Next Video Playing In ×
What Is the Meaning of Life?
Video 1 of 7
To that end I would like to begin with a story, a story of Susie Soccer Mom, or Freddie Soccer Dad. Their story begins when that meaning of life question begins to hit them between the eyes and it's like, what exactly am I doing here and how is it that I would figure it out? So Susie Soccer Mom or Freddie Soccer Dad they live in reasonable driving distance from Columbia University, so they enroll in Columbia University's summer seminar; philosophy. It's a course for adults going back to school, they figure it's just the perfect thing, where else would you find the meaning of life other than in Columbia University's philosophy class?
And you get there and there's a survey of modern existentialist philosophers, and reading about Heidegger and Kierkegaard, but then the professor on the very first day of class goes around the room asking people to raise their hands and talk about why they are here on the course. Susie Soccer Mom or Freddie Soccer Dad raises their hands and rather sort of naively says, you know I'll tell you why I'm here, I'm here to actually discover the meaning of life. And then there's this sort of awkward silence or there's some faint giggles, and then the professor gently explains you're really not going to get much of a clear-cut answer about the meaning of life, you've actually come to the wrong place. Susie and Freddie very distressed, hurry out of class and go to the registrar's office and try to bargain for their money back. But they're not going to get the answer there and rather distressed at this turn of events, try to think where else would I go if I'm not going to go to the academy?
Then Susie Soccer Mom is hit with a revelation and Freddie Soccer Dad is hit with a revelation, religion! Right? I mean that's what religion get paid for, right? Figuring out stuff like this. So again, they plunge in to a systematic review of world religions and to this end Susie and Freddie start meeting people of different faiths and kind of interviewing them about what their faith has to say about the meaning of life. But unfortunately, on these long plane rides Susie and Freddie are also meeting with some disappointment, because somehow it's just not feeling, I don't know, all that compelling.
Let me give you an example. Susie was in a chat with religious leader A, who said it's all about doing G-d's will on earth. Which you know seems, I suppose, fair enough. But somehow it left Susie a little cold. Like, all right, fine, if that's what I have to do, so I'll guess I'll do that, better than nothing, but like you know I want to wake up really fired up with what I'm doing in life, and doing G-d's will on earth, I mean, okay, fine, I get that. But one of the things also that's bothering Susie and bothering Freddie about this is it's not just seeming to take into account all the rest of the stuff that Susie and Freddie do. Like soccer practice for their kids and violin practice and Susie is starting a startup internet company and how does all that fit into this doing the will of G-d notion which seems so very straightjacket into a traditional religious kind of thing? Maybe it's something you would do in the inside of a Synagogue or a Church or a Mosque or something like that, but how do the seemingly secular parts of life, if at all, relate to that all?
Anyway, so Susie and Freddie have met with some disappointment here and that is where our story turns to you. Here you are, you're on the first leg of a flight to London and Susie shows up in the chair right next to you and says, say, let me ask you a question - she sort of comes out with this, I know this sounds strange but this meaning of life question. And you are from the people of Israel and you're trying to give her your take on this, what would you say to Susie or to Freddie?
So that is kind of the opening story I want to begin with, what would we say and how would we say it? So I want to sort of play out a possible conversation with Susie and Freddie for the purposes of making this easier. We're going to introduce another character into our little story, he's going to be - let's call him Bob, who is sitting to the immediate right of Susie or Freddie and you are on the left of them. Bob says, oh I couldn't help overhearing this conversation, I too are from the tribes of Israel and I have an answer that I'd like to give to you. It's really, very simple. The meaning of life, he says rather triumphantly, is to be found in the next world, your job is to get there. Well that's pretty succinct. Susie's face brightens up, that's fantastic, how do I get there? Where is the road paved to the world to come? The world to come sounds wonderful, it's a great world.
