Who Needs Meaning in Life Anyway?

Image of catching sparks

MIKE FEDER: This is Mike Feder and I am here with Rabbi Simon Jacobson. We are present at the birth of a new radio program and I think we’re all excited and a little nervous… the same way as it would be with any child coming into the world.

Let me give you a little introduction about what this program’s about.

I do a radio program on WBAI and for years I’ve been interviewing authors and people talking about spiritual matters, and about two years ago I met Rabbi Jacobson who wrote the book, “Toward a Meaningful Life,” published by William Morrow.

Two years ago I interviewed him on the air and I was so impressed by the wisdom in this book and the way Rabbi Jacobson presented this wisdom and I wasn’t the only one who was impressed. I got a tremendous amount of mail and calls from the listeners and I decided it would be a good idea for the Rabbi to come back which he did over the last two years several times and we always got an overwhelming response.

This prompted me to suggest that we have a regular program. Now Rabbi Jacobson is a scholar and teacher and author, who travels all over the world talking about what’s in the book but we thought that the radio program would be a wonderful addition to what he does.

This show has also been important to me because I have been generally lost in my life without a spiritual connection and I was seeking myself and as a subtitle to this show, which is “The program for skeptics and seekers,” I think I fit into both categories. I realized I represented a vast majority of people who are out there, perhaps you too.

So that’s the origin of this program. It’s personal for me as well as trying to present a message to other people.

We’re going to talk about in this book TML, plenty of topics on every conceivable subject. It starts off with Body and Soul, Birth, Childhood, Education, Youth, Gender issues, Current Events, War, Pain, Grief, Death, Suffering, Sex, Marriage, everything you can imagine. We’ll try to get at what is universal about these things and try to shed a little light on all our struggles about that.

I think the last thing to say, and this is the most important thing, is that this is a show for you, the listener, we want you the listener to be completely involved in this program. Toward that end we’ll give you information on how to call and write to us with your comments. We truly do need your feedback and questions. We will be selecting your questions and taking your calls on the air which we look forward to.

Now, since we are here talking about TML, the first thing is, what is a meaningful life?

SIMON: To answer that question let me give a small introduction as well. I think we live in a time of crisis of meaning, meaning that we live in a time, in a depersonalized society, media-oriented, a real aimlessness and emptiness in people’s lives.

Let me share with you a story. I recently met with a fellow who was dating someone who was coming to one of my classes and she wanted to get married and he’s not interested in marriage; not interested in that commitment. So they both asked me if I’d be willing to speak to him. So we sat down and spoke and he’s very intelligent, very well-to-do, very successful. Seems to have it all…and we explored all the different reasons why he may be afraid of a commitment, a marriage. We looked at different childhood experiences, his own parents, other fears. Suddenly, one of those moments that something strikes you, I realized something. I said to him, “I think the problem is not marriage with you. I think you have no commitment to anything. Is there any cause that you’d be willing to fight for, till the end. And I don’t mean the life of your child or some type of life threatening situation…a cause, a purpose.”

He looked at me (he was intelligent enough to know that I didn’t mean money or career) and he said, “Well, I don’t have a cause like that.”

And I said, “Well, that’s your problem. You have no real passion in anything in life.” I didn’t mean to say that it was a problem in his life, I think it’s a problem we all share. So he turned to me in a skeptical and challenging way and said, “What’s your cause?”

It’s one of those moments of truth, and something just spontaneously came to me. I answered, “When I was a little kid, about six or seven years old, I had this little quirk, a weird thing, one of these little secrets you carry with yourself. I would walk often to school when it was raining and I had this thing, when I walked by the curbside, you know the water is running into the sewers and it would be blocked by leaves and garbage, and I had this mishugas, this eccentricity to clean away some twigs and open up the paths so that the water should run through.”

When he asked me the question I thought, that’s my cause. As I grew older, my education which was quite intense spiritually, a Jewish education, I picked that up that wherever I’m able to, I try to clear away the twigs and open up channels or arteries. Helping someone achieve clarity in life became my obsession essentially.

As we’re sitting there he started crying which he told me later he hadn’t done in a long time. The reason I say it is because it captured for me a moment, those moments of truth, where I think, there’s a deep aimlessness in people’s lives. And in order to compensate for it, many of us are successful in many superficial areas: careers, making money, but when it comes to real heart to heart issues, particularly in the area of relationships, dealing with trauma, pain, dealing with the realities of life, the invisibles, the intangibles, people really have very few tools at their disposal.

