But what is our GOAL? posted by R. Yosef Kanefsky

As the Elul moon waxes and the peak of our religious year nears, we each begin asking ourselves our “big questions”. This Elul, the big question that’s rattling me is “what, in the end, is our goal?” 

We, who put on tefillin every morning (if we are men), and maintain separate sponges and towels for milchig and fleishig, we who tear toilet paper before Shabbat and don’t touch our spouses 12 days out of each month, what, in the end, is our goal? What is that we really want? 

Do we want our children to don tefillin, maintain kosher homes and observe Shabbat as we do? Well, yes, this is something we want. But is this our goal? In the end, is the simple perpetuation of religious activity the sum total of what we are striving for? Or is it just the means? And if so, the means toward what?

 Along similar lines: we, who daily pray for, worry about, and support Israel, we who send our children to study and to serve there, what, in the end, is our hope? What is that we really want? 

 Do we want the State of Israel to be physically secure and materially prosperous? Well, yes. But is this it?  Are these the totality of our goals?

We are well-practiced in, and passionate about, the sacred activities of our Orthodox and Zionist lives. Yet as my Orthodox and Zionist life goes on, I suspect more and more deeply that the satisfactory fulfillment of these sacred activities does not constitute the goal at all, rather an elaborate set of means. And the big question that is jumping out at me from every corner this Elul is what then, is the goal?

There are surely many possible responses to this question, and please feel welcome to add yours to this discussion! As for myself, I am thinking about the following two statements, the first by the prophet Yishayahu, the second from our Sages. They strike me as articulations of ultimate Jewish goals.

“In the days to come… the many nations shall come and say, ‘let us go up to the Mount of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that He may instruct us in His ways, and that we may walk in His paths’, and instruction will come forth from Zion, and the word of God from Jerusalem”

“Our rabbis have taught: We support the non-Jewish poor with the poor of Israel, visit their sick with the sick of Israel, eulogize their dead, and comfort their mourners, in the interest of the ways of peace.”

Worthy goals for us to place in our sights, for the short and long term.  My own challenge for this Elul is to better understand how our various sacred means lead us to them.



5 Responses to But what is our GOAL? posted by R. Yosef Kanefsky

  1. I just thought of a nice goal, which seems simple as a concept, but is extraordinarily difficult to achieve. Maybe the goal of the Jewish people is to lead the world to a state of total and constant happiness.

    The Jews’ relentless pursuit of the goodwill of mankind should lead eventually to commonly practiced ethics, a universal understanding of justice, a prescription for spiritual enlightenment and and ultimately fulfilling system of belief and behavior, where our beliefs are in harmony with truth, and our behavior perpetuates individual and communal goodness.

    And maybe if we achieve this a big giant cosmic chocolate chip cookie will descend and we can eat it. Or maybe it’s the reward in itself! Still the cookie would be a nice gesture.

    • A friend pointed out that my comments could be misconstrued as poking fun. My cookie comment was my attempt at lightening what felt like a very weighty response — it’s just my style.

      Regarding the post itself it seems I also miscommunicated what I meant by happiness being the goal.

      That Jews should strive to create the conditions allowing for subjective happiness in each individual is certainly not what I meant.

      I meant that we are directed that all people be unified in an individual happiness, which is also harmonious happiness, and that the way to achieve this is through pursuit of a universally observed ethical standard.

      The reason I mentioned happiness when I could have just mentioned the pursuit of ethical perfection is because the latter is a mechanical description of the perfection and the happiness is the emotional one. I think that for most of us, we respond to emotional stimuli, and the concept of “peace” and “happiness” is one we should keep close to us as a motivator, so long as we do not conflate cooperative happiness (as achieved through being in harmony with the Ethical Standard) with momentary, subjective or selfish happiness.

      In the end I think he’s right that happiness should not be considered the goal — even if it is the goal as seen perhaps from God’s perspective, or even if the goal is the natural after effect of the preceding mechanism of ethical perfection — because it’s too easy for people to favor their own (subjective, individual, momentary, hedonistic) happiness with that happiness, which is the dividend coming from the practice of universal ethics.

  2. neworthodoxobserver says:

    Please consider reading R’ Gidon Rothstein’s book “We’re Missing the Point”

  3. bernard smith says:

    Tsedek, tsedek tirdof (Justice, justice you should pursue or perhaps better might be “Do the right thing”) would seem to be a clear goal set by the Torah. If then we treat the mitzvot as ends in themselves we will almost certainly fail to use the mitzvot as tools to help us better understand what is this right (the yashar) that we are striving for. Seems to me that the mitzvot are given to help us create a truly just and right-filled world. Seems to me that the mitzvot are to help shape us and make us be menschen when we engage in a world full of pain and anguish and misery. So perhaps there needs to be some kind of balance between a focus on the maintenance of mitzvot as tools in our tool kit and the way we then use those tools on ourselves to help us build a world filled with true righteous justice.- my bisrei zusei, my two cents…

  4. Isaac Shalev says:

    The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has a mission statement that belongs in this conversation. The are “dedicated to the idea that all people deserve the chance to lead healthy and productive lives.”

    Underpinning that mission is the belief in the value and potential of every human life – because we all are created in God’s image. I believe that Judaism is about helping and guiding individuals and communities toward that vision, and imbuing all are choices and actions with that intention, that kavanah.

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