So the fellow says, easy, that's what we have the Bible's commands for. There are 613 of these commands. Susie says, gee, those are a lot of commands. Bob says, yeah, you aint seen nothing yet. Actually there are subcommands underneath each one of those, there's really lots of commands and definitely keep you busy. Your job is to do as many of these commands as you possibly can, and avoid as many of these transgressions as you possibly can, and you know, when you add it all up, at the end of the day, the person who dies with the most laws kept wins. And, as a matter of fact, I have this little scorecard I keep with me - and he pulls out this little scorecard, looks like one of those golf little things that they give you in mini-golf, with the pencil, and he's able to keep track of all of his commandments and transgressions of the day. And it's like, the more the better and rack up the points until you get to the next world.
So if you're Susie, what do you say to this? Does this work for you? So if I'm Susie it wouldn't quite work for me. At the risk of sounding a little bit heretical over here, let me sort of detail my issues if I was in Susie's seat right over here. If it's really just a matter of racking up heavenly brownie points and the more of these transgressions you stay away form, the more of these Mitzvos that you keep, the more heavenly brownie points you get to put in your big shopping cart over here on earth, I don't know, it almost seems on some ways - first of all it could lead to a kind of perversion of keeping these Mitzvot.
Here I'm just working with my intuition but the famous Mussar masters would talk about something like this, which is when you go visit the sick, what are you really thinking about? One possibility is the purpose of visiting the sick is so that I can rack up my brownie point and I'm very happy when I go home because I've just gotten another heavenly brownie point. Ultimately it seems to me there's something vaguely - or maybe not so vaguely - narcissistic about this. At the end of the end of the day I'm just using the sick guy to end up doing my Mitzvah, he's just a tool for my little command fulfillment, is that really the way it's supposed to be?
That's one possible problem I have with this. Another possible problem is it just seems very one dimensional, it's like none of these Mitzvos or Aveiros, so to speak, necessarily have any character to them, it's like Candy Land, and I'm picking up things as I go along the board and no difference between one thing and the next thing, I'm just shoving it into my shopping cart. And it just seems one-dimensional, it seems like there's no inherent value to the stuff that I'm doing, it's almost random. It's just that G-d said you get a point for this, you get a point for that, you get a point for this, and it just seems, I guess, meaningless, and I hate to use that word if that's really all it is, this brownie point thing.
It's almost as if G-d could have said, okay, so imagine I'm grinding this millstone and it would be one thing if there was actually some wheat in the millstone that I was grinding, so that it would actually produce something. But imagine there is no wheat, and I know there's no wheat, so I'm futilely grinding this millstone. But G-d says if you grind that millstone enough you're going to live here for 80 years and you should do 75 turns of this great millstone a day, and you know when you do the math it's 375,921 turns of the millstone. And at the end of the day if you turn the millstone enough I will give you all of this wonderful reward, riches beyond imagining in the world to come. I don't know, would that make turning the millstone glorious or would it just be, oh my gosh, I can't believe I have to turn the millstone for 70, 80, 90 years? If there's no inherent value to it, so that at the end of the day am I just turning a millstone?
So maybe this theory could use a little bit of sharpening, can we add some nuance to this theory? Okay so one thing that might help Susie here to try to broaden this theory is yes, there's all these laws you're supposed to keep, but these laws are actually designed to guide you in certain ways, to help inculcate certain values. There are certain ultimate goals that these laws and these stories are designed to somehow express, and if you follow the laws and you understand the stories, somehow you take in those values and the meaning of life just somehow becomes a part of you.
So when Freddie hears this and when Susie hears this their face brightens, they say, yes, I like that idea of overarching goals. If there were some overarching goals and I could define what those are, then maybe I could look back at my life and in addition to asking how many laws did I keep I could also ask, where am I holding in terms of inculcating these values. It sounds like a life well lived - would want to at least reflect back on that and say, well how do I think I'm doing in this overall goal? Overall goal number 1, overall goal number 2, overall goal number 3. Then they turn to me and say, what are those overall goals that G-d seems to want from us? How would you know what they are?
Okay so here is the next twist in our little hypothetical conversation with Freddie or with Susie. Freddie jumps in and says, what a great idea, you know, so where would you find those overall principles, the meaning of life itself, what it's really all about? Then Freddie says, I know, it will probably be in the beginning of your book, right? It's the Bible, the Bible is the great manual about how to achieve the meaning of life. If I was writing that manual, so like very first sentence, chapter 1, verse 1, I would say, hi guys, I am G-d and here's what it's all about. This is what you're trying to achieve in your life and now on to the races. Right? And it should be there, just in a few sentences, right in the beginning. Let's look at the beginning of the book.
