First, You Must Ask
I want to discuss the meaning of life. But why should we discuss this kind of question at all? Why can’t we just live our lives simply, without searching for their meaning? As it were, life can be summarized as follows: you are born, you live your life, and in the end you pass away, in old age. Why must we search for meaning in life?
The truth is that it is difficult to imagine someone who does not ask himself questions about life’s meaning. The classic philosophers of ancient Greece, Plato and Aristotle, said that amazement is the first stage in philosophy. That is, we must not take anything in life for granted, and what we encounter in life leads us to amazement and wonder. Why is this so? It’s very simple, we remember that once we were not here in the world. Once we were not here and then, all of a sudden, we came into the world. This is astonishing. What are we doing here? Couldn’t we be somewhere else? Or not be at all? And so, the mental state of asking questions about the meaning of life is an integral part of the human condition.
It’s interesting to see that we have the same idea regarding the study of Torah. In the Passover Hagadah, that we read every year we mention four sons: the wise one, the evil one, the simple one and the one that does not know how to ask. The first three are characterized by the fact that they ask questions and we, of course, have answers for them. The fourth son, on the other hand, who does not know how to ask, would seem to be the lazy teacher’s ideal student. Such a teacher would say: great, an easy student who doesn’t ask questions. But it is precisely here that the traditional Passover text, which is representative of the oral tradition of Judaism, sees a problem. If he does not know how to ask, we must first of all teach him to ask! Only afterward is there room for answers.
Out of all the questions of the four sons of the Hagadah, which is the best? That of the wise one, the evil one or the simple one? It seems that the Jewish sages preferred the simple one. The title “simple”, is not meant to represent one who asks out of stupidity, but rather out of simple astonishment. In Hebrew, these words are of similar roots. He is amazed with this world. And so what is his question in the Hagadah? – “What’s this?” He seeks to understand the essence of the matter. And so the answer he receives is the most fundamental of all the answers given to the sons: “and you shall tell him ‘with a strong hand God brought us out of servitude in Egypt, from the house of slavery.”
If so, we have encouragement, both from Greek philosophy, representing traditional human wisdom, and from the oral tradition of Judaism, to begin our lives by questioning. We may not find the answer – but at least we know to ask.
Of Wisdom and Innocence
I would like to discuss a story by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, one of the Chassidic masters who lived over 200 years ago, who dealt with many questions of belief and disbelief. He has a story called “The Tale of the Wise and the Simple.” The story is very long and so I’ll discuss with you only a few points from it that speak to our topic. Rabbi Nachman tells of two friends, one wise and the other simple, who grew up in a village in Poland. They so fully embodied these qualities that people forgot their real names and just called them ‘wise‘ and ’simple.’ They were even recorded in the list of residents of the village in this way.
The ‘wise’ and the ‘simple’ were very close friends but their lifestyles were very different. The wise one studied all fields of knowledge and became a scholar, while the simple one remained in his simplicity. The simple one married a woman who understood his simplicity. When he asked for a tasty meal, she brought him a potato and when he would ask for desert, she brought him another potato. And when he asked for a particularly special dish in honor of the Sabbath, she brought another potato. He would constantly praise his wife’s ‘special’ foods and tell her: “Your food is great, it’s especially delicious.” Afterward he asked her to bring him his special shirt in honor of the Sabbath and she brought him a simple wool jacket. He put it on and was certain that he was wearing dress clothes, and was content and satisfied with all he had. Meanwhile, the wise one had become a renowned scholar and decided to tour the world. He went to study at universities in Italy, became a respected physician, returned to the village and became famous for his wisdom.
One day, the king of their region was reading the list of residents and noticed the entries ‘the wise’ and’“the simple.’ He thought to himself, “how strange to see people called in this fashion, I’ve got to summon them to the palace.” He sent messengers to bring them to him – to the wise, he sent a wise messenger, and to the simple, a simple messenger.
