The ABC's of Judaism
Embedded deep in our consciousness is the knowledge of life's precious secrets. The key to access them is the ABCs.
All systems are built on fundamental principles. The building blocks of the English language are the ABCs. So if you want to master reading and writing, you have to first learn the alphabet.
Judaism too has its "ABCs" upon which everything is based.
The "A" of Judaism
Here is a premise we can all agree upon:
Human beings are creatures of society.
If we were born in China, we'd probably be waving little red flags or a book of Mao's favorite sayings. If we were born into a Catholic family in Sicily, we'd probably be waving rosary beads.
Question the origins of your "life philosophy. "Do you essentially have a Greek approach to life? Roman? Eastern? Jewish?
Ask yourself: "If I had been born into a family of Muslim fundamentalists in Iran, what would I be doing with my life today?" If you don't ask this question, chances are quite good that today you'd still be a Muslim fundamentalist!
If we are profoundly influenced by society, how do we discern our primal beliefs and identity?
For the most part, unless we've done our own thorough investigation, "society" has most likely been our "default philosophy."
If we are so profoundly influenced by society, then how do we discern our primal beliefs and identity? How do we distinguish between right and wrong? How do we come to an independent conclusion about reality? How can we avoid being mere products of our society?
The "A" of Judaism answers these questions.
The Power of a Children's Story
Ideas seep into public consciousness in a variety of ways: through literature, schooling, religious practices, etc. One of the most powerful ways is through stories we're told as children. These stories convey many subliminal messages and make a lasting impression.
Anyone born in America has heard of Little Red Riding Hood. What do you think a young child would do if Grandma came to visit right after hearing this tale? He'd run behind his mother's skirt until they checked Grandma's teeth to make sure it's really her!
What's the message of this story? On a deep subconscious level, Little Red Riding Hood teaches children to be suspicious of Grandma. You can never really trust who she claims to be...
A Jewish Consciousness Story
Judaism also has its own stories that shape the consciousness of our children. Here's one from the Talmud:
While we are still in our mother's womb, the Almighty sends an angel to sit beside us and teach us all the wisdom we'll ever need to know about living. Then, just before we are born, the angel taps us under the nose – forming the philtrum, the indentation that everyone has. And we forget everything the angel taught us.
What lesson does this story forever imbue in the psyche of a young child?
Education is reaching what we already intuitively understand.
That we can look inside ourselves to learn about life. Embedded deep in our consciousness is the knowledge about the purpose of creation, how to love, how to reach our potential. It's all there. We just need to make the effort to remember!
This lesson sums up Judaism's view of education. Nobody can teach anyone anything new. Rather, a teacher conveys information in a way that allows the student to get in touch with what he already knows – and re-discover it on his own.
Define Your Terms and Gain Clarity
Judaism says if you probe into yourself, you can discover the definition of truth, reality, goodness, etc. All it takes is effort.
Let's illustrate how this works:
"Are you a bafoofstik?"
"What do you mean?! I can't possibly answer that question without a definition of bafoofstik."
But what if I ask you, "Are you in love?" Since you use the term "love" in your everyday life, you have some understanding of what I'm talking about.
So why do so many people end up in relationships that they think are "love" – but turn out to be "infatuation"?
Because they don't have a proper definition of the term "love." And unless you can clearly articulate a concept, you don't fully understand it.
The quest for truth is not a journey to the Far East or a climb to the peak of a mountain.
(By the way, the Jewish definition of love is "the pleasure of identifying people with their virtues.")
When we uncover knowledge that jibes with what the angel taught us, then we've found truth.
Inner knowledge is what allows us to rise above the influences of society and become independent. In the quest for truth, you don't have to journey to the Far East or climb to the peak of a mountain. Truth is right under your nose. Take your finger and place it on that "indentation." You'll stop talking and start thinking. The knowledge of reality is within each of us. This is the "A" of Judaism.
The "B" of Judaism
For a complete understanding of life, we need to know what is demanded of us. What were we created for? What is the meaning of existence?
Let's ask this question: What do all parents want for their children? To be healthy, strong, and full of joy. To be clear, purposeful and accomplished. To have everything good under the sun. Why? So they can get the most pleasure out of life. Only pleasure.
Your son might have a lot of fun playing PacMan, but you won't let him drop out of college to become a professional PacMan player. You know he deserves better.
God looks at us the same way. As our Father in Heaven, He created us to bestow goodness and pleasure upon us. And He gave us the Torah – our instructions for living – in order to teach us how to derive maximum pleasure from this world.
