I have just finished reading Toward a Meaningful Life, a brilliantly-written book of tremendous timeless wisdom. I am a 27-year old secular, “Conservative” Jew engaged to be married in October. I attended the University of Maryland and was a regular in the Orthodox minyan on Shabbat, though my observance has steadily waned over the past six years. Nevertheless, I still have that “spark” and hope to find a prominent place for G-d and Judaism in my life.
My question concerns the expectations that G-d has for each of us. It stands to reason that in His Divine Plan, G-d allocated certain roles to certain people. For example, the expectation of the eldest son in a family of rabbis is to someday become a great rabbi. The bar of expectation seems to be higher for this person than, say, the son of a railroad worker with no formal education.
Surely, in G-d’s plan—if our lives are not pre-ordained and we are granted free will—there is a reason that Jewish children are born to secular, or even Jewishly-disconnected, parents. Therefore, what do you believe are G-d’s expectations for a person born in such a situation? Simply to make some effort? To have a complete spiritual awakening and to change his life completely?
I am sure there are more pressing issues than my question, however if you could spare a few moments of thought to help me I would be most appreciative. Thank you very much.
Dear [name redacted],
First of all, thank you for your kind words about my book Toward A Meaningful Life. It is indeed gratifying to hear that these teachings have touched you as they have touched me.
Your question about G-d’s expectations of us raises a very complex issue, and I will address it with a metaphor.
A team of diamond miners was sent on a mission deep beneath the ground to extract diamonds. Each miner was designated a different area or cave, some descending into deeper caves than others. Of course, the deeper the cave the more risk involved, but with the increased risk came the potential for the greatest return: discovering the most precious stones.
Each miner on the team excavated diligently unaware of the activities of his fellow miners digging in other separate caves, and occasionally the miners would come out of their respective caves and meet at some junction. Though they shared a common job description, each had a unique personality and unique challenges, and those coming out from deeper caves were covered in more layers of dust and less recognizable to their peers. Then there were those miners that were sent so deep that they rarely came up. When their peers would come down for a visit to see what they were finding in the fertile depths of the earth, they found them so covered in dust that they were completely unrecognizable.
It was these— the most heavily dust covered, unrecognizable—miners that held the keys to the most precious discoveries. Early on in the mission the more superficial caves were explored, and after all the stones in the outer layers of the earth were uncovered the miners were sent deeper and deeper into the earth, where the darkness, the dust, and the challenges were far greater, as were the treasures that were to be found.
When the miners that were sent out early into the superficial caves met the miners deep beneath the ground unrecognizable and completely covered in dust they rejoiced, for it was specifically they that uncovered the greatest treasures.
This tale of the miners is an analogy for our lives. We—all human beings from the beginning of time—are sent on a mission into this material world to excavate it, to discover and unearth the divine “sparks” that lie beneath the surface of existence. In earlier generations, the “sparks” at the outer layers were uncovered, and as the mission progressed, each successive generation was charged with traveling deeper into the material and to uncover greater “sparks.” Our highly assimilated generation—with unprecedented levels of intermarriage, and when “Jewish children are born to secular, or even Jewishly-disconnected, parents” (as you write)—are the “miners” sent to the (spiritually) deepest recesses of the universe to uncover the greatest, most precious “sparks” of them all.
People today may be born to intermarried couples devoid of any affiliation to Jewish tradition, completely covered in dust and barely recognizable as Jews; all complements of G-d’s choice, not their own. We may never understand why some Jews are born into traditional and spiritual homes and others into assimilated and unaffiliated ones, just as we may never understand why some children are born to healthy loving parents and others to abusive ones. However it is absolutely clear that wherever each and every child is sent there is a purpose, and that purpose is for him/her to discover the “sparks” in his/her environment. The unrecognizable miners remind us that the child born into an assimilated home can uncover the greatest “sparks.”
It is neither our job, nor our right right to judge anyone for their given situation—which is divinely ordained. What is our job, is to do everything possible to make people aware of their purpose and mission and to encourage them to discover the “sparks” in their lives. Their destiny is between them and G-d. We are not in as position to measure how much they do—only G-d know show much effort they are investing and the personal progress they are making.
Each of us must use all our resources and presenting opportunities to be the best we can be and to realize our greatest potential. Particularly for individuals who grew up religiously unaffiliated, the yard-stick is not how much one does, but how much effort they invest. The most important thing is the direction and the current. Even if our earlier years did not allow us the opportunity to access our Judaism—for instance, when the time comes and Judaism offers us spiritual inspiration, it is our responsibility and blessing to fully exploit our newfound interest, and to inquire, become informed, and grow—each person at his/her own pace. Some may suffice with making the best effort possible under the circumstances, others may respond with a complete epiphany and life change.
In addition, we must remember that we are all “miners” of the same world. We are all part of one team and we need and complement each other. Indeed, our generation is linked in an unbroken chain to generations before us, and all the good deeds and mitzvahs of our parents and ancestors are accumulative, meaning that we may come to finish gathering the remaining “last sparks” after all the less deeply hidden sparks were gathered in generations past. We are like midgets standing on the shoulders of giants. When we stand and connect to the giants (and their deeds) who preced us, we can see farther than they, precisely because we stand on their shoulders.
Obviously, this is an intricate and complicated issue, which needs to be addressed case by case. However, I hope that my brief comments will help clarify some of the issues.
I encourage you to share the wisdom and inspiration you have received from the words in Toward A Meaningful Life with others. Like a flame, we each have the power and the responsibility to light another flame and yet another, forever and ever, with the knowledge we acquire. This responsibility is underscored more than ever in these challenging times. The world is searching—never have people been so thirsty for knowledge or so receptive to spirituality—and we are all partners in this effort.
If you would be so kind as to send me your mailing address, I will have my office send you some information about other materials we offer which I hope can be of help to you on your spiritual journey. If I can be of any further assistance, please don’t hesitate to call.
Blessings and best wishes,