Is G-d Smiling?
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
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
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
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”
Imagine, just imagine, of each of us applied that attitude
to every person we met and to our every interaction…