The simple messenger came to the simple one in the village and said, “The king has summoned you to the palace.” The simple one asked him, “Are you sure?” “Yes, I’m sure,” the messenger answered. “This isn’t a joke?” asked the simple one. “No, it’s not,” said the messenger. The simple one, excitedly called his wife and told her, “Dear, the king has called me to the palace, I’ve got to go!” He happily followed the messenger to the palace. The king observed that the simple one was honest and good and so gave him a small job to do in the palace. Over time, the simple one overheard the wisdom that was discussed in the palace and began to absorb it. He was given higher, more important positions until he became one of the land’s greatest sages and closest advisors to the king.
Meanwhile, the wise messenger came to the wise one in the village and said, “The king has summoned you to the palace.” “What are you talking about?!” the wise one responded, “As if the king needs to see me? What could possibly be so important?!” The messenger answered, “I spoke to the king and thus he has commanded me.” The wise one retorted, “Do you really think you spoke to the king? They must have told you this was the king but it was actually the image of someone else. They fooled you. I’ll tell you what I think: there is no king at all!” The wise one and the messenger rejoiced in their realization that everyone is living a hoax, and only they know the truth, that there really is no king at all. They decided to travel the world and laugh at all the people who are convinced that there is a king. Over the course of their travels their situation deteriorated and they wound up in all kinds of trouble.
Time passed and it came about that the simple one saved the wise one, his old friend, from his troubles. The simple one told him, “You know, since our paths diverged, I’ve moved up in the king’s palace.” The wise one answered him, “There is no king at all!” -“There is a king!” responded the simple one, but the wise one did not believe him. The simple one was angry with the wise one for his denial of the king, but helped him out of his problems and made him a loyal servant of the king. They renewed their friendship.
Rabbi Nachman explains: The wise one’s childhood friendship with the simple one is what saved him in the end.
What does Rabbi Nachman’s explanation about their childhood friendship mean? It means that a person’s starting point, the first point he can recall, has far-reaching influence on the rest of his life. If one remembers his initial state of innocence, then the wisdom that he learns will allow him to retain the vitality and liveliness of his innocence. But if one forgets that once he was unassuming, he winds up becoming confused and derailed by philosophical paradoxes from which he will have no escape. From here we learn the extreme important that all progress in wisdom should be preceded by a recognition of innocence and simplicity. Even if this innocence is philosophically incomplete, it is of tremendous value as a complement that balances wisdom. In this way, the wisdom along with the innocence will, together, lead to true knowledge and understanding of God.
What is the Purpose of Life?
What is the purpose of life? We must first ask how many purposes to life could there be. There are three possibilities. The first, is ‘zero’, the second is ‘one’, and the third, ‘many.’ The first claim that there is no purpose to life is unsatisfactory because humans do search for meaning. Anyone who has not found a purpose doesn’t continue with life. The fact that one continues to choose life is a sign that he has a purpose, be it a conscious one or a sub-conscious one that gives meaning to his life.
If so, then there must be a goal. But maybe there is more than one goal. However, when someone has more than one goal in life he enters a trap. Because the minute he has two or more goals, he will be torn between the need to dedicate himself fully to each at the same time, and they will conflict. And so, it can be said that truly happy people are those who are led by a single goal. The question is then, should this goal be close-by and easily attainable, or distant and attained only with difficulty?
A goal that is too easily attainable may disappoint. For example, if someone’s entire goal in life is to plant a tree, the minute the tree is planted he is left asking himself, “What now?” On the other hand, if the goal is very ambitious, a divine goal, like knowing God, or serving God, one is liable to give up ever trying to reach it. Rather, it seems that we need one over-arching goal, with intermediate goals as well, or stages, that eventually lead us to knowledge of God.
So what is the over-arching goal? Maimonides tells us that the purpose of life is to know Hashem, – to know God – according to man’s ability to know Him, and that all of our faculties and life-force should be aimed toward this grand goal. But we must take note that Maimonides does not say ‘worshiping God,’ meaning performing his commandments and good deeds, but rather ‘knowing God.’ The performance of His commandments and of good deeds, are instrumental to knowing God, but are not the goal in and of themselves. This is an essential point that appeals to the higher and loftier attributes of man that know that if he were to direct all his life toward this purpose he would find true happiness.
