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Ratzon & Purpose     Rosh Hashana 5776

09/17/2015 02:03:47 PM


Ratzon & Purpose
Rosh Hashanah 5776 – September 
Rabbi Elliott Tepperman

Leshana Tovah!

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack 
And you may find yourself in another part of the world 
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile 
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife 
And you may ask yourself 
Well...How did I get here? 

And you may ask yourself 
What is that beautiful house? 
And you may ask yourself 
Where does that highway go to? 
And you may ask yourself 
Am I right?...Am I wrong? 
And you may say to yourself 
My God!...What have I done?! 

Thank you, David Byrne.
Leshana Tovah to you and to all of the Talking Heads.
It is that time of year again where we ask: 
How did I get here? Where does this highway go? 
How am I right? How am I wrong?
What have I done and what am I meant to do? 

The Slonimer Rebbe, Shalom Noach , tries to help us think about our purpose in life by commenting on the following teaching:
[matai yagi’u ma’asai lema’asei avotai]
“Each and every Jew must ask: When will my deeds reach those of my ancestors, Abraham, Isaac & Jacob.” [And we will add] “Sarah, Rebecca, Leah & Rachel”

Shalom Noach asks, “How is this even possible?”
How could our deeds ever reach the greatness of our ancestors?
These are the founders our religion? 

And our ancestors are also our parents, grandparent, great-grandparents – 
generations who immigrated to America, who fought wars, who pursued freedom and equal rights.

And we have inspirational ancestors like Martin Luther King, Golda Meir, Adrienne Rich, Mordecai Kaplan, Leonard Cohen. 

We are obliged to ask:
“When will my deed reach those of my ancestors?” 

Shalom Noach begins his answer by saying: “Truthfully we don’t really expect to reach their level of greatness, we just have to try to connect at our own small level to their actions.”

Or perhaps the important thing is not reaching the level of their deeds, but simply aiming high. 
We are obligated to say: “When will my deeds reach the greatness of my ancestors?” 
to assure we don’t fail by setting our sights too low.

From the moment we are created each one of us has a unique role and purpose in repairing the world, a unique mission given to us from Heaven. 
No one can fulfill someone else’s mission. 
Even the simplest person has a unique mission that no one else is able to complete. 
Every person, though their role is small and simple must see to fulfilling their mission completely.
Happy are they who, while in this world, discern their earthly mission and fulfill it properly….
This is what it means that “Each and every Jew must say: When will my deeds reach those of my ancestors?” 

Just as our ancestors, our heroes and our role-models fulfilled their remarkable and holy purpose, so too must we complete the mission that only we can do.

Most of us, most of the time, don’t give a lot of thought to what our purpose is. 

We may find ourselves, letting the days go by… 
Lives filled with tasks, some of our own choosing and many that feel imposed: 
commuting to work, paying the bills, doing the laundry, making dinner, helping kids with homework, staring at email, fulfilling social obligations.

The banality of our daily life does not inspire us to look too deeply at our purpose.
And truthfully it can be a little frightening, this business of looking closely at our lives, let alone asking what our unique purpose might be.
But there are moments… perhaps at a reunion with old friends, when the question arises: “How did I get here?”

Or at the funeral of loved one, contemplating the meaning of their life and our own, when we find ourselves asking: “Where am I going?”
Or after reading an extraordinary book… 
“Is what I am doing right? 
Am I missing what I might uniquely offer to the world? 
What do I want do with my life?”

But though the question of our personal purpose may enter our mind for a moment, we rarely reach a point of clarity and the urgency of the question fades.

The Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur interrupt our daily routines with an opportunity to think about the why of our lives. 

Our liturgy asks us not only to contemplate our wrongs but to consider our renewal, to return to what matters most, to know that on this day our world and all its options can be reborn.
The Days of Awe are meant to be a mini-retreat for considering our purpose.

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to be part of a program for Jewish social justice professionals. 
We were tasked with articulating our personal purpose.

As should be obvious by now, I am encouraging you this Rosh Hashanah, to see if you can articulate your own purpose. 

Since I am asking, I feel obligated to share what I wrote at that retreat, though I am a little embarrassed by its predictability.

I wrote: “My purpose is - Spiritual, courageous and loving pursuit of shalom and justice for all people.”

Honestly what else would you expect from a rabbi like me? 
Maybe that it is obvious is a good thing, but every time I say it out loud it makes me feel vulnerable.

