Those of us firmly living in the postmodern milieu understand that there is no inherent meaning in anything. Modernism believed, and even obsessed over, the Truth that could be found. However, postmodernism – the zeitgeist in which we all currently live – knows that all truth is limited. All meaning in the world is subjectively held by the individual.
Jewish mysticism (and I assume many other wisdom traditions), have long embraced the subjectivity of universal truth. There exists a teaching that explains why one of the words for ‘word’ in hebrew is תֵבָה (tei-va). In modern Hebrew a תֵבָה is a chest, an ark, or a crate – something in which one stores their trappings or precious goods. However, in the Bible, the word תֵבָה is used for both Noah’s ark and the basket in which Moses is placed. In the ancient usage, a תֵבָה is something which has no rudder – it merely floats where the currents of life will it to go.
By connecting these two definitions, we come to understand that a word – a תֵבָה – is simply a box. This box carries with it the meaning we are trying to express to the person with whom we hope to communicate. However, our boxes travel on the roads of interpretation, and often times find their resting place altogether foreign from their originally intended location. As Jason Mraz so eloquently puts it, “Do you ever wonder what happens to the words that we send // Do they bend, do they break from the flight that they take // And come back together again // With a whole new meaning in a brand new sense // Completely unrelated to the one I sent” (Did You Get My Message).
In this way, I always teach my students that the liturgical words comprising our prayers are merely boxes. They have no inherent meaning, but rather, we must fill their shells with the thoughts and feelings of our hearts. For example the phrase, ה’ אֶחָד וּשְׁמו אֶחָד (God is one and His name is one) could mean: God is one and She has one name, God is one and Her name is unified, God is one and ‘One’ is Her name . . . or anything else! The meaning of the phrase is up to me alone. By choosing a meaning, I chose in what I believe – or at least in what and to what I am believing in and praying to this day.
So too, Moses tells B’nei Israel, “For this is no empty thing for you – it is your life” (Devarim 32:47).
Surely the Torah is made of words – mere boxes devoid of inherent content. In fact, our entire life is built of mere boxes. However, Moses is imploring us to not see the Torah, to not see life, as empty. We are charged to read it, debate over it, and fill it with meaning. Choosing to fill the Torah and life with meaning in the face of emptiness is the essence of choosing life.
Our world is so broken, and as Rav Shlomo says, “How you think about God is how you think about people.” So my friends, I beg you to fill all the words in our high holiday mahzors with love and compassion – with peace and understanding. Then and only then can we look one to the other and see those very characteristics. Then and only then can we, all as one, look forward to a year that is both good and sweet.
Gemmar Chatima Tova and Shabbat Shalom