And the beginning of the book, unfortunately, is nothing like that. Bereishis barah Elokim et hashomayim v'et ha'aretz - in the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth, and we're off in the creation story. And desperate, and painfully, Susie and Freddie they're searching through the book and they get to the flood and they get to the Abraham story and they get to the Tower of Babel and all of these stories and they get to laws of the Korban Pesach and the laws of Tzara'as and the laws of everything. Where is this mission statement? Where does it say, this is what I want from you, this is what it's all about, here is why I put you here in the first place, here are the overarching things in life that have ultimate value that you're supposed to achieve?
This, I think, is a really good question, why isn't it there? The Torah surely could have been more explicit about this if it really is the great manual for how to live our lives. What excuse could there be for not being just upfront, dead center, explicit about this?
So let me begin to paint a theory. If I am Freddie's seatmate over here sitting to the left of Freddie or Susie or whatever, so here might be what I would say at this point. I would say, look in an odd sort of way, perhaps it would be self-defeating to be so explicit at the beginning of the book as to what it's about. Because that's not actually how meaning of life is achieved through your a priori intellectualization of the meaning of life. That's not actually how you best get there.
To kind of illustrate that, let me give you two quick analogies. Analogy 1, from a book, George Orwell, he's writing Animal Farm. So how come Animal Farm doesn't begin with this disclaimer at the very beginning of the book, a paragraph that says, the following is an extended analogy to the idea of communism and why communism is really terrible? Why not say that? If I'm J. R. R. Tolkien why don't I say, the following three books with 15,000 pages of them, called Lord of the Rings, is really an extended meditation upon the notion of power and how power corrupts for its own sake, and that's really what it's all about? Why don't books begin that way? Why do they invite you in to experience them instead?
The answer is because they can teach what they have to teach through the lessons of experience, vicarious experience. When I enter into the book and I feel like I'm in that world, somehow the lessons that I soak up in that world are much more vivid and real and they affect me more deeply than if I just intellectualize it in a sentence or two at the very beginning. That's the way the world works.
Here's another analogy, from experience in the world, you're taking a hike with your kid, you're playing soccer with your kid, so the experience itself is kicking the ball through these uprights. And I've got certain rules and stuff that I do, but the experience itself is walking through the forest. But then there's a larger meaning to that experience which transcends the experience itself. In this case it might be I want to spend time with my kids, I want to bond with my child with this hike, or with this soccer game. But now imagine I'm like really explicit about that. In the beginning, before we go on the hike, I say son, I have to have a talk with you, we are going to spend some cherished father-son time right now. My four year old kid looks at me and doesn't understand what cherished father-son time really is, but if that's what we have to spend, he'll spend it. As long as we go on the hike Dad just keeps on saying, and isn't it great how as we look at these trees our relationship is just budding and building and it's wonderful?
What happens is that in a strange kind of way the over focus on the ultimate goal here actually causes the activity to collapse. Because the kid says to me, if I'm playing soccer with them, Dad just keep your eye on the ball and play the game. Having that experience, if I do it the right way, will allow me to bond with child, but child doesn't have to understand that the goal of all of this is to create that bonding. The parent has to structure the experience in such a way that it could get there, that the parent-child succeed. But the way you get there isn't by just having these billboards all over the place; And remember why you are playing this game, it's so that we can build this great relationship son. The over focus on it actually stops you from having the experience itself. That the way you actually get to that goal is by experiencing the experience in such a way that you just do it right. You play the experience right, you have the right kind of hike, and at the end of the day you'll look back and it's like, oh my gosh, the kid feels a little closer to father than he did. Or they're bonding better than they once did before.
But maybe it doesn't work by being up front and center about the goals. I get that you want to understand those goals, but that's not the way the manual is designed, because it's maybe not the best way to achieve those goals.
