason was pumped. He had just been handed the keys to the school, and he had big ideas and dreams, and a plan, and he was set to innovate and transform.
A year later at the school, all of Jason’s plans were still there, sitting in a half-finished word document on his laptop. Not only had none of them been implemented, most of them hadn’t even been completed, or discussed in a meeting, or brought before the board. Because Jason was the head of the upper division. He got up an hour before everyone else and had to make sure the copier was on, the parking lot was free of snow, the teacher’s rooms were unlocked. He had to field parent emails, and phone calls, and staff meetings, and board meetings, and negotiate a truce between two feuding teachers. He had to find a substitute for spanish because the teacher didn’t show up, again, and he had to interview another teacher to replace the one that quit in english. He had to talk to the school counselor about the kid with suicidal ideation, and the judaics department about whether the budget would allow donuts on rosh chodesh. And then more parent emails and more phone calls. That’s no joke, a realistic *single day* as a principal at a school. By the way, if you haven’t personally told Avi Baran Munro or Mark Minkus or Andrea Erven Victoria what an amazing job they do, you should, because they do, and I don’t even work at CDS and I know it. Anyhow.
My point is - Jason got so busy doing the job, he never had time to look up and think about what the job was. He was constantly grinding. Constantly muddling through. There was a lot of forward motion and progress, but not a lot of asking the question ‘why are we doing this?’ or ‘is this the best way?’ My story, I want to add, is probably at least a slight oversimplification of matters. I also know that the school had a lot of teachers who might not have been up for the task of reinventing education for the 21st century, and the school was also often short on funds for even regular tasks, let alone a large structural revamping of everything. Nonetheless, I think the point still stands that muddling through is a pretty crummy way to go through life.
And we do this, as humans, a lot. We muddle through. We are often both busily consumed by the things we have to do or the way we have habituated ourselves to doing things such that we no longer notice if it’s even worth doing. Some of that is of course necessary - stuff has to get done, and broad flights of fancy are often timely distractions from the grunt work of life. Additionally, the person who gets excited about one career choice and then changes to a new passion and then another and another is not so much a bold person following their bliss as much as they are flighty and possibly unreliable. The only person who is allowed to want to be a fireman on monday, an astronaut on wednesday, and an artist on friday is a six year old kid.
That said, we need to be able to take stock every now and again, to just drop in and see what condition our condition is in.
This week’s Torah portion of Vayikra is the official transition out of narrative driven stories in the Torah - no more exciting characters struggling through moral quandaries or leadership challenges, with one or two exceptions. Vayikra, aka leviticus , is mostly a book of laws of holiness, connection, and meaning. It starts with this week’s parsha, which deals with offerings that are brought to the mishkan, the portable desert tabernacle. Which is, as you can imagine, fairly esoteric and irrelevant material for moderns, since we no longer have a tabernacle or a temple or sacrifices or a priesthood to administer them. My favorite brand of Jewish thinkers are the Hassidim - 18th and 19th century Eastern European thinkers who look at the Torah text with two main outlooks: first, what could this text mean personally for me, for my own growth and self-improvement, and second, what mystical, kabbalist, or spiritual meaning could this text offer in a manner that is timeless? And that’s where we come to our discussion of the asking of the essential question of the purpose of what we are doing.
Lev. 1:3 reads:
אִם־עֹלָה קָרְבָּנוֹ מִן־הַבָּקָר זָכָר תָּמִים יַקְרִיבֶנּוּ אֶל־פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד יַקְרִיב אֹתוֹ *לִרְצֹנוֹ* לִפְנֵי יְהוָה׃
If one’s offering is an Olah (burnt; rising; elevated) offering from the herd, one shall make their offering a male without blemish. They shall bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, for acceptance to the desire - the ratzon - before the LORD.
To which our commentators across the ages, from the Talmud to the Medieval to Hassidic and the Modern all get tripped up. What does it mean for God to have ratzon - desire - for a thing? What does God want? Moreover, are we sure we’re talking about what God wants - the text actually reads for his desire - which could mean the desire of God, or the desire or the offerant. And if so, what might we speculate about the desire of a person bringing an Olah offering before the Lord?
Additionally, there is the question of this Olah offering - the rules of this offering, one of roughly 7 types of offerings brought at the Mishkan - make it so that it is the only one in which the sacrifice is wholly burnt and consumed by fire. The word ‘olah’ means ‘goes up’ or ‘elevates’, and so of course our friends the Hassidim are going to go after its spiritual relevance to us, here and now, despite the fact that none of you will be torching an entire side of beef on your backyard bar-be-ques this week in offering to HaShem.
Our friend The Maggid of Medzeritch, Reb Dov Ber ben Avraham , who died in 1772 and was a contemporary of the originator of Hassidut, the Baal Shem Tov, tells us the following:
“If one elevates - Olah -, one offers themselves” , if a person desires to raise oneself up from a lowly madrega (spiritual state), to raise themselves up and transcend - “be brought for acceptance before God” , one should bring their own desires before God.
- The Maggid of Medzeritch, Dov Ber ben Avraham , d. 1772
יקריב את רצונו לפני יהוה -
*one should bring their own desires before God*. This is the command to break from our muddling through and going about things out of happenstance, and to take a break and get ourselves over and above - a 30,000 foot view of the situation. What do we want? What does God want? Are they aligned? Are these the right things to want and desire and pursue?
The spiritual state that we crave is tied up in being contemplative about our purpose and our motivation. That means in everything. One might ask this professionally on occasion- what is the goal and mission of my organization, and might I make an adjustment that will go in a better direction? One might ask this communally, as we saw in an article this week in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle about how Covid has created some city-wide organizational re-thinking around space usage and collaboration between different Jewish institutions. Our own Rabbi Amy Bardack and Rabbi Seth Adelson and Jeff Finkelstein were quoted as part of that rethinking - but it’s part of the spiritual conversation of what do we desire and how do those desires align with our sacred Jewish mission?
And personally, the question of our own ratzon - our own sacred desire to fulfill our purpose - is there too. Maybe we’re a little stuck in our prayer practice, or we’ve fallen by the wayside in torah learning. Maybe we’re unhappy professionally, or personally, or religiously, with the way things have been going. Maybe we’re not the best parents, or children, or spouses that we could be. Maybe our desires have been too inwardly focused, and fail to elevate and improve the lives of other people in an outwardly focused manner, and we need to be more involved in the work of tzedakah and gmilut chassadim. What we are doing is un-aligned with what we want to be doing, or what we do is a lot of hustled busywork and meaningless emails that does not actually contribute to our own desire of being personally and spiritually elevated - an olah - in the idea of the Maggid of Medzeritch. To quote Cher in Moonstruck -SLAP - “Snap out of it.” Wake up and consider how to align your ratzon with the ratzon of the ratzon of the borei - make your desires of a higher purpose such that they are parallel to the reason you were created by your Creator.
Pesach and spring are a time for freedom and rebirth. Your freedom and rebirth are dependant on your own ability to self-examine your own motivations for being your best self. Stop muddling through like a slave, spend some time before pesach taking stock of what you want and what you need to be your best self. Go out and examine what your Promised land is, and how to get there.