The Meaning of Life

It’s so wonderful to see families together today, on the holiest day of the year. Part of what makes the holidays so special and so meaningful is everyone being here. We are often so busy in our daily lives that we don’t take the time to think about what’s most important: our interpersonal relationships.

I’d like everyone to think for a moment of your answer to the following question: What is the meaning behind your attending synagogue services? Is it to repent for sins, to be with friends and family, to remember loved ones, or something else? What meaning do you find in being here and how will you transfer that meaning into tomorrow?

Many people have pondered the question “What is the meaning of life” but not too many have found satisfaction doing so. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy taught us that the meaning of life is 42, interestingly the number of stops the Israelites took on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, but it never explained how this is the case or what it means. Monty Python tried to teach us The Meaning of Life “Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.” However, this is too simplistic for my tastes. What then is the meaning of life?

As a rabbi I look to God’s teachings in the Torah and the commandments to attempt to arrive at an answer. We learn from Rabbi Simlai[1] that there are 613 commandments in the Torah. 248 are positive commandments (where one is told to “do” something) which the rabbis say correspond to the number of bones in one’s body, and 365 are negative commandments (when one is told to refrain from doing something), corresponding to the number of sinews in one’s body or the number of solar days in most years. The contention is that by following these commandments, we will do what God wants of us and therefore will follow our mission in life.

This is all well and good but Rabbi Simlai’s words do not end there. He asserts that King David reduced the 613 commandments to 11 principles in his writing Psalm 15: Walking uprightly, working in righteousness, speaking the truth in one’s heart, having no slander upon one’s tongue, doing no evil to one’s fellow, not taking reproach against one’s neighbor, despising those who are evil, honoring those who fear God, acting on self-imposed restriction, not giving money on interest and not taking a bribe against the innocent. The 613 commandments get reduced down to 11 ethical principles, characteristics of a mentsch.

Rabbi Simlai then has the commandments reduced to six by means of the Prophet Isaiah: Walking righteously, speaking uprightly, despising any gains that come from oppressing others, not holding bribes, not hearing false accusations and not looking upon evil. Again we are focusing on moral attributes as opposed to ritualistic aspects. It appears that the focus needs to be on utilizing the rituals in order to be a more ethical Godly person. Next we are reduced to the 3 principles of the prophet Micah: to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly before God. Finally we have the one principle of Habakkuk: seek me and you shall live.

What is this reduction of commandments into ethical principles all about and how do they tie into life’s meaning? To me it boils down to Habakkuk’s single principle-we each need to seek out God and in doing so we find our mission in life. However, there is no one set course of action that every person needs to follow. For those who are naturally structured, type-A personalities like me, this might be unsatisfying but what I seek out, the path I take to get there, and what I find as my end result will likely be quite different from yours. Each of us must individually look for our own unique mission, how we can serve God and those around us.

My Grandmother Lucille Frenkel, who is turning 85 this year and who has been writing poetry for 50 years, has a different answer as to what life means and what we are supposed to do with the limited time that we have. This is her poem Progressions:

Knowledge I asked when I was young,

The purpose of Life-how did all become.

Answers, I yearned for and sought a reply.

I searched for the answers to my every “Why?”

Truth was my objective-my foremost goal

Was to find exact truth for my questioning soul…

But Life’s response (as much time went by)

Just posed newly-found questions within its reply.

Years passed-and I learned-and asked no more

About plan of all Being, about what Life is for.

Life withheld its answers until I knew

That what really mattered was what I could do

To change my whole focus and my attitude

So to see living splendor with increased gratitude-

And to live every day with more faith and my prayer

That I add to existence all the love I can share

While still I do live-while still I am there

To offer life my efforts.[2]

What my grandmother is trying to teach in this poem is that life is about transforming our outlook and out attitude, knowing what to let go of and what to retain. This is a goal which is more easily said than done. In Pirkei Avot[3] the five students of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai are given different attributes. The two of note are the bookends: Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanus, a “cistern who never loses a drop” and Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh, an “ever-flowing spring.” Which is better? According to Rabbi Yochanan, the cistern is the preferred quality, so much so that if they were on a scale Rabbi Eliezer would outweigh the other four students combined. After all, he has a photographic memory: he can remember every fine point of Halacha, every teaching that he has been taught. Not so fast, says Abba Shaul: the preferred quality is actually that of Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh, who was able to not only take things in but add to them, forming new ideas and interpretations in Torah. He was able to “separate the wheat from the chaff,” not getting bogged down in the unessential minutia that he was taught but knowing what was truly important to add to and to discard.

