January 24, 2019

‘What’s the Meaning of Life ?’

Love answering children’s questions. I’ll visit a classroom and face an eager chorus of “DidGod create dinosaurs?” and “Where do people go when they die?” Then,at the end, there’s always one wise guy, who smirks and asks, “What’sthe meaning of life?” I love that kid. I admire his chutzpah, and Ilove the question.

This may be the last taboo. In our culture, people are encouragedto reveal every intimate detail of their lives, every personalsecret. In public meetings, at social gatherings and, if that weren’tenough, on national television, people shamelessly share every foibleand fantasy, every nuance of sexual adventure and interpersonal sin,every addiction and fixation. We’ll listen with rapt intent asstrangers recount their bouts with drugs and drink, theirinfidelities, their broken relationships with parents, spouses andchildren, the bizarre and the spectacular lengths they’ve gone toobtain thrills. That’s permitted. It’s even celebrated. But ask,”What’s the meaning of your life?” and the conversation stops dead.

Try dropping my young friend’s question at a cocktail reception ora summer barbecue. “So, what’s the meaning of your life?” People willlaugh. They think you’re joking. Isn’t that strange? Don’t we all, atsome point, need to ask this question with seriousness andreflection?

Why the laughter?

A homework assignment: On your way home, stop at a drug store andpick up a package of 200 4-by-6 index cards and a box of pencils.When you return home and find a quiet moment alone, write down on acard all that life has taught you. In medieval times, Jews left theirchildren a special will. More than instructions for dividing theproperty, it contained a summary of a life’s wisdom. Write one foryourself. To force your concentration, keep it short — no more thanan index card.

What have you learned from life? From growing up, from school,from marriage (and divorce), from raising kids, from making a living,from building a community, from saying goodbye to loved ones? Whathas life taught you? It might take 100 attempts — 100 cards written,then tossed out — to arrive at just the right words. When you doarrive at just the right words, cherish that card. Save it, look atit and update it each Rosh Hashanah.

You deserve to know the meaning, the lesson, the wisdom of yourlife. Each of us, according to a mystical teaching, carries one wordin God’s message to the world. Wouldn’t you like to figure out whatyour word is? And if anything, God forbid, were to happen to youtomorrow, wouldn’t you like your children, your grandchildren, yourfriends to know?

The Torah portion this week describes a miracle. Moses findswords. This man who once protested, “Lo ish devarim anochi” –“I am not a man of words,” (Exodus 4:10) — now stands before hispeople with something to say. “Elah ha-devarim asher deber Mosheel kol Yisrael” — “These are the words which Moses addressed toall Israel on the other side of the Jordan.”

The 40-year journey has not only brought Israel to the PromisedLand. The 40-year journey has brought Moses to words. He hasdiscovered the message and meaning of his life’s struggle. And forthe entire book of Deuteronomy, the once mute prophet will articulatehis words.

My young friend asks the question, and he is shocked when I answerforthrightly.

When God created the world, it was left unfinished. We are God’spartners, assigned to finish the work of Creation. The world that weencounter is a mixture of chaos and order, of good and evil, ofdarkness and light. It is our job, as God’s partners, to bring orderto the chaos, to bring good out of evil, to cast light into thedarkness.

There is a corner of the world that only you can fix. You mustfind that corner and, by applying your energies, imagination andintelligence, bring wholeness and healing. In that direction, youwill find the meaning of your life.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

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