As a result of the book TML, and the great demand it created, I realized that it’s simply incumbent upon anyone that has the opportunity to share, (what am I sharing? Nothing of my own. I don’t think I’m teaching anything)

MIKE: This is really the second part of the question, really. What is this wisdom and where does it come from?

SIMON: I realized that I grew up with a very intense system based on Torah teachings, an age-old wisdom thousands of years old…most people have written it off today as being archaic, primitive, dogmatic and for many good reasons. There’s a deep alienation and disillusionment in religious establishment among Jews and among non-Jews as well, and as I said for good reasons…it has become for others stagnant, irrelevant and they search in other pastures as one would say.

Personally that’s painful to me because I was blessed to see within the Torah that deeper wisdom of life skills; not just some religious dogma about how to keep the Sabbath, what to eat, what not to eat, do’s and don’ts, as many people see it, but really a comprehensive sophisticated blueprint for life.

MIKE: Let’s go back to what you said originally about your own personal origin or experience of what you perceive to be a meaningful life. You clear away the twigs, you clear away the mess so the water can flow. What is this water? What is the essence that you’re trying to get to flow freely so that it would provide meaning?

SIMON: Let me talk a moment about the twigs before I get to that. What I like about getting on the radio with you and having this discussion with you is the fascinating interaction between two worlds that don’t often meet. There’s a lot of distrust between what we call traditional (I abhor labels and stereotypes as we’ll discuss) — the traditional right-wing religious person… for me spirituality is a freeing experience; it’s meant to open up the channels, clear away the twigs.

But many of the twigs have already been placed in our lives through the attitudes and stereotypes we have assumed from those that have influenced us in our lives. Parents, peers, society, the media. carry around. We all tend to stereotype from time to time. People just say, oh this guy dressed this way, this one belongs to a certain group. We file people into groups and categories. We can and must free ourselves of these traps. And here’s how.

I believe and I was taught that each of us has the deepest resource of all at our disposal at all times, some call it a soul, others call it whatever they call it. I don’t like to be locked into titles and labels because I see a lot of distance created by them. People say, “Oh, that’s what you mean by this…” So we have a soul inside us, and even though it is an invisible force, it is the most powerful force in your life. The Torah teaches us that the soul is like an oil well under your house, like a reservoir, resources of energy that’s there.

What would you do one day if someone said to you that there’s an oil well there, if you dug for it, millions of gallons of oil would come up. You’d find every way possible to dig and create those channels.

The soul is a well and reservoir of that nature. For every challenge in life, we have resources to deal with it. Life is not easy but yet we have the answers and we have the answers inside of ourselves.

The problem is, between us and the well, there are many clogged and blocked arteries. Life, the disappointments in life, the abuses in life, the insignificance that we often feel in a large world.

MIKE: Doubts, fears…

SIMON: All of the above. Parental influences. We live in a world where the sensory tools, so to speak, of our superficial materialistic world tends to block out and not allow our inner voice to emerge.

So we find ways, we find alternative ways…

Why do you think music is such an obsession for people? It’s an easy way that cuts through the arteries and gets to that well. Many people don’t call it that but that’s what’s happening. You’re having a transcendent experience.

MIKE: So we all have a soul. And there are people who have doubts, myself included, whether or not I have a soul, but I’m a negative kind of guy…I’m hoping you’re going to save me… by actually sitting across from this table and every week finally…

SIMON: You may save me!

MIKE: Well, I wouldn’t presume … but who knows what could happen. So discovering a meaningful life is going toward your soul, going toward, identifying and clearing away the debris to reach our own souls and then perhaps are you suggesting that we link our soul up with other people’s souls and that’s how we’re getting this flow going?

SIMON: Look, the most important thing a person can have in life is purpose, direction. Knowing that when you wake up in the morning, you’re significant, you’re indispensable. I would submit this to you and to myself and to all the listeners that society continuously inundates us with the message that we’re not significant.

May I share another story with you?

It’s a very powerful story that happened with me and I’ll be brief about it.

A woman wrote me a letter after reading this book. She was from St. Louis and she writes that she’s a 47 year old ambitious, highly successful executive, well-respected. But beneath the veneer lies a woman in shreds.

Why? She grew up in a highly abusive home, a dysfunctional home as it’s known today, with physical, emotional and psychological abuse, and basically a sense of total valuelessness; she has no value in her own eyes. To compensate for that she created this whole complex structure around herself where she’s needed and she’s important but she said it doesn’t really help too much. Her life is basically a struggle against suicide often because of her constant emptiness, no justification to exist.