So Freddie and Susie say, okay, that kind of makes sense to me, but I still want to know what the goals are. I mean, I just do. At the end of the day it would just help me, I want in my life to periodically be able to check myself, to evaluate myself, to have some standard as to whether or not I'm actually achieving anything or getting anything done in terms of what my meaning is. Then Freddie and Susie ask this question, maybe the manual might not be explicit about it, but maybe it will be there implicitly somehow? Is there any way that I could at least look at the manual and reverse engineer it to get to some of those meaning of life points? If I look at it carefully could I extrapolate what those goals are, just that they'd be like a little bit signposted, [I could keep 17:03] out of corner of my eye?
And to that I might say to Susie and Freddie, yes, there absolutely is. There's a hard way to do it and there's an easy way to do it. Here is the hard way. I could look at the entirety of the 613 commandments in the Torah and all of their sub laws. I could look at the entirety of all the stories that the Torah tells me and I could try to look for the common themes. I could try to say where do these stories seem to be going? What messages over and over again do they seem to be pointing myself to? If I seem to follow the morals of all of these stories what two or three large, overarching things does it seem like these stories are guiding me towards? What seem to be the kinds of things that these laws are inculcating into me as a person? That is the hard way, a very difficult endeavor indeed.
But there might actually be a way to cheat, a faster approach, as it were. If I am looking for the meaning of it all, for why I was put here, why human kind is put here in the first place, and I want to see it in the book itself, go to the Torah stories about the creation of human kind, about G-d's act of having created humans. Maybe if you read those stories well, you'll find out why G-d bothered in the first place. That is what I would like to do with you in this course. Over the next few weeks I want to look at these stories, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, the stories of the creation of human kind with an eye toward is the Torah telling me something about the overall goals of humanity in relation to G-d, in relation to themselves, in relation to others? Like what should they be keeping in mind? What exactly are they doing here? When do you know that you're on the right track or on the wrong track if you wanted to get some sort of idea am I doing this thing called life right? What guidance do we get from Genesis 1 and Genesis 2?
What we are going to be doing is we're going to look at these stories in detail, we're actually going to shift away from the agenda that we have, which is meaning in life, because if you come to Biblical text with any agenda you'll end up seeing your agenda everywhere and you won't end up seeing the text. We're going to try to look at the text organically, just try to read the stories and see what stories do they tell us about man. As we begin to understand that story ever more deeply, we will then come back to the question of what does it all mean? What are the overarching goals that humanity is being bidden to try to achieve that seem to emerge from these creation stories at the beginning of the book?
Now just to begin to kick us off on this great quest, one of the most troubling things about the Biblical account of the creation of man is that there is not one story, there are two. Genesis 1 tells you one story, Genesis 2 tells you another story and this is a real trip, what is going on? The problem is the stories actually seem contradictory, they seem to be different stories. This by the way has given rise to this idea really called biblical criticism. Julius Wellhausen in Germany with his notion that there must be more than one author to the Torah and there's going to be a J author and an E author, and the greatest proof of all, really the beginning of that whole school of thought came more than anything else from the fact that in Genesis 1 and 2 I have two stories instead of one.
Their answer was there must be two authors and an editor who was kind of asleep at the wheel. There was author number 1, the story of the six days of creation and that's in Genesis 1, but then there was a whole other school of thought and there was another author and there was story number 2, and it goes and tells a whole different creation story. That is story number 2 and the author kind of shmushed them together hoping that you wouldn't notice too much. But if we're really smart, we can go back and we say, oh there is two authors, there's one author over here, and there's a second author over here, and I wonder as we continue in the Torah if we can see the two different authors. That is the approach of biblical criticism.
But it is not the classic Jewish approach. The classic Jewish approach is there was one author, the author is G-d, and if that's true, how come there are these two different contradictory creation stories?