On Yom Kippur we read the story of Jonah and the whale. 
God speaks directly to Jonah and tells him: 
“Your purpose is to be a prophet and to help the people of Ninveh repent.” 
Jonah famously runs away in the opposite direction of his God given purpose.

Maybe Jonah runs away because acknowledging his calling was just too uncomfortable. 
Because it made him feel exposed. 
Announcing a personal sense of purpose can feel contrived and flies in the face of cool nonchalance. 

Honestly, I have always been a little suspicious, or maybe just jealous of people who seem to have it all figured out and know exactly what they want in life, pursuing it with a single-minded purpose.
I remember in college feeling somewhat in awe of friends who would say things like: “I am studying linguistics because I’ve always known I want to do work with artificial intelligence.”

I had no idea what I wanted to do. No sense of a clear calling.  
I majored in American Studies, very much the major of those who only knew they should finish college.

But at that retreat for Jewish justice leaders, I thought a lot about my purpose. 
I tinkered with it, adding and subtracting words like “humble” and “Jewish”, “dedication” and “truth”. I chose “shalom’ because it meant “peace” but, even more so, “wholeness.” 

Part of what I like so much about the Slonimer Rebbe’s teaching that each of us has a unique mission, is that we don’t have to get obsessed with a grand purpose. 
It might be that the expression of our purpose is quite simple. 

I like how my articulation of purpose applies to the work that I am doing now as a rabbi but also to the work I did before I was a rabbi.
What I really like about this articulation of purpose is that it feels equally clarifying to me as a parent and a friend.

As you consider your purpose this Rosh Hashanah, here are a couple of simple questions suggested at that retreat to test your articulation of purpose:

1.    Does living into this purpose bring me joy?
2.    Does living from this purpose contribute to the world?
3.    By investing my creativity and my precious life energy into living this purpose do I contribute to myself as well as others?
4.    Even in the face of disappointment or failure and when the world is looking hopeless, does my purpose motivate me to continue forward?  
Judaism addresses the question of purpose by asking:
“What do I yearn for in my life?”
“What does God desire for me?”

Both of these ideas are described in prayer and in rabbinic writing using the concept of ratzon. 

Ratzon is a hard word to translate to English because it can mean so many things. 
It means both the wish for something and the willingness to achieve it. 
It implies yearning with love and deep joy. 

Ratzon includes physical and practical wanting. It is the desire for a perfect peach or a glass of water on a hot day.

Ratzon in prayer is deep wanting, yearning for a better life, for love, for success, for meaning and for certainty of purpose.

If you are familiar with the word ratzon, it is likely from hearing it in prayer. 
Ken yehi ratzon is kind of a more formal amen, usually translated “May it be God’s will.”
When we put our arms around each other and pray for safety, happiness and peace – the same blessing that parents offer to their children on Shabbat, we conclude each line with ken yehi ratzon. 

Rabbi David Jaffe teaches that imbedded in the word ratzon is the root ratz – to run; to want something so clearly that we run towards it naturally, sometimes independent of our thoughts. 

Increased yearning and desire, is both a goal and a vehicle for spiritual growth.  Cultivating the awareness of the distance between the world as it is and our desire for the world as it could be.

Determining our personal ratzon –noticing what we most yearn for in our life is hard because so many of us are cut off from knowing what we honestly want. 
Because others – teachers, parents, friends, siblings, advertisers, society in general – 
put so many of their own expectations on us that we confuse what we want with what others want for us. 
The spiritual practice of ratzon is recovering our sense of what we deeply want.  

The sweet spot in the Venn-diagram of “search for purpose”, is finding the place where our yearning desire overlaps with God’s yearning desire.

We learn in Pirkey Avot:
Align your ratzon –with God’s ratzon so that God may act through you. 
Adapt your ratzon –to God’s so that God may impact the ratzon of others through you. - Avot 2:4

Let’s think about the question: “What does God desire for me?”

I realize that to even consider that God has a will or that God has a purpose for us is moving into theologically challenging territory for many of us. 

A short tangent on Reconstructionist theology: Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, could not believe in a God that was somehow separate from the universe and able to act independently and directly in the world. 

Rather, he understood God to be woven into the actions of the universe and somehow more than the sum of their parts. He described God as the force that propels our experience towards wholeness, peace and meaning. 

He uses the word “force” to help us move away from the understanding of God as a noun and towards an understanding of God as a verb that we experience through the realities of our existence.