She picked up TML and there was a line that struck her, something that struck a deep chord inside of her. The line was, “Birth is G-d saying that you matter.” She read it once, and then again. She said she’s read it since 500 times and will read it for the rest of her life.

She’s tried all kinds of therapy but nothing’s really worked. But something struck her. This was a revelation for her because she grew up thinking she didn’t matter that much. Her parents told her that she was a source of misery, an accident. Society, she said, teaches us that we’re another statistic on someone’s balance sheet. Our value is based on performance, on production, on buying power, on looks, youth, climbing the ladder, whatever it may be.

Your value is never based on you. Just because you exist. No one ever tells you you matter because you exist. Healthy parents should be telling us that message.

She realized that despite what everyone has told her and what people have been telling her over the years, she matters to the One that matters most, for G-d. That for the mere fact that she was born, that she exists, that she walks on this earth, is a vote of confidence from G-d who says, I want you here, you’re indispensable, you’re an indispensable musical note in the larger composition.

And she said, I have many years to heal, but I have hope because here is my objective. What I need to do is to clean away unclog (that’s the term she used) the blocked arteries that have blocked my arteries, and reconnect to that moment of innocence, of birth, before I was touched and uncontaminated by human touch, before it was blocked, and clean away the twigs (using my expression) and reconnect to that innocent moment of birth when I was completely needed. That’s my work. To find my indispensable contribution to this world.

Now this letter, we’ll talk about it in future shows, it’s haunted me and at the same time it puts the finger right on the button…

Most of don’t acknowledge that when we have problems, and we all have issues, it may be a relationship, it may be dealing with psychological scars, problems at work, interacting with people, or just a sense of emptiness, middle-age blues as they say, and middle-age keeps getting younger and younger they tell me.

MIKE: I’ve read about this but I’ve never experienced it myself…

SIMON: Well, with all of that, we’re a symptomatic generation. We deal with symptoms, pain killers, but if you really cut through it, essentially the teachings that we’re going to be discussing on the air here talk about, how do you get to the root of the problem, and the root often comes down to you don’t really think you’re that significant.

So obviously, how invested can you be when you wake up in the morning in the things that you do, besides the things that are immediate needs. But in the bigger picture, who invested can you be when it doesn’t really make a difference at the end of the day?

MIKE: When we come back from our break I want to prepare you for what’s coming. It took you about 16 minutes to say the magic word, “G-d.” we’re going to talk about that word, and what it may be and who this might be.


MIKE: We’re back with Simon Jacobson and the TML radio show. We are just launching ourselves on this journey here. You were talking about a lot of the obstacles people encounter towards understanding themselves, that they have a soul, to communicate with whatever their essence is. What the meanings are in life, who they are in life…

And there is this word “G-d,” which you just brought up, and I know you’ve spoken about this before, a lot of people feel uncomfortable with this word, it turns people off the same way that a light switch turns off a light. People will turn away, people don’t want to hear about it, people of every single religion…this is sort of a multi-part question… people in every religion have had problems with this.

You can talk to people who have been brought up as Catholics, or as Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews, any religion, they are so sick and tired of having G-d beaten into them through ritual manners…

I was writing the other day about Hebrew school that I was forced to go to as a kid… G-d is used as a bludgeon often to hit people over the head..we’re supposed to fear G-d. And so what we have is a generation of people, a lot of whom may be listening right now, who don’t want to listen to anybody who is going to use G-d as the source of all wisdom or that they have to believe, and I was wondering if you can address this.

It’s odd to say that G-d is an obstacle toward understanding and meaning for people, but there it is for a lot of people.

SIMON: It’s not odd at all and I want to add a disclaimer that I think I should. When we were planning the show I was thinking that Mike Feder and myself, Simon Jacobson, were going to be speaking, and clearly we met the first time we spoke you could definitely say that you were in the category of skeptic, questioning person, and that point created a lot of electricity in our conversation. And I was thinking to myself, isn’t this a little bit of set-up, you know, Mike is getting on the show with me every week, it’s not like I’m coming on your show once in a while, and seemingly any question that you may ask, yeah I’m sure they set it up already beforehand to

MIKE: Like I’ll be throwing some softballs at you

SIMON: Some balls, some type of pre-written script. And I have to say this to the listeners and to you, and I ask them all to test it, I really welcome and encourage the true questions, because I find that we’ve been silenced, we’re a generation that’s been silenced from asking questions, the real questions.