Okay now here might be a way to begin to attack this. One of the first questions you have to ask, whenever you read the Torah, about anything - indeed, whenever you read any book - is you have to ask the question of genre. This is a point I made back in one of our Parsha videos if you want to take a look, I think it was Parshat Noach where I talked about dinosaurs a little bit. Go back and take a look at what I said there. But the argument I was making is that before you read a book and ask questions about it, you must understand the genre of the book, what kind of book is it? This is an idea that I got from Mortimer Adler in his great book; How to Read a Book. In this book, Mortimer Adler argues - he's a philosopher, most books are not worth reading but there's about 100 great books that are worth reading. And when you read those great books, those books that stretch your mind, that demand more from you than you possibly think that you can give - when you read those books you must ask the question of genre. You have to know what kind of book you are reading or you will misinterpret the book and you will ask the wrong questions about it.
So if you are reading a poetry book and you think you're reading a chemistry book, you will ask the wrong questions. I think in the Noach video I gave you the example of Carl Sandburg's poem; The fog crept in on its little cat feet. If you begin to look at that poem, you say fog can't creep, it's not a cat, it doesn't have feet, I don't understand it, this poem doesn't make sense. There is no answer to that question, the answer is it's the wrong question, you haven't understood the genre, you haven't understood the idea of metaphor, you're reading poetry, you're not reading a chemistry textbook.
Now the funny thing is, is that both chemistry and poetry are both attempts to describe the world as we know it. Poetry is an attempt to describe experience, life; chemistry is an attempt to describe experience, but they're coming from two completely different angles and they see two different things in experience, and you have to understand that, or you will misinterpret the book.
Now the great question is, when we look at the Torah, what kind of genre is it? What sort of book is it? What sorts of questions should we ask about it? Here the answer is not so clear. You might say the Torah has a lot of history in it, so maybe it's a history book? The problem is the Torah has got a lot of laws in it too, so maybe it's a law book? So I say, well too much history for it to be a law book and too much laws for it to be a history book. So maybe it's a philosophy book, because it has some philosophy in it? But then it's got too many laws and history in it to be a philosophy book. So what kind of book is it?
The answer I think is going to be that it is a guidebook, everything it tells you it's going to tell you from the perspective of being a guidebook. It is trying to guide a people, a collective, the people of Israel, in its relationship with G-d, its relationship to others and it is trying to guide the individual in relationship to others around him. It's basically a guidebook, and whatever it tells you it's going to tell you from the perspective of that. So it will tell you some history because you need some history to guide you. It will tell you some laws because you need some laws to guide you. But the laws it's going to tell you from the perspective of guiding you. In other words, even more than legal principles.
This by the way accounts for some of the difference between what we call Pshat and Drash. The Oral Law uses a technique of Drash - of expounding, called exegesis, to be able to extrapolate legal principles from the text. But those aren't the legal principles that you would see in a plain reading of the text, if you apply legal principles to the text you will come up with those laws. The plain meaning of the text is to tell you the laws from the perspective of guidance. It's going to tell you some moral truths even though you're going to extrapolate the actual details of law in a completely different sort of way. So for example, when the Torah talks about eating milk and meat together it's going to talk about; Loh tevashel gedi b'chalev imo - seething a kid in its mother milk, which is really very harsh language, really a morally stark picture of what it means to mix together meat and milk. Which is very different from the way that the law in its details actually plays out.
So the simple meaning of whatever is written there, whether it's laws or whether it's history, is always going to be from the perspective of how do I guide you? How is it that I put these truths out there that are going to help guide you in life? That's true for the stories as well. When I tell you the history I'm going to tell you history in a way that guides you. So if I can tell you more in terms of how I guide you, by taking two events that are not actually chronologically next to each other and I juxtapose them in the text, so I'm going to do that. That will lead to this principle; Ein mukdam u'me'uchar ba'Torah - there is no before and after in the Torah. Meaning that of course there more or less are events in chronological order but you can never count on the fact that the Torah is giving you events in chronological order, because the Torah might just be changing around the order. Because if the Torah can teach you more by putting together two events that are thematically related to make a point, the Torah will do that too. This is one of the great principles of understanding the Torah that the Sages articulate. If it's a history book of course I can trust the chronological order, but it's not, it's a guidebook.
