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Living a Life of Design - Five Towns Jewish Home - 6.26.2014

It is well known that chukim (laws) such as para aduma (red heifer) are commandments for which no comprehensible rationale is known. We are instructed to fulfill them despite the absence of such knowledge and the potential mockery that we will be subjected to at the hands of the gentile nations, simply because God has instructed us to do so. (See Rashi to Numbers 19:2, quoting Yoma 67b)

Such selflessness is as old as the Jewish nation itself. Shortly after initiating his advocacy on behalf of the people of Sodom, Abraham humbly inserted that he was but “dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27), and thereby not truly deserving of any favorable response. The midrash (Numbers Rabbah 9:15) tells us that as a reward for his having expressed himself so humbly, Abraham was rewarded that his children would be able to achieve purity throug para adumah, a chok that is based on the concept of selfless acceptance.

What was it about Abraham’s reaction that justified such a reward? The answer, I believe, can be found the following apparently paradoxical passage pertaining to chukim.

And now, O Israel, hearken to the statutes (chukim) and to the ordinances (mishpatim) which I teach you, to do them... You shall not add to the word which I command you, neither shall you diminish from it… Observe therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the peoples, that when they hear all these statutes, shall say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’   (Deuteronomy 4:1–2, 6)

What is fascinating about these verses is the ironic association between the observance of chukim in particular and the idea that such observance will bring other peoples to appreciate “(our) wisdom and (our) understanding”. As noted above, chukim are identified as those commandments for which no satisfactory reason or rationale is known. Yet somehow these same chukim, the commandments for which the nations will mock us, will lead the nations to proclaim that we are a ‘wise and understanding people’!

Judaism is more than a series of laws and values established to regulate human conduct. It is an experience, a way of life, an expression of God’s essence. By fulfilling its dictates in their totality, we do much more than simply adhere to God’s will. We connect directly to Him.

Nothing underscores this idea more than chukim. When we fulfill every aspect of the Torah, regardless of our ability to fully understand their rationale and motive, then our actions become indicators that we are motivated simply out of a true desire to fulfill God’s will. When the nations see our complete devotion, they come to esteem us, despite their inability to state what it is about us that is truly deserving of respect.

However, when we are selective in our adherence to God’s will, based on our own ability to comprehend, then we are isolating the actions from their divine source. No longer are we deserving of that special respect given to His emissaries; instead we are subject to external mockery, as individuals who choose to behave irrationally and mindlessly.

To consistently demonstrate deep, unfailing commitment, or to live up to any other value that we hold dear, is easier said than done. Not only do we struggle to dependably meet the high standards that we have set for ourselves, but we can often become confused about how our values may apply in particular situations, such as when two values seem to operate in direct conflict with each other. (One example of a values conflict is our desire to provide for our families while also spend meaningful time with them. Another illustration is when a better paying job than the one that we presently have opens up in a different company. In such cases we must weigh loyalty and fidelity against our need for self-actualization.)

This is where a coach can be particularly helpful. The role of a coach is to help others achieve clarity of vision and purpose, with the goal of realizing a sense of deep contentment. (This is not to suggest that a coach can or should replace a rabbi in the area of providing philosophical views or legal rulings. Rather, the coach works with the client to articulate and direct their existing goals and values, helping him to live a life of design rather than default.)

One tool that coaches use is a “values list.” Such lists contain countless ideals and principles, such as care, decisiveness, family-orientedness, financial success, loyalty, openness, service, and thoroughness. The idea is for clients to narrow down the list to a handful of values that they hold most dear and to use these guiding principles when faced with questions about work-home balance, career decisions and the like. 

A good way of starting to identify your core values and drives is to identify when in the past you felt really good and confident that you were making good choices. Find examples from both your career and personal life. What were you doing? Were you with other people? What other factors contributed to your happiness? If you were particularly proud of something, think about why you were proud.

The same holds true for feelings of satisfaction and contentment. Try to label your thoughts as you reflect with particular values (if you were proud to earn a degree or attend a child’s graduation, which values do those speak to?). Then, aim to prioritize your values list (not an easy task, I might add) in order to identify a short list that can guide you at a time of confusion and decision making.  

To create such a list may not seem like an exciting process. Nor is it necessarily easy to achieve. After all, who doesn’t want to say that they value everything that is virtuous? That said, by achieving increased clarity in what really drives us, we can start to live a life of clear design and deep fulfillment.