Often being silenced is the result of insecurity. And when you don’t have an anwer you dismiss it, you’re not allowed to ask questions. So I think that asking questions is a very healthy and powerful tool to getting somewhere and it doesn’t matter even if it’s irreverent and disrespectful.

The issue of course is that we’re searching for the truth. A question that comes just to justify one’s position, then you’re not having a discussion, it’s just locked.

But I say this to you, Mike, on the air, and everyone who will be calling in or writing to us, or in any other way communicating, that we really invite the real issues, because there are real issues in life, and one of them you just mentioned is the alienation, the fear, the disillusionment, with that type of dogmatic teaching, you know, if you don’t do it, this is what will happen to you.

And I must say at the outset that it’s not a spiritual approach. It’s quite a childish approach, that religion, or Judaism particularly should have been subjected to that type of education.

That’s why I didn’t use G-d right in the beginning of my discussion because I know exactly what we’re talking about.

When I began a number of years ago teaching I tried an experiment. Instead of using the word G-d in my discussion, people who were seeing me speak were definitely stereotyping me, and you realize you’re at a disadvantage even before you open your mouth, and they say, “Oh, this type of guy, yeah, he reminds me of an angry Hebrew school teacher, or an abusive grandfather, or even healthy memories, you know, sitting at the seder table, and so I tried an experiment.

Instead of using the word G-d, I used words like higher reality, non-existential states of existence, the layers of the subconscious, karma, you get the idea, all these words, and a few weeks past and someone came over to me and asked me, “Are you talking about G-d?”

And I said I am but “Shhh, don’t spoil it for the others.”

What worked was it allowed for a meaningful dialogue because this word G-d as many such words, is perhaps loaded with more stereotypes and misconceptions than any word, because everyone has an opinion about G-d. Some are obsessive believers who will kill others in the name of G-d, there are others who are obsessive agnostics or atheists. But everyone has an opinion because G-d has far-reaching implications, personal responsibility, issues of good and evil, issues of education, G-d is a real topic. It remains so. Even those who reject it, it remains an issue, and they need to reject it.

MIKE: So you have your money-back guarantee and your absolute pledge right in front of people’s ears, that I can ask you any question I want and they can too.

SIMON: Yes. But remember. For every challenge that you throw, you have to be willing to accept a challenge in return.

MIKE: No that’s too hard, forget it. I’m going to ask the easy questions.

SIMON: I invite it because I feel that when I was growing up, and I’m still growing up in many ways, but when I was being educated that was invited and welcomed, and when I came in with that I got as much as I gave. That’s how it goes.

If you’re invested and you’re really asking a good question then you have to be ready for the consequences. King Solomon put it very clearly, “More knowledge, more pain.” Remember that.

But to get back to what I was saying, this word G-d is a very important component in people’s lives. Some people have a very good relationship with G-d. But many establishments, religious establishments included have a certain bureaucracy that have made G-d and religion and soul and spirit quite hollow and irrelevant. And I’ll put it quite bluntly. We were bumped last week.

MIKE: By the hockey game.

SIMON: And I saw that as a personal challenge. Hockey is simply more important than spirit and soul. So the question is, can we in any way, change the landscape. Hockey can make you happy for a moment, can keep you entertained, but it’s not going to help you too much when you’re dealing with serious trauma. It may be a distraction for a while but it’s not going to really feed your soul. Can we somehow change the landscape of this world, I don’t mean to be cocky and make this challenge (but it’s not just for me it’s for all the listeners) and really bring the biggest and most important issues that we struggle with to the fore, and maybe one day our show, or shows like ours, will bump hockey games.

MIKE: Now there’s a certain goal, to use a certain word…

SIMON: Now, I don’t think anyone should be bumped, I think we can all coexist peacefully as they say. So getting back to your question, this is exactly the objective of this show. How can you make you soul relevant in your life, how can you find spiritual relevance in your life. How can G-d be an experience that is not just acceptable but that you embrace in your life because you find that your soul helps you be more creative, more successful, helps you have healthier relationships with your spouse with your children, with your parents, helps you deal with the difficulties and challenges of life, and helps you access yourself, self-actualize. Anyone who can find a way that that resource, that oil well as I mentioned, can help us be better people will embrace that kind of G-d. And that is the challenge of the show.

MIKE: Okay. So I realize that if I’m going to ask a really hard question, I’m going to have to be responsible enough to deal with the answer. I may want to watch the hockey game, but I’ll figure it out by next week.

