Pleasure or purpose?

Judaism’s Worldview Series

Jewish Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer

In Lionel Shriver’s fascinating novel Should We Stay or Should We Go, Kay and Cyril relive the last decades of their lives together in a dozen distinct but parallel universes, each based on varying life circumstances and personal choices.

“‘It’s taken me ages to realize that I still don’t understand what this is,’ Kay blithered. ‘I still can’t get my head round what it means to be alive in the first place…much less whatever it was we were supposed to do here, and if I’ve wasted my time I can’t tell you what I should have done instead.’ Cyril soothed, ‘Human beings have fought to locate a sense of purpose from the year dot…* I say that, beyond mere physical survival, finding purpose is your job. And that job is never done…’”

The fundamental human need to have a purpose in life was identified by Holocaust survivor and psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl, who wrote, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

Researchers went on to define purpose as “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once personally meaningful and at the same time leads to productive engagement with some aspect of the world beyond the self.”

More simply, purpose is the story we live by (i.e. teaching is honorable) or the grand narrative we believe in (i.e. America’s founding) that shapes our goals, guides our life decisions, and influences our behavior to favorably influence the world.

Throughout life, purpose evolves in response to changing circumstances, emerging abilities and interests, and new priorities.

In the Jewish worldview, loving and valuing life itself is a foundational principle. The Talmud teaches that the very purpose of life is pleasure and warns that each person will have to give account on the judgment day for every good permissible thing that one might have enjoyed and did not.

Refusal to enjoy life is like rejecting God’s “very good” gift of Creation, of being itself.

Balancing the principle of pleasure is that of life purpose. Looking into the Promised Land from Mt. Nebo, Moses sets forth the commandments and indicates the Israelites now have the choice between life and death in their hands.

That is, they can ignore divine guidance or “follow the call of God as articulated in Mosaic Law, which is a way of etching everyday life with the charisma of holiness,” as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes it. “That means everyday life is given significance, it’s given weight, it’s elevated. Humans’ purpose is to reveal Godliness in this world as well as to refine the world and elevate it to a higher level.”

He adds: “If you want to find your purpose in life, think about the following sentence: Where what you want to do meets what needs to be done, that is where God wants us to be.”

Fulfill the mission. While visiting overnight in Belarus, Rabbi Shmuel Weinberg of Slonim noticed a stranger at his inn. Stately and well dressed, he was enveloped in an unusual glow. The second night, the stranger quietly sorted through documents, again strangely illuminated.

On the third evening, Rabbi Shmuel greeted the stranger and engaged him in conversation. Although a successful salesman, he was a simple man, couldn’t read, had little learning, and only knew the Shema by heart.

Rabbi Shmuel didn’t judge him, but asked, “Could you tell me about your day?” The man responded, “I’m really quite ordinary. I wake up at five every morning…,” launching into a detailed recital of his daily schedule. Rabbi Shmuel was still at a loss. Why did the man glow? Then the man concluded, “And before I go to sleep I say to God: ‘Master of the world, I ask only one thing from you. If I don’t have what it takes to fulfill the mission for which you created me, don’t wake me up tomorrow. Wake me up only if you believe I can do everything you need me to do in the world.’” Rabbi Shmuel had his answer.

Hear me roar. The first three years of her life, Vital Zinger lived in hospitals while undergoing multiple medical treatments that cured her cancer but left her paralyzed. She didn’t have a wheelchair until she was 12. At 16, she wanted to study chemistry and physics, but the science classes were on the second floor of her school. At that time, wheelchair accessibility wasn’t a mainstream idea, and the administration refused to add an elevator just for her. Knowing that the law was on her side, Vital fought back, recognizing that winning would help others in the future as well. She won, and the elevator was installed. It was the first time she fought the system for her rights, which gave her the experience and confidence to pursue a legal career.

Vital went on to become a lawyer, a social activist, and a world medalist Paralympic Latin dancer, representing Israel around the world.

Protect and defend. In September, S would have told you that his primary purpose in life was to support and protect his family, and he made sure he was ready to do so.

Following Hamas’ murderous October attacks in Israel and terrifying threats against Jews in America, S immediately offered to help guard his kindergartener’s Jewish day school. It’s now November, and he has been there ever since, working virtually at his day job while outfitted to protect and defend.

Students and parents alike have approached him to say thank you for keeping us safe, and for helping us feel a bit less afraid to keep our children in a Jewish school.
How do you elevate your days by loving life and living with purpose?

*An informal British expression meaning a very long time ago, from the beginning or as far back as one can remember.


Literature to share

Hanukkah Upside Down by Elissa Brent Weissman, illustrated by Omer Hoffmann. Cousins Noah and Nora live on opposite sides of the globe, one in New York and the other in New Zealand. One year, they decide to have a friendly contest about who has the best Chanukah. Delightfully illustrated with colorful cartoon images, this picture book is an engaging introduction to both the uniqueness and similarity of Jewish holiday traditions around the world.

The Confidante: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Helped Win WWII and Shape Modern America by Christopher C. Gorham. For seven decades, Hungarian immigrant Anna Rosenberg was a problem solver and trusted advisor to Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson. She had a hand in many of the most influential programs of the 20th century: Social Security, the GI Bill, military desegregation, the Manhattan Project, and held significant posts in many more, often the only woman to do so. This first and only biography of Anna’s life is both a captivating story and an inviting journey through a century of American history.

To read the complete December 2023 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

Previous post

Mazel Tov!

Next post

We've always had hope