Parashat Shlach Lecha — A Sense of Purpose

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Face Book, gave the Commencement Speech this year  at Harvard University. It caused quite a stir in the Jewish world. At the conclusion of his hour long speech Zuckerberg, said that whenever he faces a challenge he recites a prayer that he also sings to his daughter at bedtime.  He told the commencement audience that the name of this prayer is “Mi Shebeirach” and  that it goes like this:

“May the source of strength, who blessed the ones before us, help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing.”

Sound familiar? He ended his message to the graduating seniors by charging the Harvard Class of 2017 to find the courage to make their lives a blessing.

Zuckerberg’s shout out to his Jewish heritage was enough to garner headlines in news outlets around the world. It also raised a question. Hadn’t Zuckerberg publically identified himself as an atheist in the past? Zuckerberg responded, “No. I was raised Jewish and then I went through a period where I questioned things, but now I believe religion is very important.”

In his speech to Harvard seniors Zuckerberg reminisced about the night he launched Facebook from his dorm room when he was a student there.  He remembered telling a friend that he was excited to connect the Harvard community. He predicted that one day, someone would connect the whole world.

 “The thing is,” he said, “It never even occurred to me that someone might be us. We were just college kids. We didn’t know anything about that. There were all these big technology companies with resources. I just assumed one of them would do it. But this idea [that all people want connect] was so clear to us! …….. So we just kept moving forward, day by day.”

Zuckerberg told the Harvard Commencement class that the key to success was to have a sense of purpose in your life, and to communicate that sense of purpose to others. His purpose, he said, was never to build a company, although he did build a company. His purpose was never to become wealthy, although he did become extremely wealthy.  His purpose was to make an impact on the world by connecting us to one another.

It is vital, he counseled, to keep moving forward with that sense of purpose.  When I read his words it dawned on me that this is precisely where the Israelites  fail as described in in this week’s Torah portion.  As you may recall, two years after the Exodus from Egypt, Moses leads the Jewish people to the border of the Land of Canaan. At the border he sends twelve spies to reconnoiter the Land. The spies return with a mixed report. Yes, the Land is a rich land, a land flowing with milk and honey. But it is also well defended by the inhabitants there. Ten of the spies say that the Israelites are too weak to conquer the land. Two of the spies urge the Israelites forward. With G-d’s help, they argue, they will prevail. The people rebel. They are afraid. They threaten to kill Moses and replace him with a leader who will return them to the security of slavery in Egypt.

In that commencement speech, Mark Zuckerberg speaks of a similar experience. Two years into the development of Face Book, he writes, the “start-up dream” came true. Bigger companies wanted to buy Face Book. Zuckerberg did not want to sell. He wanted to see if they could connect more people.  Almost everybody else wanted to take the money and run. He had a rebellion on his hands. Tensions flared. Within a year, every single person on the management team was gone. He was left feeling alone. He began to doubt himself. Years later, he said, he understood that this is what happens when a group loses its sense of having a higher purpose.

This is what happened to the Israelites as they were poised to enter the Promised Land. Somewhere between their acceptance of the covenant at Sinai and this crucial moment of decision to enter the land, they lost their sense of having a higher purpose. Somewhere in their journey they lost their sense of being a Holy People with a mission. Without that, they could not move forward. They too wanted to sell out, to return to Egypt.

We all know what happened after that. They would not enter the Promised Land. Instead, they would wander in the wilderness for the next thirty eight years until that generation died. It would be up to their children, to rediscover their purpose and move forward to change the world.

Without a sense of purpose, without a feeling that we are part of something greater than ourselves, it is easy to get lost in the wilderness.  Early in our morning prayers, toward the beginning of the Siddur, there is an unusual prayer. I call it “unusual”, because most prayers are hopeful. We want prayers, especially those we recite in the morning, to help us to meet the challenges of the day ahead. But after reciting this prayer, one might just want to climb back into bed.   “What are we?” goes the prayer, “Of what meaning is our life? What good is our kindness and loyalty? What comes of our strength? Everything we accomplish disappears like vapor in the air. There is little difference between human beings and dumb beasts!” End of paragraph. Pretty bleak, isn’t it? This cry of existential anguish, this look into the abyss, this howl of despair is, fortunately, rejected in the paragraph that immediately follows. “BUT,” the prayer continues, “We are the children of Abraham and Sarah, who You loved and to whom You promised, “You shall be a blessing”; We are the descendants of Isaac and Rivka, of Jacob and Rachel and Leah, who You adored.” Having said that, our prayer concludes on a high note: “How good is our portion, how pleasant our lot, how beautiful our heritage!” As Jews, our lives are not in vain. We remind ourselves that we have a divinely ordained purpose in our world.

With the help of G-d and with that sense of purpose, we will never get lost in the wilderness. We will never decide to turn back, to give up, to return to Egypt. We will move forward and push on, day after day, with confidence that we are making progress toward our Promised Land.

Shabbat Shalom