A Life of Meaning
The story is told of a young rabbinical student. Perhaps he was a Hasid from Eastern Europe who devoted his life to studying religious texts. Or maybe he was a student at the Hebrew Union College who dedicated himself to serving the Jewish community. It could have been either of them.
One night, without any apparent reason, this pious young man closes his books and runs out of his house into the middle of the street, crying out, “What is the meaning of life? I can’t go any further, I cannot study one additional verse of Torah without knowing the meaning of life.”
On hearing his cry, his neighbors come running to his aid. They try to calm him down, to convince him to return to his studies, but to no avail. Finally, they suggest that he take a trip to his rabbi’s house, a few miles away.
The young man leaves immediately for the rebbe’s home. When he finally gets in to see him, he whispers nervously, “Rabbi‐‐what is the meaning of life? I must know, I can’t go on any longer, I cannot study another page, until I know: What is the meaning of life?”
The rebbe rises from his seat, walks over to the young man, looks him over very carefully‐‐and suddenly slaps him.
“Why, Rebbe? Why did you slap me? What have I done? All I did was ask, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ ”
“You fool,” answered the rebbe. “You have such a good question‐‐why would you exchange it for a lousy answer? ‐‐ From questions we can learn, but answers are only so many words.”
There are countless times in all our lives when we struggle, trying to make sense of it all. As soon as a cogent answer presents itself, along comes another question to take its place.
A teenager dies in a fiery car crash ‐ and we struggle to make sense of it.
In Israel the peace process is shattered by murder – acts of terror ‐ and we cry as we try to make sense of it.
A loved one lingers on life support ‐ and we struggle to make sense of it all.
And our quest for meaning is not limited to understanding life’s tragedies.
Euphoric with the joy of a birth or a wedding, we try to seize the beauty and the power of that moment hoping it will spill over into the rest of our lives.
When we celebrate as a community, be it a birthday, a Bat Mitzvah or a holiday such as this, we would bottle the light and the warmth if we could, so that we could relive the experience again and again.
Our celebrations urge us to live life to its fullest, to fill our lives with the joy we feel when everything seems to fit like a finely crafted jigsaw puzzle.
The thing is, unlike a puzzle, our lives are made up of an infinite number of pieces. Just when you think you have it all figured out, life deals you another piece, forcing you to reconsider the whole picture.
Never mind … as the rebbe said, “Why trade a perfectly good question for a simple answer.”
This teaching is a key to understanding the story of Abraham we will read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.
Now there is no doubt that Abraham was a man on a spiritual journey. He was the first person to acknowledge that there is but one power over the earth and the stars. On hearing God’s call, Abraham picked up his family and all their possessions and moved from the land of his father to enter into an eternal covenant. He circumcised himself, his sons, and all the males of his household as a sign of that covenant. Clearly Abraham had a close, personal relationship with God. Then we read:
“Vayehi achar had’varim haeleh, v’haelohim nisa et Avraham.”
“And it happened after all of these things, that God put Abraham to the test.”
After all these things, after all that Abraham had done to cement his relationship with the Eternal, after all he had done to prove his loyalty to the living God, why was it necessary to submit Abraham to this cruel test? Was his faith not clear? Was it not pure? Of course it was. If ever there was an unwavering believer in God, Abraham was the one.
I suggest that this was precisely the reason God tested Abraham. Abraham thought he had all the answers. He had it all figured out ‐‐ the one God of the universe who controlled all destiny had chosen Abraham and his offspring to inherit the land. God had told him so himself:
“I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
And you shall be a blessing.”
By demanding that Abraham sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, the one on whom the entire future of God’s people depended, God forced Abraham into a confrontation with impossible questions. There would be no easy answers for Abraham then, nor for us now. The story leaves us only with unresolved questions:
What is it that is expected of me?
How far should I be willing to go for what I believe?
Why didn’t Abraham argue with God?
And those questions only lead us to others:
Does life have meaning or intrinsic value?
Why are we here?
These are difficult, sometimes painful questions, questions that defy easy answers. We are left to conclude that ultimately, it is not the answers we seek, but our ongoing search for meaning that brings value to our lives.
More than anyone else, Victor Frankl, Jewish psychiatrist and philosopher, made us aware that the search for meaning is at the center of the human experience. Frankl focused on the human need for a sense of purpose, self‐fulfillment, and the drive to attain a higher meaning in life. As an inmate in Auschwitz he observed that, “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future—his future—was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay.”
