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Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D. Headshot

God's Challenge

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Last week a distraught young man came to see me for counseling. He told me that he had graduated from college last year, had "finished" his formal education, found a job here in Los Angeles, and now was simply feeling spiritually lost. He said, "I don't know what life is all about. It can't just be about going to work, making money, paying my bills, trying to find a woman with whom to have a relationship, and hanging out with friends. What does it ultimately all mean, rabbi? Where does the meaning come from in life and what does Judaism say we are here for in the first place?"

I must admit I don't get people dropping in every day asking me to tell them the meaning of life, but on the other hand I am always glad when it happens. I suppose there are many different answers that I could have given this young man in that moment. I could have talked about the meaning we find in "tikkun olam," in projects and activities that help to heal the world. I could have talked about the meaning that comes from finding one significant "other" with whom you can create a spiritual partnership in life and who can bring meaning to your life everyday through the love you can share. But believe it or not, I spoke to him about this week's Torah portion instead.

In fact, whenever someone asks me what the meaning of life is according to Judaism, I just about always point them to this week's Torah portion. Its opening words are quite simply the seven most powerful Hebrew words in the Torah. They are what I like to call the "prime directive" of Judaism. God speaks to Moses and commands him to speak to the entire community of Israel and tell them "Kedoshim tehiyu kee kadosh ani adonai elohayhem" -- "Be holy because I your God am holy."

It is a simple yet profound challenge -- be holy, imitate God in our own lives. It is the fundamental lesson that for Jewish civilization, the ultimate goal of life is not "happiness," it is "holiness." This is what God wants us to embrace as our ultimate self-definition. "Be holy," challenges God, "because I who created you, who formed you from the dust of the earth, who raised you higher than all other animals and life forms, who gave you minds to think and a conscience with which to understand right from wrong, I who am the divine source of life itself and who embody the ideal of holiness, I who am the very definition of holiness challenge you to recognize that who I am is a fundamental part of your own essence as well."

Perhaps this is the very reason that the first thing the Torah teaches us about the nature of human beings back in chapter one of Genesis is that we are created in the image of God (B'tzelem elohim). Perhaps we are given this remarkable spiritual pedigree so that now, two books later, God can reveal the secret to the meaning of life. It is found in the striving every day for holiness.

What makes this portion so amazing, and what makes the search for the holy in our lives so extraordinary, is that for the Torah "holiness" isn't found by meditating on top of the mountain, or chanting sacred prayers of Hebrew in solemn assemblies -- holiness is found in the everyday wrestling with doing the right thing, even when it is difficult, even when it involves an enemy, even when it isn't easy, or convenient, or to our own advantage.

"Revere your mother and our father." "Have just weights and measures." "Treat the stranger in your midst as the home born." (What would biblical immigration reform look like?) "Do not steal." "Do not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another." "Do not defraud your neighbor." "Do not show deference to the rich or to the poor." "Do not take vengeance." "Do not bear a grudge." "Show deference to the aged and treat all individuals with respect and dignity."

These are the hallmarks of holiness. Our every day struggles with doing the right thing, even with those with whom we disagree, even with the strangers who live among us, even with those we consider to be our enemies in life. God says, "Do it even when it is difficult, and you will discover that the secret to happiness is the path of holiness." Imagine what life might be like for us all, if every day we used the qualities of godliness as our ultimate role model for personal behavior. Three thousand years ago our Torah challenged us to do just that. Maybe the time has finally come.