Aligning our will with God’s will means responding with integrity to the truth of the forces that shape our existence and honestly acknowledging all the claims that reality makes on our life; both its limitations and its possibilities. 

Rabbi Rami Shapiro commenting on ratzon as described in Avot 2:4 suggests: 
“God’s will is reality, the way things are at this very moment. Aligning with God’s will means working with what is rather than what you wish things to be. 
Adapting your will to God’s will means acting in accord with reality.” 

Our congregant Alma Schneider started her own cooking business & blog, “Take Back the Kitchen”. She also started “Parents Who Rock”, a terrific community program and fundraiser. She has 4 kids, one with a complicated special need’s diagnosis - Prader Willi Syndrome.

So I asked her – “Would you want to write a little about where you find purpose as one of our congregant speakers on the topic this Rosh Hashanah?” After a little emailing back and forth, she wrote:

“Hi Elliott and sorry for the delay. As much as I would love to do this, I have to be honest; I have had a really rough end of summer with my son and every time I think about doing this, I imagine myself bursting into tears. I am so raw with him. Can I take a rain check?”

Clear purpose comes from recognizing the truth of what is. 
Clear purpose comes from serving those we love.
For many of us this is the window into what into what it feels like to find the alignment of our ratzon with God’s ratzon. 
It is the feeling to look for as we search for purpose in all aspects of our life.

I encourage you to think about where your deep yearning aligns with God’s as you understand it. 
If you prefer, where your ratzon aligns with reality. 

Let’s consider the story of Esther and Purim.  
We aren’t told a whole lot about Esther’s motivations for entering the competition to marry King Ahashveros. 
Perhaps she was just trying to respect the wishes of her Uncle Mordechai? 
Or maybe she was just trying to assure herself a good life? 
A life of security and luxury under the King’s protection. 
Maybe she had always dreamed of being Queen? 

When she first hears of the Kings decree to kill the Jews, she seems unwilling to accept it. 
Mordechai sends Esther a message charging her to plead with the King for her people. 

Esther thinks her uncle is crazy. 
Doesn’t he know that anyone who approaches the King without being summoned can be killed? She reminds him that she has less power than he might imagine, that she has not been summoned for 30 days. 
Why should she risk her own safety for a task that is so great, so insurmountable? 

Mordechai replies:
“Do not think that your fate is separate from ours. 
That you alone can escape the reality of this decree. 
Wake up! Pay attention! We are in real danger!
Who knows, perhaps you have attained a royal position for just this purpose?!” (Esther 4:14) 

It is often the choices we make without really knowing their meaning – accepting our first job, moving to a particular town, having a child, that determine how our purpose will be expressed.  

And just as often, realities we have no control over and do not chose, innate skills and preferences, the ups and downs of the economy, our health, and the needs of a family member.
Just as often these realities determine our purpose.

Circumstances, not entirely under Esther’s control: becoming queen and the decree to kill her people determined Esther’s purpose.

Esther’s story is not told from God’s perspective. In fact, God is absent from the story of Purim. 
The Jews have to figure out how to save themselves, how to act in alignment with God’s will all on their own, without directions.

Esther has to evaluate the reality of her power and its limits, the dangers to her and her people, and discern her purpose.

Similarly, our own stories are not told from God’s perspective. Our task in life is to look honestly at the reality we live in and the yearnings of our hearts and ask: “what purpose might we serve?” 

I would like to end with the words of one my favorite prayers said at the conclusion of the Amidah.
Yehiyu leratzon, imrey fi, vehegyon libi lefanecha Adonai tzuri vegoali

May it be that our ratzon,
 aligns with THE ratzon. 
That our purpose is expressed by the words we speak.
May it be that the yearnings of our hearts will be acceptable.
That we come to know and feel its alignment with reality.
May our unique purpose be revealed to us. 
May it be redemptive for us, for our people and for the world.
Ken yehi ratzon

1 Thank you to Rabbi Jonathan Slater and the IJS for sharing this text with me.

2 Thank you Selah, Bend The Arc, and Rockwood for this set of questions.

3Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, Aley Shur II, p. 257-258

4According to Rabbi David Jaffe,  “this dynamic affects women in a particular way.  One aspect of women’s oppression is that many girls and women are taught that their complete worth lies in taking care of others.  This message can make it difficult to know what one really wants separate from the needs and desires of others.”  

5Rabbi Rami Shapiro, commentary Ethics of the Sages

Sat, June 15 2024 9 Sivan 5784