So the fact is, there’s a hockey game on right now, but I’ll stick with this program because I do really want to get beyond it.

The second part of this question is, here you are, you’re a rabbi, you’re a Jew, you’re an Orthodox rabbi to boot, now these kinds of divisions have created thousands of years of warfare, of hatred, fear, prejudice… do people need to have any knowledge of Judaism to be Jewish, I mean, is this show limited to people …

Listen, when you say G-d it triggers a negative response in a lot of people… here you are, you’re Rabbi Simon Jacobson, what is the necessity… do you need to be a card-carrying member of any religion, let alone a Jew, to be listening, to be participating?

SIMON: Well, let’s say another disclaimer. I just wrote an article that’s been published called “Was Moses Orthodox?” Obviously, my rhetorical question was meant to address the issue of labels. When you say the word Jew, you say the word Orthodox, you say the word Conservative or Reform, you say the word secular, I tend to believe that most of us tend to stereotype

Do we stereotype because it gives us a sense of control in our lives or we like to file things, but we stereotype. You see someone look a certain way, it’s a knee-jerk reaction, Oh, they belong to that group. If we can, we file people in that way. But we hate when someone stereotypes us. I believe the words that we’re using here, even Jew, and including definitely Orthodox, have been stereotyped and that’s why I avoid using any of these titles and labels, not because I cannot explain myself or defend the position, but I’d rather took about the real issues that matter.

When you deal with anything that’s soul or spiritual, the first thing you have to do is cut away from man-made labels, or else it might as well not be spiritual, then it’s another industry. It’s not an industry we’re dealing with here. As I said earlier, it’s you. It’s your person. Your person can’t be stereotyped.

If I asked you, Mike, or asked any of the listeners, who are you? So you’re going to tell me, Well I’m a radio show host, or I’m a computer programmer… that’s not who you are, that’s what you do. You will find that you will not really have words that describe yourself, because you’re not the sum of your parts, you can say, okay I have intelligence, I have emotions, I have experiences, but it’s still only components. Those are manifestations of who you are. You can tell me about your interests; you like music, you like jazz, you like hockey, whatever.

So I have to piece together a puzzle and say, “Okay, Mike Feder has these types of qualities, but we all know that this doesn’t even begin to touch the surface. It scratches the surface. When it really comes down to who you are, actually conventional language is insufficient. That’s why we don’t really use it, the containers are too small. The intensity of a true intimate expression is insufficient in regular language. That’s why we create the language of metaphor, of poetry, of music, art, more transcendental types of vehicles so to speak.

The soul needs different tools than the body does to function. The body needs arms and legs and food and drink but the soul too needs nourishment. It’s nourishment comes from something that’s compatible to it. It may be awareness of it. It’s like a child, all it needs is awareness, so respect that I exist. Is that a tangible? No. Because you can’t buy that in a store.

On the other hand, that can do more for a human being’s welfare than all the food in the world. Love. Anxiety is a voice of soul speaking to us when we’re in pain. Anxiety means that there’s something misaligned, something inconsistent, seamless. So the soul speaks to us, it speaks to us in voices, that beckon and ask us for nourishment.

Unfortunately, most of our schooling in our homes, we are not really taught how to respond to that call. So it has all kinds of weird ways of acting out. That’s what meaningful life is about. Finding that type of deeper meaning. And that’s why we cannot be afraid of questions. Everyone has to bring their issues or else you’re not getting to the bottom line. Because you want to get to that inner place. That’s why I tend to avoid all these languages and labels.

And let’s speak about the things that really matter. When people love. Is that much difference between one way of loving and another way? This for me is what Judaism is all about. Even though Judaism is a label, Jew, non-Jew, but for myself what I was taught is that the Torah that was given at Sinai from G-d is a blueprint, a manual, like an engineer creates in a complex machine, and gives you a user’s manual how to use this machine in the best way possible.

I see the Torah as a universal blueprint for Jews and non-Jews and it has a message for all of us. Obviously the message has to be as diverse as we are as human beings, so clearly there’s a message for Jews and a very powerful one, which we may be able to touch upon.

Passover’s coming this week and there’s a universal message of Passover to the entire world, and there’s also a uniquely Jewish message but the key here is not labeling it.

Diversity between people, whether it’s male or female, or Jew and non-Jew, or black or white, or whatever way people are distinguished, should not be used as a stereotype, but used to appreciate that we’re different types of musical notes in a large composition and every note has to be taught how to play it’s music.

