The meaning of life question has classically been considered one of the real ‘biggies’ – one of the five or so questions that are always on the list of most important questions any individual should be asking. It ranks up there with ‘Is there a god’ or ‘What happens after death’ - a very elite group. But as we all know, that does not mean that we’re all spending time every day thinking about it. We’re probably not even spending time once a year thinking about it. Many of us are not even doing it once in a lifetime. University students generally don’t have it on their core requirements for a well-rounded education. Students of Jewish lore, including budding rabbis and accomplished scholars, rarely spend a significant amount of their precious time on this question. Many of us clock in at zero.
We spend time thinking about a lot of other questions. We think about losing weight, about balancing the budget, about our kids, our parents, our spouses, our favorite celebrities, etc., etc. We can kill an entire morning thinking about health. We while away the hours wondering what to wear or what to buy, or who’s going to win whatever it is they’re going to win, who was wearing what, or who we would like to put in their proper place. The intellectuals among us think about science, literature, politics, or any of a million other lofty topics. We spend an increasing amount of time thinking about the latest high-tech gadget to hit the market that will further erode our ever-decreasing abilities to think creatively.
But almost none of us, with the possible exceptions of a few philosophers, an occasional mystic or two, and the rare genuine holy person, spend any serious time really getting to the bottom of it all. Most of us are lucky if we manage to stumble over this question once a year. The overwhelming majority probably wait for some life-jarring incident like a funeral of a close friend or being informed of a terminal illness. Why are we so reluctant to delve into this most important of all matters?
Here’s a short list of some of rationalizations we give for this delinquency:
1) Who’s got the time for this?
2) There is no meaning to life
3) I already read the answer on a box of herbal tea
4) Isn’t there a Monty Python movie about this?
5) I wouldn’t know where to begin
6) Look, I’m really not that into religion
7) I’ll wait till I’m about to die
8) I’ll never really get the answer anyway
9) I heard a great joke about that once
10) I already lead a productive life
11) Oy vey
12) Isn’t studying Torah and doing mitzvot good enough?
Etc., etc., etc.
If you find yourself on this list, you are a perfect candidate for never seriously thinking about what is probably the most important question in all of human existence. It is probably the most burning issue in Judaism. This assertion should not be taken as a personal insult as much as a call of alarm. Rather than thinking, ‘The nerve of those guys to accuse me of not caring about the meaning of life’, you should think, ‘Wow, I really should rearrange my priorities and find some time to think about the meaning of life’. If you can manage that significant realignment, you’re one big step ahead of almost everybody.
But first a question must be addressed: what is the need for thinking about the meaning of life if one is already leading a productive life? First off, we must state that this is a perfectly valid question and not really a rationalization at all. Leading a productive life can be highly meaningful, partially justifying the feeling that no more is necessary. There are, however, further considerations that should be taken into account – considerations that are both practical and spiritual.
The practical side is simply the matter of maintaining the motivation to keep on keeping on. We live lives in which we frequently find ourselves bombarded with a relentless barrage of things that we have to do. Included in this barrage are genuinely necessary things, such as making a living, maintaining a home, raising children or taking care of aging parents, and a million other assorted tasks that essential for the 21st century lifestyle. Also included are those million other things that have assumed a status of essential even though they really aren’t, such as keeping up on Facebook and other social networking arenas, surfing the web, watching TV, going to the gym, going shopping, and just trying to have a good time in life. Needless to say, keeping up with all this is rather demanding. There are ample opportunities to come within a hair’s breadth of throwing in the towel and just giving up, even temporarily. Many of us cannot afford this luxury except at scheduled times. Knowing why we have to do the things we have to do certainly cannot hurt. If one has a somewhat clear picture of the ultimate goal, whatever that might be, it makes all the drudgery considerably easier.
Of course a side benefit/hazard of pondering over the meaning of life is the unsettling possibility that many of those essentials won’t seem as essential after sifting them through some sort of purpose of life filter. Who knows if some TV program will seem like a waste of time, or the latest sports news just won’t be as important, or the outfit somebody or other wears won’t keep you up at night. There will be casualties - but those casualties will gradually assume the form of junk food after a sustained and successful health food diet – they just won’t be missed all that much. For those who have trouble picturing so drastic a change in life, many of those ‘non-essentials’ needn’t be discarded even after steering a more meaningful course in one’s life. Priorities change, but life goes on as before.
The spiritual side is a little deeper and won’t necessarily hit everyone at first. Who are you? Where are you heading? What is God? How can you make yourself a better person? What should you be doing to make your life more spiritually fulfilling? There are many more questions along these lines that could and should be asked by all of us, but they simply aren’t. Why aren’t you asking yourself these questions? Are you afraid? Are you not up to the task? Delving into these questions requires a good deal of perseverance, a little guts, and steady guidance. A friend or a group of fellow seekers doesn’t hurt either. But anyone who truly wants to grow as an individual and to thrive as a member of the human race must face some or all of these issues. The morass of meaninglessness awaits us all if we don’t make a serious attempt to avoid it or confront it directly.
This section of this project will attempt to fill that gap. For the most part, we will be using Jewish sages, both ancient and modern, as our guides in providing answers to these very important questions. The authors will attempt to clarify difficult ideas and spell out the frequently concealed wisdom in a manner that will hopefully resonate with the modern mind. Feel free to disagree with our interpretations. Feel free to come up with your own. Feel free to discover your own sources or even create them yourself. It is all part of the great process of discovery and reawakening – of discovering who you are and reawakening to a reality that is infinitely richer with meaning. We are fully aware that we will provoke a good deal of contention along the way. Many of the ideas will seem irrelevant or flat-out wrong. We make no apologies for this, and only put forth the challenge to come up with something better. Join us on the journey.
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