The search for meaning is not limited to dire circumstances or the end of life. It is a basic building block of human existence and it comes into play from the very beginning of life.
A young baby wakes early one morning. Feeling the discomfort of hunger, a wet diaper or some vague anxiety, she cries out. Nearby her mother wakes up, and attends to her cry. As she picks up her daughter, she calls her by name. Their eyes meet, and face to face, they cuddle and coo. The baby watches her mother’s face as she changes and feeds her, and their eyes meet continually. Mom speaks, making soothing, playful sounds. The baby is calm and relaxed now, sure of getting the attention she needs.
This baby has experienced one of the first, early lessons that will shape her faith and inform her sense of meaning in life. However, if the quality and consistency of her feeding and changing are inadequate, if there is no person (or persons) with whom she can share a relationship of mutual love, her trust in the world and in herself would be outweighed by distrust and despair.
We would do well to take this lesson to heart ourselves. Martin Buber reminds us that all real life is found in our encounters with others. Only through contact with our parents, a lover or friends do we honestly know ourselves. When we stand in relationship with others, we engage in the human process of making meaning.
Meaning, even at its most basic level, always involves figuring out how you fit into the world around you. The search for meaning is the process of developing faith in your environment, in those around you and in the power that sustains our world. Faith is about affirming the truth that the world is essentially good, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.
Faith in this sense is not a statement of belief. Rather, we should think of faith as a verb, it is a process in which we are continually engaged. Faith, as psychologist John Fowler puts it, “is an active mode of being and committing, a way of moving and giving shape to our experiences of life.” Faith is our way of making meaning. While we may say “I believe in this, or I believe in that,” faith is the process of coming to some understanding and then allowing doubt to challenge that understanding as we move toward higher and higher centers of value.
In this sense I would say that it is no better to be completely convinced that there is a God than to be absolutely certain that God does not exist.
The meaning of life is found not in a particular belief, but in the process of faith we develop along our way.
A young woman set her foot on the path of life. “Is the way long?” she asked. And her guide said, “Yes, and the way is hard, and you will be old before you reach the end of it. But the end will be better than the beginning.”
But the young woman was happy and she would not believe that anything could be better than these years. So she played with her children and gathered flowers for them along the way and bathed with them in the clear stream: and the sun shone on them and life was good. The young woman exclaimed, “Nothing will ever be lovelier than this!”
Then night came, and with it, storms. The path was dark, and the children shook with fear and cold. The woman drew them close and covered them with her mantle– and the children said, ‘We are not afraid, for you are near and no harm can come.” And the woman said, “This is better than the brightness of day, for we have learned to find courage in the company of others.”
The days passed, and when the children looked at the never‐ending horizon, they became filled with despair. But the mother took them by the hand and turned them to look back across the long road they had traveled. Together they recalled the joy they had shared and their many accomplishments along the way. And at the end of the day the woman felt deep peace in her heart–for she knew they had experienced great hope.
With the next day came strange clouds that darkened the earth – clouds of war and hate and evil. The children groped and stumbled and the woman said, “Look up, lift your eyes to the light.” And the children looked and saw above the clouds an everlasting glory, and it guided them and brought them beyond the darkness. That night, the mother said, “This is the best day of all, for we have been touched by God and we have grown in faith.”
This, my friends, is what brings us together on this Rosh Hashanah. Tonight we come together as a community of Jews hoping to find meaning, praying to be touched by God’s presence. We come together to ask questions when we might otherwise assume that we have it all worked out.
Our quest is not limited to these Days of Awe. Every time we gather to share words of Torah, whether at Shabbat Torah Study or a class, we discover that Jewish study is about living and wrestling with the questions. And of course, Shabbat worship is a perfect time for us to allow ourselves to give voice to our questions, to lift them from our hearts in the presence of a supportive community. As we do, we move further along our spiritual journey to a life filled with purpose and blessing.
The days went on, and the weeks, the months, and the years, and the woman grew old, and she became little and bent. But her children were tall and strong and walked with courage. When the way was hard, they helped their mother. At last they came to a hill. Beyond the hill they could see a shining road and golden gates flung wide open.
The woman said, “I have reached the end of my journey. Now I know that the end is better than the beginning, for I am at peace, my children can walk alone, and their children after them.” As the gates closed after her, her children said, “We cannot see her, but she is with us still. She is more than a memory: she is a living presence.”