The University of Warwick, Conventry, England, December 31, 2009 –
On the last day of the year 2009, I awake at 5AM to a chilly, cloud covered morning in England’s Midlands, to catch a shuttle bus taking us to London’s Heathrow Airport for my return flight to New York.
After spending a whirlwind of a week together with 2500 Jewish seekers at what is known as the annual Limmud Conference, it feels like the last day of summer camp – surrealistic and all. For six days I was surrounded by throngs of Jewish men and women of all ages from all over the world, socializing, running from session to session (over 900 sessions by 300 presenters was offered through the week), eating meals together, enjoying performances and presentations by artists, lecturers, Rabbis, educators, professors and just about anyone who wants to share an idea – celebrating being Jewish, in what amounts to essentially be a week-long Jewish festival.
Not that this conference is without its own controversies. After all, is it possible that a gathering of Jews, let alone 2500 of them, should be devoid of some tumult? Since this conference welcomes and offers a platform for all Jewish denominations, some feel that they cannot participate and in effect “endorse” what they consider untraditional and unacceptable versions of the Jewish experience.
Here is not the place – and perhaps it may never be my place – to become embroiled in this debate. I for one did not feel that I am charged with the responsibility (or even have the power) of validating or invalidating any particular persuasion. My attendance at the event represented no one but myself and perhaps the Meaningful Life Center (of which I am dean), and was in the same spirit and capacity of all my work, which consists of presenting Torah as a relevant and personal blueprint for contemporary life. As author of Toward a Meaningful Life I was blessed with the opportunity to connect with people of all backgrounds and share with them the spiritual message of hope and fortitude, applying Torah values to our lives, life skills to cope with our challenges and struggles.
What better opportunity to do so than spending a week with thousands of people who gathered together not merely for leisure – to ski, gamble or indulge in other forms of entertainment – but to study, learn and grow?
Does this conference have its flaws? Surely. No less or more than any conference. But what struck me above all, was the sheer opportunity of meeting so many beautiful souls, each with their own story, some lost, some less lost, some coming to remember, some coming to forget (to cite a popular lyric).
If we were in a critical mood, we surely could find many things in this gathering that can use improvement. Yet again, is there any event in this world that realizes all its potential? But one has to know that at times we ought to step back and appreciate the benefits of a particular experience.
The last night of the conference I sat in a corner crying. Not due to the amount of loneliness and pain I had witnessed in some people’s eyes – though that deserves its own few dedicated tears. I was weeping in joy – considering what G-d must be thinking as He looks down at His children from above. The Almighty clearly sees the trials and tribulations of the souls He has sent down to this earth. He also naturally recognizes the scars, wounds and tattoos that many of his children have endured; their sorrows and desperation, their cries and their yearnings.
But G-d also knows how little opportunity and knowledge so many of our brothers and sisters were given in our generation. We live in times of prosperity and freedom, but also in times of great apathy and ignorance. Only 10% of Jewish children receive a Jewish education today. And far less receive a relevant Jewish education. What can you expect from young men and women who may never have been taught, or taught in personal terms, the beauty of Torah and Mitzvot as a relevant guide to life? What can our dear G-d expect from a generation that followed the greatest genocide of all time, preceded by pogroms, inquisitions, crusades, expulsions and massacres of every which type?!
To see thousands of Jewish people – children and grandchildren of ancestors who sacrificed their lives for the Divine – is a living miracle. Each one of these souls is a walking wonder.
I met many wonderful people. Though one may disagree with some of their choices, it is impossible not to be taken by the sheer intensity and passion – not to mention creativity – these souls are investing in their Jewish journey. Regardless of the level of knowledge they are taking their Judaism very seriously. I inadvertently sat in one session where teenagers were play-acting reactions that they have to authority. I found it fascinating to see 15 year olds training each other utilizing Torah themes of individuality, youthful rebellion and discovering your personal identity. In another session led by Yael Unterman from Jerusalem, the Biblical story of Cain and Abel was being acted out and personalized, while in another session the audience was participating by putting themselves in the shoes of different Torah personalities – transforming these narratives into relevant experiences, in ways that I have not quite seen before.
I looked around at the faces of so many people around me all gathered here, thinking what G-d must be feeling. The Talmud tells us that the following words are inscribed in the Divine Tefillin: “Who is [special] as your nation of Israel, one unique nation on earth.”
Every soul was sent here for a particular mission. Every life is indispensable. Each soul is compared to a flame – “the Divine flame is the human soul.” As such, it has great majesty and strength.
I just feel the need to raise my cup to the dignity of each soul’s journey. We may never agree on the different ways people adapt to their life challenges; the paths they take to find relief, meaning and transcendence. But we do know that each soul’s journey is sacred. And when you meet another soul – and this week I had the privilege to meet many such souls – it is a great honor and gift. Above all, it is an opportunity. For G-d leads the footsteps of man: Every intersection in our lives carries enormous potency: Two souls that meet have the power to ignite, release and intensify the “flame” within each other’s souls and enrich each other in the process, we each can empower the other with tools to transform each other’s future.
To all those that I met at the conference this year, I share with you my commitment to reach out to you in an attempt to find ways through which we can together generate positive change to our society. It is my sincere hope that you will reciprocate.
And to all readers of this column, may I submit that this provides us with a powerful message with which we can enter into the New Year: Let us always remember that whomever you meet in the coming year will not be an accident. It will be an opportunity – a dual opportunity: For you to illuminate, inspire and warm that person’s soul, to inspire encourage that person to add and extra good deed; and for you to be illuminated and inspired in return.
When two people meet it is more than the sum of the parts; their synergy can plant a seed that will bear perpetual fruit. Let us commit to help each other carve away the clutter and distractions of our material lives and release the “angel” within.
Imagine, just imagine, of each of us applied that attitude to every person we met and to our every interaction…