Okay, now let's take this idea of a guidebook one step further and it will lead us to a great theory propounded by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. Rabbi Soloveitchik has this book called; A Lonely Man of Faith and in the book he tackles this idea, these two creation stories. But what he says is, is that the reason why there are two stories that talk about the creation of man is not because there are two authors in the Torah, but because there are two kinds of man, two sides of mankind, that are ultimately irreconcilable. There is a literary device that the Torah is using to portray this inherent conflict or tension within man. Both of these things are true. To really understand man, Rabbi Soloveitchik argues, you would actually need to sort of triangulate man, to see man from two different perspectives and somehow to merge those perspectives together in your head.
Almost like the way your cell phone works with GPS. How does your cell phone know exactly where you are, you ever wonder that? The answer is, because your cell phone is constantly in touch with cell towers. So how do the cell towers help? So the cell tower knows that if there's a cell tower right over there at 37 degrees, five miles away, the cell tower knows that I'm at a 37-degree angle. It sees that I'm on a line right over here between the cell tower and my phone. But now you just know I'm on this line, you don't know where I am on this line. But if I'm simultaneously in contact with another cell tower somewhere over there, so that cell tower knows I'm on a line between me and it, and I can triangulate those two lines. If I draw those two lines and see where they intersect, that's me, that's where I am.
So if I get two different perspectives on something I can triangulate a position pretty well. If the Torah gives me two different - even conflicting - perspectives on man, it helps me really define who this creature is. Rabbi Soloveitchik argues, in the story of creation of man the Torah uses just such an ingenious literary device in order to be able to tell us something, very economically, very briefly, very quickly, something very profound, about an inherent conflict within man that describes man to a tee.
I recommend you take a look at Lonely Man of Faith, you can read what it is that he says about it, he has these two views of man that he believes emerge from these stories. I'm not going to get into those views in detail right now with you, I just want to kind of end this week's podcast by raising a question on his theory in general. It's a question I always had in looking at Rabbi Soloveitchik's theory and the question basically goes like this. If it is the case that the Torah is telling me about an inherent conflict within man that the Torah wants me to recognize, then why did the Torah have to tell me two different creation stories? It should just tell me two different creation of man stories. Remember in Genesis number 1 I don't just get a story about the creation of man, I get a story about the creation of the universe, and on the sixth day man is created. And, in Genesis Chapter 2, I also don't just get a story about the creation of man, I get this whole long story about the world itself being created and how it all happened and the animals and the trees and man and the tree of knowledge of good and evil and the whole kit and caboodle. If the whole point of these two stories is just to tell me two different kinds of man, so tell me two creation of man stories, much simpler. Don't tell me two different creation stories.
What's the answer to that question? Why are there two different creation stories? I would like to make a proposal to you and follow the implications of this proposal with you next week. In essence, Rabbi Soloveitchik is right, but if I ask a deeper question and I say, why are there two different views of man? Why is there this inherent conflict in the soul of man? How did it get that way? Is it just random that that's the case? Where does that tension come from? There's an answer to that question. The answer is actually provided by the Torah, because there aren't just two creation of man stories, there's two creation of everything stories of which creation of man is a part. What the Torah is telling you is that if you want to understand the two different ways of looking at man, they are a function of two different ways of looking at creation itself.
There are two different ways to tell the creation story itself and depending upon how you tell the story of creation you have a different view of what man is. There's a man creature that is a product of creation 1, of one way of looking at creation, and there's a man creature that's a product of creation 2, a whole other way of looking at creation. Man derives these qualities within him that are in tension from a tension within creation itself, that is evident in creation 1 and creation 2. If we can understand the man of creation 1 and the man of creation 2, the human described in each story, then maybe we can understand the meaning of human existence according to each story. Maybe there's a tension in meaning too? Maybe there's a meaning 1 and a meaning 2?
So here's what I want you to do, you've got a week, read through Genesis Chapter 1 and Genesis Chapter 2, catalog the way these stories are different, and see if you can begin to connect the dots. How does creation 1 differ from creation 2? How does the mankind described in each story differ from one another? How might their meanings differ as well? I'll see you next week.
Are you a day school teacher?
We have an exciting scholarship account option for you!