This is what Jeremiah the prophet has said, “So says Hashem, let not the wise one celebrate his wisdom.” Maimonides says that the wise one is one who deals with questions of society and morality. “And let not the courageous celebrate his courage.” The courageous is one who aims to strengthen his body to become physically powerful. “And let not the wealthy celebrate his wealth.” The wealthy is one who accumulates capital and political power. All these things cannot serve as man’s purpose in life, even though they are all important. Property and wealth, physical strength, and a proper society are all important but do not address man’s inherent value. And so the prophet continues, “but in this man should celebrate: knowing and understanding me.” Knowing God is the purpose of human life.
However, lest we conclude that this goal is purely spiritual in nature, he adds further, “Because I, Hashem, do kindness, justice and charity in this world, because it is these I desire, so says Hashem.” Meaning, at the end of day knowledge of God leads back to building a moral society, including kindness, justice, and charity. In doing so, the two -seemingly distinct worlds are united; the spiritual world of knowing God, and the world of society, kindness, justice, and charity.
Why do People Suffer?
Why do people suffer? Sometime we ask ourselves what we would say to God if we could meet Him and ask one question. I think I would ask him why we suffer. All kinds of answers have been given on this issue and one of them is the Christian viewpoint that says that man suffers because of Original Sin. This is an incredibly pessimistic point of view. That is, the doctrine of original sin assumes that man’s original and fundamental condition is that he has fallen, and has no hope without receiving external help. This is the foundation of Christian theology that seeks to save man from his fall, as there is no confidence in man’s ability to raise himself up.
Judaism, on the other hand, believes that original sin has absolutely no bearing here. It is true that the world, in general, fell from its higher state as a result of Adam’s sin, but it is, in fact, man that retains his faculty of choice: his absolute and total free will. And so, just as man can ruin, he can also fix and rebuild. He has no need for a salvation myth to arise above his state. This is the deeper meaning of the Torah’s statement, that seems trivial at first, “And you shall choose life.”
All other spiritual or mystical movements, can be said to express, indirectly, an admiration for death, because this world does not “show us the goods,” as it were. It brings suffering, sickness, disappointment, and so at the end of the day you are better off abandoning worldly matters. Therefore, the Torah says, “I have put before you life and death…” It’s not unreasonable to claim that naturally, a normal person would opt for death, because in death comes liberation from the suffering of this world.
And here the Torah comes with an incredibly powerful message, “…And you should choose life, so that you will live.” That is, the Creator of the world wants to sanctify his name precisely within the framework of life in this world, in order to join together all the worlds, both spiritual and physical included; and so the special mission of sanctifying our lives. This is done, among other things, by the commandments. The commandments deal with all aspects of life, and give meaning to all realms of human existence.
How great it is, then, to live! There is so much happiness in this message, despite all the human suffering. It’s interesting to note in the story of Adam’s sin as related in the Torah, something that is oft forgotten: that man is commanded to eat from the tree of knowledge, as it says, “and God commanded Adam saying ‘From all the trees of the garden shall you eat,’”3 – ‘all the trees’ includes the tree of knowledge. Afterwards, it goes on to say, “and from the tree of knowledge of good and evil you mustn’t eat, for on the day you eat from it you will surely die.” Meaning, not that you must not eat from the tree of knowledge altogether, but rather you must eat from it – without dying. How can this be done? Simply, you must take an antidote against death, and the antidote in the Torah is known as the ‘tree of life.’
Thus, Adam’s sin was not that he ate from the tree of knowledge, but rather, that he ate from it before eating from the tree of life. In other words, if we translate this from code-words into everyday language, we would say that you must fill yourself will values, inner life, by eating first from the tree of life.
Our sages have said that the Torah is called the tree of life, “A tree of life to those who guard it,” and in doing so, all aspects of knowledge become a blessing. On the other hand, when one first of all wants knowledge, he faces intellectual hazards if he has not first built his own value system. A multitude of pieces of knowledge will not bring one inner life; this actually can block the inner life from someone. And this point is incredibly important: we must connect first to the tree of life, and through this connection, not only is it OK to expand our knowledge, but it is our obligation to eat from the tree of knowledge, when it is built upon the foundation of the tree of life.