Monday, March 09, 2009

The Five Minute Recipe for Reviving the Living

Too often, life gets buried under the details of living. The demands of daily life produce empty, pedestrian lives. Perhaps Thoreau put it best when he said: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”. Much like caged gerbils running in the wheel, we run busily onward on the road to nowhere. And life squeaks along, as we run from e-mail to errand to carpool to shopping list.

But details are not the villain here; someone needs to take out the garbage and change the baby’s diapers. We need to tend to our basic needs, but we shouldn’t get lost in them. Tragically, the gerbil’s wheel often becomes a substitute for the road of life, with mundane minutiae remaining our highest aspirations.

Humans are hardwired to get lost in the here and now. We buy larger quantities of food at the grocery store if we’re shopping when we’re hungry, and we drive more recklessly when we’re late for an appointment. Parents at a Bar Mitzvah can be so distracted trying to make everything run properly, that they neglect to fully savor the celebration. (I can attest to that from personal experience). We are detail oriented trivia managers, making sure that all important tasks are completed in good time. And so we lose ourselves in minutiae, never to peer beyond the trivial and see the larger picture.

In Hassidic thought, there are two stages of consciousness: “greatness” (gadlut) and “smallness” (katnut). In “smallness”, we tend to the trivial and day to day. However, it is difficult to serve God with a mind filled with trivialities. True service of God occurs only in “greatness”, when man focuses on the bigger picture. Sadly, too many of us stay stuck in the details of the world of katnut, our daily gerbil’s wheel, and end up with lives of quiet desperation.

We all need to reach out and touch the bigger picture. But that’s easier said than done. As the renowned Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk famously said, “I could revive the dead; I have much more difficulty reviving the living.”

I hate to sound like a late night TV commercial, but yes, “in less than five minutes a day, you too can revive the living”. All it takes is a few easy steps, and you’re lucky that this offer is free!!

First we must consider our purpose in life. The Book of Esther reminds us that each person has a unique role to play in the world. Mordechai implores Queen Esther to save the Jewish people, because “perhaps that is why you have been appointed queen”. What Mordechai is telling us is that we all have a date with destiny, that wherever we may be, we each have a unique contribution to make.

We must find our destiny and consider why we are alive and what we are meant to accomplish. Destinies need not be as grandiose as Esther’s; we can also achieve our destinies by hugging children and listening to heartbroken friends. But destiny should never be ignored; there were certainly thousands of “Esthers” we don't read about, who ignored their date with destiny and were forgotten by history. We must lead our souls to “greatness”, and focus on our own date with destiny.

After that, we need to open our minds. One of the more intriguing Jewish ideas, best articulated by 19th century theologians, is the concept of “Torah Lishmah”, Torah studied for its own sake. What this means is the commandment of Torah study is not merely a utilitarian activity, meant simply to inform a Jew of his religious responsibilities, but rather a pathway to enlightenment. Torah study allows us to broaden our understanding and expand our intellectual horizons. Even a few minutes contemplating a passage from the Tanach or Mishnah can inspire serious thought and open our minds.

I have the privilege of being involved in a weekly study group that has studied Pirkei Avot and the Book of Genesis with Rashi. We have had serious debates about the acceptability of saying “what’s mine is mine”, and what the Bible means when it says that God “regretted” making man. In each of these discussions, we have moved our minds from “smallness” to “greatness”, and the rest of the day is elevated as a result.

And finally, we must open our hearts. How often do we remember to appreciate everything we have? When I wake up, even before I open my eyes, I begin to focus on all the tasks and problems of the coming day; and in the process, my heart gets covered in a thick coating of “smallness”, lacking appreciation for the blessing of a renewed life.

But there’s a better way. It is customary to recite a short prayer called “modeh ani” immediately after waking up. The prayer says :

“I offer thanks before you, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.”

To achieve “greatness”, we immediately open our hearts to appreciate the new day. Recently, a Holocaust survivor remarked to me how after the experiences of Auschwitz “every day is gift”. And this is true of everyone, whether or not we have endured a near death experience: every day is a blessing.

A consciousness of "greatness" doesn't take long to achieve. All three of these steps can be taken in less than five minutes: a few moments to focus on the modeh ani prayer, another few moments to focus on our purpose in life, and a few more moments to consider a passage in the Bible or Mishnah.

Or, as they would put it on late night TV:

"Yes, in just five minutes a day, you too can revive the living!"

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