Rabbi Phineas A. Weberman in his book The Rabbi’s Message highlights the importance of being like Rabbi Elazar as opposed to Rabbi Eliezer. He comments: “some people retain within themselves all the character traits resulting from the ups and downs of their life and become schizophrenic, fluctuating erratically in their moods from malevolence to benevolence. They are like the sponge, absorbing everything. Others are like a funnel, spending an entire lifetime on earth and ending up as immature as infants. A person who is compared to a strainer is arrogant and haughty as a result of his successes, and bitter, miserly and unfriendly because of his past troubles. The ideal person is one who utilizes his past experiences for the good. He is humble and merciful, remembering his hard times, and is cheerful and charitable, expressing thanks for his good days.”[4] Rabbi Weberman points out that we are NOT inflexible but rather are able to change our behavior for the better, taking lessons from both our good and our challenging experiences. Life experience is meant to move us towards this ideal. There is no quick fix, no simple solution moving us from point A to point B. The only solution is to constantly work on ourselves, day by day becoming the people we are meant to be.

What is the meaning of life? I don’t have a simple answer to this oft-asked question. However, I believe that there is so much more to life when we strive to do our best each and every day, living with purpose and meaning. The same is true for those who came before us and who we are gathered here today to remember. They worked tirelessly each and every day so that we would have a better life. They taught us the values by which we live: the importance of family, of being part of a community, of always doing the right thing. We remember them tucking us into bed or reading us a bedtime story, sharing with us stories of what things were like in the “old country,” taking us to our first day of school, teaching us to drive our first car, walking down the aisle with us on our wedding day, seeing us at our graduation. Some of us still set a chair for them, for their presence is still very much with us. The meaning they have given to life in all they have built and all they have created, especially in giving us life, is something for which we should thank and praise them every day.

As we approach another Yizkor, an opportunity given by our tradition to remember those who are no longer physically with us, though who remain spiritually eternal, let us remember the lessons that they have taught us through the lives they have lived. Let us continue to feel their presence in our lives. May we turn to them when we need strength, hear their voice when we need advice, feel their hand caressing us, telling us that everything will be ok, reminding us that we are not alone. Let us remember the immortal words of the anonymous poet, “if you continue to love the one you lose, you will never lose the one you love.” As we prepare to recite Yizkor, may we keep in mind these words of affirmation from James E. Miller Willowgreen:

AN AFFIRMATION FOR THOSE WHO HAVE LOST

by James E. Miller Willowgreen

 

I believe there is no denying it: it hurts to lose.

It hurts to lose a cherished relationship with another,

          or a significant part of one’s own self.

It can hurt to lose that which has united one with the past, or that which has

          beckoned one into the future.

It is painful to feel diminished or abandoned,

          to be left behind or left alone.

Yet I believe there is more to losing than just the hurt and the pain.

For there are other experiences that loss can call forth. 

I believe that courage often appears,

          however quietly it is expressed,

          however easily it goes unnoticed by others:

          the courage to be strong enough to surrender,

          the fortitude to be firm enough to be flexible,

          the bravery to go where one has not gone before.

I believe a time of loss can be a time of learning unlike any other,

          and that it can teach some of life’s most valuable lessons:

 

In the act of losing, there is something to be found.

In the act of letting go, there is something to be grasped.

In the act of saying “goodbye”: there is a “hello’ to be heard.

For I believe living with loss is about beginnings as well as endings.

And grieving is a matter of life more than of death.

And growing is a matter of mind and heart and soul more than of body.

And loving is a matter of eternity more than of time.

Finally, I believe in the promising paradoxes of loss:

 

In the midst of darkness, there can come a great Light.

At the bottom of despair, there can appear a great Hope.

And deep within loneliness, there can dwell a great Love.

I believe these things because others have shown the way—

          others who have lost and then have grown through their losing,

          others who have suffered and then found new meaning.

So I know I am not alone:

          I am accompanied, day after night, night after day. [5]

 

[1] Babylonian Talmud Tractate Makkot 23b

[2] My grandmother has made a vow not to publish her work except for family. This poem is freestanding (not part of a book).

[3] Chapter 2 Mishnah 11

[4] Rabbi Phineas A. Weberman, The Rabbi’s Message: Modern Thoughts on Ancient Philosophy (New York: Bloch Publishing Company, 1975), p. 114.

[5] From his book A Pilgrimage Through Grief: Healing the Soul’s Hurt Through Loss.

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