Human Beings are Pleasure-seekers
A pen is made for writing. But what if somebody told you that your pen is a toothpick? You'd say, "That's ridiculous. Why would it have ink in it? And it doesn't fit between my teeth!"
How do you determine the purpose of an object? Examine its construction. You know that a pen is for writing because that's what all its components indicate, and that's what it does best.
Judaism says that human beings were designed to have pleasure. In fact we see that every decision a human being makes is based on one final criteria: Will it give me pleasure?
Even when we do something altruistic, we do it because the act gives us pleasure.
Whether it's what to have for dinner, what to do with spare time, who to marry, or what career to choose – underneath it all, pleasure is the defining criterion. If it looks like pain, we avoid it. If it promises pleasure, we go for it. Even when we do something altruistic, we do so because it gives us pleasure.
God designed the world – and everything in it – in order to give us pleasure. The goal of life is to get that pleasure. Just as parents want their children to enjoy life, so too the Almighty wants His children to enjoy their lives to the fullest. That's the "B" of Judaism.
The "C" of Judaism
Now... if the Almighty wants us to have pleasure, and we all want pleasure, then what's gumming up the works? Why aren't we getting constant pleasure?
Everyone wants to be good. Everyone wants to fulfill his or her responsibilities. That is pleasurable. But we often take short cuts or choose the easy way out. We lose focus on what is real pleasure.
We want our marriage to work, but we don't invest enough attention and commitment. We want to get along with our parents, but we lack the tools to avoid arguments. We want our lives to be meaningful, but social pressure sways us. We want pleasure, but we make mistakes.
In Hebrew, there is no word for sin. The Biblical word "Chet" appears in reference to an arrow which "missed the target." The archer is not "bad." Rather, he made a mistake – due to a lack of focus, concentration or skill.
The problem of mankind is that we are confused about what we want out of life. That's why God is always trying to get our attention, helping to steer us away from wrong turns. If we're not aware of that, we miss many important lessons. That is the "C" of Judaism.
The "D" of Judaism
(In Judaism, three ABCs is not enough!)
The worst mistake of all is not getting an education.
What kinds of education do people usually get? Calculus, Shakespeare, planetary orbits, the process of osmosis, the shape of Australia...
If you don't know yourself, you don't know much of anything.
But when it is all over, you still don't know who you are. You don't know why you were created or what you are living for. And if you don't know yourself, you don't know much of anything.
Judaism says: Get an education about LIFE. It's buried deep inside you. The angel taught you, now find out why you were created. Understand the goal of life – and go get it. That's the "D" of Judaism.
The "E" of Judaism
When we say that God created us for pleasure, are we talking about a two-week vacation after working hard in the office all year? No. That pleasure will dissipate the moment you touch back down and have to find your lost luggage and fight traffic.
To get maximum pleasure, God gave us the Torah.
You've heard the Torah described variously as the law, the ritual, the commandments. But what does "Torah" literally mean?
Torah means "instructions." For example, Torat Hanehiga means driving instructions. Our Torah is Torat Chaim – "Instructions for Living."
You do your best to impart to your children all the wisdom you have about life. You tell them:
"You have to learn how to read and write."
He says: "Who needs it? I'm going to be a major league baseball player!"
"But sometimes you might want to write a letter or read the newspaper."
"Don't worry, Mom. When I'm a superstar ballplayer, private secretaries will do all my reading for me. Right now it's more important that I practice my game!"
So what does a good parent do? You are determined to convey your understanding about how to derive optimum pleasure out of life. You'll (figuratively) hit them on the head and say: "SIT DOWN AND READ AND WRITE!"
Our Father in Heaven does the same thing. He gave us the Torah – those same instructions for living the angel taught us before birth. Tools for how to have a happy marriage... a satisfying career... spiritual growth.
Focus on the Words
The Torah instructs us to put a mezuzah on our door post. But people often view the mezuzah as a ritual, something to perhaps ward off ghosts.
Open up the mezuzah and read what's inside. You'll learn about the greatest pleasures of life: how to be happy, how to love humanity and how to connect with God. Kiss the mezuzah when you go in and when you go out. But don't kiss it by rote. Ponder the words and you'll never lose track of the purpose of life.
The "A" of Judaism: The angel taught us everything we need to know. That's why we recognize truth when we find it.
The "B" of Judaism: The Almighty created us for maximum pleasure.
The "C" of Judaism: We are not sinners, we just make mistakes.
The "D" of Judaism: To avoid mistakes and achieve our potential, get an education about life.
The "E" of Judaism: The Torah is our instructions for living.