MIKE: (Announcements) We are on air from 6 to 7 every Sunday evening, provided we don’t get bumped by hockey, lacrosse, women’s softball, or men’s pole vaulting, we are going to be here as regularly as possible every week.

Let me move on to something that occurred to me when I was thinking about this program this morning. And this is something that I’ve thought about for years. When I’ve read Buddhist texts… this is a followup question to the issue of labeling… what you’re saying is that there are various structures of wisdom, there’s Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, all kinds of religions in the world, I hope I’m not slighting anybody by leaving anything out, but I think later on a good program would be to talk about comparative religions, different wells of wisdom, why are they different, and how do they have special qualities…

A question I want to ask you is, and this has intrigued many people in my generation for a long time is, you read the wisdom of the Buddhist monks, sometimes I read this book the I Ching, the Taoist wisdom from thousands of years ago, you can read the Old Testament, the New Testament, there are rabbis, monks, saints, there are people who dedicate their whole lives day and night to contemplating, if not living out, a life of the spirit, of idealism, but the rest of us live in a real hard world, a day to day world of bosses, of violence, of greed on the street. That is, we don’t live in an ivory tower. I’m not suggesting that you do, but a lot of times when you read about the sayings of people like this, these are people who have isolated themselves in beautiful monasteries in faraway places, they live and they study. They have support systems where they don’t have to work for a living where people pay them just to study, to contemplate the soul and G-d, to do the right thing. The rest of us are out there, we are run down by taxes, by bosses, by my mayors who may be occasionally be out of control, by differences of opinion, by wars, by landlords… you see what I’m driving at here.

How do we bring anything that we might say here into our life day to day, what kind of meaningful life can we have when we have to face these constant problems all the time. It’s easy enough when people are spending their whole lives doing this but here we are down on the ground, us mortals.

SIMON: Well, that’s precisely what makes life meaningful, are the challenges. If we had no challenges of this nature, it wouldn’t be meaningful at all. Then it would just be a prewritten script that consists of leading an ascetic life. What Judaism teaches, and this is again a universal message and I’ll use this even to apply it to the upcoming holiday of Passover this week.

Passover is considered the mother of all holidays as they say. The root of it all. Essentially the celebration of freedom. Of a people coming out of slavery. Enslaved. And experiencing true freedom. Obviously this was not just physical freedom, but spiritual freedom. But the key, if you look at how the holiday is celebrated, is not through ascetic climbing a mountain, prayer and meditation alone, it’s experienced at a seder table, where there are special foods, there’s the matzah and there’s the bitter herbs and wine. There’s family. It’s not sitting privately along meditating. One can say spiritual freedom requires as you put it, escaping from, or at least insulating oneself from a material world.

This is a theme we’ll discuss quite often but just simply put, the challenge of a life of meaning is to achieve spirituality and spiritual serenity in a world of difficulties. We all have those difficulties, whether it’s the overburdening employers, or the peer pressures to make ends meet. That is the rush hour of our lives. Yet we also have a resource called the spirit, the soul.

The challenge is, can you integrate the two, can you create a partnership between the two. That without escaping, without having to leave and separate yourself from this material world, you can actually find spiritual peace and the key here is not to see the body and the material life as an adversary, but see it as an ally with potential.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, born 300 years ago this year, he cites a verse in the bible that says, “When you see the donkey of your enemy being overburdened by its burdens, don’t ignore it. It’s incumbent upon you, your responsibility is to help out even though it’s your enemy.”

The way he translates it is this. The word chamor in Hebrew also means chamor, coarse materialism, matter. When you see the challenges of life, the difficulties of life overburdening us, and you see them as your enemy, because they’re challenging what you find pure, they’re taking you away from your family, you don’t have time for yourself, you don’t have time for your soul, you don’t have time for G-d.

So you may think that they way to do it is to ignore it, or to run away, asceticism, escapism. The answer is no. “You go and assist it and help it. Because in there, in the material world lies great potential. Your job is to channel it, use that world, that material world, civilize it, and allow it to become a conduit, an environment where it’s spirit and spirituality can be comfortable.

I know it’s difficult but we all can do it, and this is what this show is all about. We will discuss ways to do it. And I want to make some suggestions here on the show how we can do it.

None of us, you’re a working man, a working woman, what are you going to do, break away from life and start anew? No.

There are ways in the details of your life, what you’re doing right now, that you can achieve this. Knowing, number one, that it’s inside of you. You don’t need to travel somewhere on some mountain, to find your soul, to find G-d.

