January 19, 2020

Torah portion: The meaning of life

Great thinkers have important things to say about the meaning of life. For the Greek philosopher Aristotle, it was that “man is a political animal.” Aristotle basically points out that we are social beings and that we tend to congregate in groups, such as families, villages and city-states (the Greek polis). 

Karl Marx, an early-19th-century German thinker of Jewish descent, claimed we are fundamentally economic beings. For Marx, man is the producing animal, the manufacturing animal. Crudely put, it’s all about money and material resources, and history is nothing but the arena in which the owners of material resources subjugate and oppress the disenfranchised.

For Friedrich Nietzsche, life is all about “the will to power.” According to the German philosopher, we all strive, knowingly or unknowingly, to dominate, to achieve power and dominion over others. Whether it’s about political, economic, social, intellectual, religious or scientific power, we all compete against each another for the attainment of power over others. 

For another guy — a Jew by the name of Sigmund Schlomo Freud — we are all foundationally erotic beings, and the libido, the primordial sexual drive, once sublimated, is at the core of any notable cultural or civilizational achievement. 

So you see, all of these seminal thinkers are certainly onto something. Each of them stresses one central tenet of the human experience, and sees it as primary and overriding. We are indeed social beings (as Aristotle implies), economic beings (as Marx insists) and sexual beings (as Freud describes). And we also compete for status and power (as Nietzsche observes).

The Torah recognizes all these different facets of life as central and important. “Lo tov heyot ha’adam levado” (It is not good for man to dwell alone), states the Almighty in the book of Genesis (2:18), essentially endorsing Aristotle’s contention that we are social beings. 

The midrash wisely suggests that if the erotic drive (yetzer harah) were to be eradicated, “No one would build a home, get married or pursue a career,” thereby affirming the validity of Freud’s emphasis on man as an erotic being. 

Lastly, “If there is no bread, then there is no Torah,” our sages teach, recognizing Marx’s view that in the absence of what he calls “economic infrastructure,” cultural and spiritual achievements are severely undermined.

And yet, as valid and central as all these worthy insights are, something is missing here. 

Here’s a clue, offered by Forbes Magazine, when it published in 2011 the amazing findings of a social survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Organization at the University of Chicago. The results listed 10 professions that make their practioners “most happy.” The following are the first eight of those 10.  They are, in descending order of reported satisfaction and fulfillment: clergy, firefighters, physical therapists, authors, special education teachers, artists and psychologists.

What do all these professions have in common? They are all about touching and enhancing the lives of other people. They are all about giving to others. Interestingly, some of these professions also are known to be significantly undervalued in terms of monetary compensation. So why do many who practice these professions report such high levels of happiness?

The answer lies in the very beginning of our parsha:

“And God spoke to him [Moses] … saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: Adam ki yakriv …” (Leviticus 1:1). The Hebrew phrase “adam ki yakriv” contextually means “when a person brings forth an offering.” The word “ki” in biblical Hebrew can mean “should” or “when,” but it also can mean (as it does in modern Hebrew) “because.” 

In other words, the verse can also be read as: “A human being — because he offers, because he brings forth, because he renders [others] closer [to their inner core, to Torah, to God Almighty].” 

Essentially, the book of Leviticus is offering here an audacious perspective as to what constitutes the good life, the elevated life, the rewarding life. According to Leviticus, to be fully human, to be a truly evolved and fulfilled person, is to be a giver. That’s why the people whom we admire the most are people who give so much of themselves for the advancement of Jewish and human welfare. 

Think about an individual you truly admire. I don’t mean a great athlete, or a movie star who was blessed with extraordinary talent. Think about someone you truly aspire to emulate, in terms of that person’s character or way of life. Think about someone you really look up to, and think to yourself: “I want to be a little bit like him.” In the overwhelming majority of cases, you will see that such a person is a giver. 

The art of giving is the key to a good and meaningful life, asserts the book of Leviticus. This message is crucial for our individually focused culture and generation. Perhaps it is more pertinent to us than to any previous generation in human history. Shabbat Shalom. 

Rabbi Tal Sessler, Ph.D., is senior rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. He is the author of several books dealing with philosophy and contemporary Jewish identity.