One of the Chassidic Rebbes once said, they asked him as a little child, “Where’s G-d?” And he said, “Wherever you let Him in.”

So it’s up to us to let Him in. It’s up to us to recognize that we do have a well, a reservoir of resources and we have to learn how to dig, he have to learn how to create pails to draw the water, the oil, the resources and energy. And to do that, the key is to find in your own material life, meaningful life, meaningful day, from tying your shoelaces to the most significant events, where is the spirit in that experience? How can I allow it to emerge in my life and then it will spill over and begin to affect you. It’s simple but difficult because it requires a new habit, a new beginning.

I want to make a few suggestions, but I see you have some skeptical question coming.

MIKE: I just got through reading a book called The Snow Leopard by Peter Mathieson. It’s one of the great spiritual journey books. It’s an ancient tradition. People took journeys to the mountains, to the desert, in every religion in every place in the world at all times, to test themselves. When they went up on the mountains to find themselves.

Now why did people do these things? Why did people, sometimes founders of whole religions, had to feel that they had to out into a rough place, a different place, a quiet place. Why is it that they found it necessary to do that if you’re saying that we can deal with these difficult problems, we can try to get in touch with ourselves, right smack in the middle of the Big Apple here…

SIMON: Great question.

MIKE: I loved this book The Snow Leopard. I want to travel someplace where all I hear is wind chimes…I don’t want to look at anyone’s face, I don’t want to hear a radio. Don’t you agree that sometimes we all might need to get away to clear our minds. How do you expect us to reach a soul in the midst of this crazy place.

SIMON: It’s a good question. The answer lies in that everything has it’s time. There’s a time to speak and there’s a time to be silent. There’s a time to experience what you’re describing… Generally speaking the teachings that we’re dealing with here, that the Torah teaches us is as follows:

Younger age or school years when you’re home are essentially when you are on a mountain. You’re protected, you should be protected, you’re cared for, you don’t have to be working for your own living, in a healthy functional home. Children are really building an arsenal, in a sense it’s like a training. All training has to happen not in time of battle. If you’re training in time of battle, you will never get trained, so you need to have a certain state of peace.

So childhood, educational years, is meant to achieve that. Even in our day, and even in our busy schedules, there are times where you need to take that day off, or that weekend off, or even longer than that, sabbaticals, where you do the equivalent of creating a cocoon, a womblike state, an insulated state, but the question is whether you remain there.

The point I’m making is that of course we requires moments like that, but the key is that that’s only a preparatory stage. Now when you come into the battle you are well armed and you have the resources and the skills with which to deal with a tough life. And not only to be affected by the tough world around us but to affect it. Because in life, it goes one or two ways. Either you will be influenced or you influence. There’s no middle ground. And though it’s appealing, the escapism, I would say that there are times when you need that, there are times when you definitely need that. A person should make time. Essentially, part of the suggestions I was going to say was creating such a space in time, but not be afraid and afterwards to bring that into the world and into our lives.

But I’d like to add, that my great teacher, the Rebbe as they call him, this book TML is based on his teachings, the Rebbe in the chain and in the line of many great Rebbes before him all the way back to Moses, his birthday is today.

It’s the 11th of Nissan on the Hebrew calendar, a few days before Passover, and I think it’s appropriate to mention that because though

MIKE: He would have been up in his 90’s by now…

SIMON: Yes. He was born in 1902. So though I didn’t mention it earlier, much of the great impact and influence on my life is his teachings and remain so. And I would say that I wouldn’t be aware of my soul the way I am were it not for the Rebbe.

At the same time there are also stereotypes about the Rebbe as well because not everyone knows who he is and what he represents, but much of the teachings that we discuss here today are directly influenced and impacted by him. I think it’s appropriate to mention that.

But now let me give you a suggestion or two.

MIKE: This is something I can take home with me tonight, right? I can start working on right away? I want results right away from this!

SIMON: Yes. They say whatever is built overnight, dies overnight. But remember this. Everything begins at some moment. The question is carrying it on, maintaining it. Here’s my suggestion.

We live in a rush hour in our lives. We’re busy, busy, busy, overwhelmed, making ends meet and things like that. But in Jewish tradition there’s a beautiful and powerful tool (I hope in every show we come away with some practical suggestion that people can do something about). Or at least write to us and give us your suggestions.

MIKE: We’ll give you your money back if it doesn’t work.

SIMON: It’s called the Modeh Ani exercise. We’ll call it the spiritual mission statement. Personal mission statement. We hear a lot about mission statements. Businesses. Corporations. Everyone needs a mission statement or else you cannot be focussed enough to fulfill your objective. Especially when you have many employees, many departments, there has to be some type of focus.

But if someone asked you as an individual, what’s your personal mission statement, most people will say, well, it’s very complicated, if you have a few years, we’ll discuss it, or I’ve decided not to have one now. I’ll have one when I retire, I’ll have plenty of time to think about it, or, I have several options. Or I decided there’s no need for a mission statement. Should anyone answer that in business, it would be ludicrous. What’s your objective? What are you trying to achieve?

So why is that we don’t tolerate it in business but we do tolerate it in our own personal lives. Simple. It’s called accountability. In business there’s the debtors. Someone comes knocking at the door because there’s a bottom line. If you don’t have a mission statement, you don’t have an objective, ultimately waste and inefficiency is going to seep in and it will not be able to last.

In our personal lives, we don’t have to answer to anyone. So that lack of focus…

My submission is this. You think it does less damage in your own life? No. It does worse damage. Except it implodes instead of explodes. What do you think happens to a person who day after day goes through the wear and tear of life. Slowly the fragmentation of life, the billion little fragments without any focus…

You know getting up in the morning… list the things you did this morning, or yesterday, hundreds of things, when you go home list everything you’ve done, probably a hundred and fifty items. I got up in the morning, I exercised, I showered, I brushed my teeth, small business meeting,

Then try to create a thread between the items and see how many items can be grouped into one common denominator. You will find that very few can be. What happens is, it doesn’t sound like much, but day after day, week after week, decade after decade of such fragmentation begins to erode the spirit. Because there’s no one reason for being here. So you suddenly wake up one morning and say, “What am I doing with my life?” I may have money, I may be prosperous, I may have friends. I may even be in a good marriage with good children. But there’s an emptiness.

So here’s a suggestion. In the morning, there’s what’s called the Modeh Ani. As soon as you wake up, before you do anything else, (nobody has a business appointment as soon as they get up) the first conscious moments that you’re awake, dedicate not to business, not to anything personal, there’s a well-known prayer called “Modeh Ani” that says I acknowledge to G-d (you don’t even mention the name of G-d) you say “I acknoweldge to You, for returning my soul to me.”

Now this isn’t just a thank you for life, but it’s more importantly, I’m thanking You for making me significant, for making me indispensable, for being meaningful. That I am meaningful and everything I do is meaningful. Just acknowledging that but with focus. Not just lip service is a powerful powerful exercise. When a person begins to do that every morning, you’ll see that that awareness begins to affect other areas, because then you start thinking, well, how are the other things I’m doing significant or not significant? So that’s my suggestion for this opening show, Modeh Ani.

MIKE: Now if I do that every day, starting tomorrow morning, when I come back next Sunday, I’ll report back to you.

SIMON: Yes. And next week I’ll tell you what to do before you go to sleep! Because it’s part of it. Essentially it’s creating an oasis, creating a space and creating a power that a person begins to acknowledge that there are more forces at work that meet the eye, that meets our own eye.

MIKE: Also that we’re not alone in the world.

Unfortunately we have to stop now. You’ve been listening to Rabbi Simon Jacobson, author of TML, this is a new program called “Toward a Meaningful Life” with Simon Jacobson. And we’ll be here every Sunday night between 6 and 6:56 pm. My name is Mike Feder and let me remind everyone that we want your input. If you want to ask questions or make comments, you can call a 1-800-3MEANING, or 1-800-363-2646, or you can write to Meaningful Life Center, 788 Eastern Parkway, Suite 303, Brooklyn, NY 11213. Email: wisdomreb@meaningfullife.com.

We’d like to thank the people who have made this show possible. Just this week we’d like to thank from the bottom of our hearts James and Anne Altucher who are celebrating the birth of their daughter Josie and they helped us very much to get this first important show off the ground.

In the last few seconds do you have something you want to say?

SIMON: I hope it gets harder and I hope that this is a real journey for you and myself and for everyone who listens, because there are so many issues that people are afraid to ask about because they were silenced, that creating a platform is in itself gratifying and it’s a spontaneous situation, we don’t know where we’re headed and where we’re going.

I also want to wish all the listeners a happy and kosher Passover. Wish is a celebration of freedom and may this show be part of allowing that freedom to emerge to accessing our souls. To remember that you and everything you do is meaningful.


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