Hukat: On Sisyphus, Hope and Meaning

In his essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, Albert Camus describes how life is absurd for “there is but one world” and so with death, all of man’s toil is found to be for naught, there being “no higher destiny”.  Though life for Camus is absurd in its meaninglessness, “it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.”  In not dissimilar terms, Rabbi Soloveitchik writes, “It is the tragic experience of the human being who is endowed with time-awareness, and knows that his existence is a mockery. … Death denies the very worth of existence.”  (Out of the Whirlwind, p.47).

Both Camus and Rabbi Soloveitchik are troubled by death and its implications on the meaning of life, but the two draw inspiration to approach the subject from very different sources: Camus, from the myth of Sisyphus; Rabbi Soloveitchik, from the narrative of the Red Heifer.

Sisyphus is known for being condemned to ever roll a rock to the top of a mountain, only to have it roll back down of its own weight, thus requiring him to push it up again – for all eternity.  Camus explains that Sisyphus’ “scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing.”  For Camus, this exertion toward accomplishing nothing serves as the ultimate metaphor of man’s futile existence.

Given the similitude in fates, Camus analyzes Sisyphus in an effort to confront man’s absurd existence.  He explains that man, pushing his stone up the mountain, is not even aware of the futility of his fate until he reaches that moment of rest, as the rock rolls back down the mountain.  It is then that man becomes aware of his tragic fate.  But this fate can be overcome, explains Camus, if one accepts his condition without hope in accomplishing anything but what one is currently experiencing.  If Sisyphus, pushing up his rock, were to hope in some greater good, some purposeful activity, he would forever live in horror or denial.  “Horror” – because, though he would hope for some meaningful existence, he would realize that there is none; and if he didn’t realize this truth, then his life would be one simply lived in “denial”.

Only by accepting his fate as it is can man be genuinely happy – for if happiness is based on the hope in something that doesn’t exist, it is not real happiness but happiness based on self-delusion.  And thus Camus ends his essay, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”  If man is to find joy in his absurd existence, he must accept that there is no hope, no meaning, nothing to life but the present experience.  This is Camus’ resolution to death.

For Rabbi Soloveitchik, the enigmatic ritual of the Red Heifer, used to purify one from contact with the dead, serves as the paradigm for man to confront his mortality (Reflections, p.102).  To come into contact with the dead is to come into contact death – to confront the bitter fate to which all succumb.  And it is this contact that requires purification, not because one touched the dead but because one confronted death (see Hirsch, Numbers 19:13).

The Torah prescribes two distinct purification rites upon contact with death: tevilah (immersion) and hazaah (sprinkling).  Tevilah is the process wherein the individual submerges himself in a mikvah (a ritual bath) – an act that must be done by the individual and therefore, “implies a capacity to change one’s condition.”  Hazaah, on the other hand, requires that a “pure individual” take the watery ashes of a red heifer and sprinkle them on the individual who has become defiled with death.   The human condition, defined by mortality, is not something one can resolve alone, the individual “cannot liberate himself; he is dependent upon others; only a tahor [pure one] can help him”.

The Midrash (Tanhuma, Hukat 28) teaches that this “pure” one is none other than God Himself.  Resolution to the futility that death implies is found only in the Creator; man cannot resolve it on his own.  But for God to be of help, one must have hope: hope in a world that is not futile, hope in “another world”, hope in a “higher destiny”.  For God to be of help one must hope with all his being; he must immerse himself, I suggest, in hope.  Indeed, is this not what immersion in a mikvah – rooted in the word “tikvah” (hope) – is really all about?  Only when man has so brought himself to hope in God, can God then respond through the redemptive sprinkling of “living waters” (19:17) that bring purity to life, that bring meaning to life.

Interestingly, Rabbi Soloveitchik resolves the enigma of death precisely through the very hope that Camus claims must be denied.  However, even Camus would admit that denying hope does not resolve the meaningless of a life terminated by death – but only serves “to fill a man’s heart” with the joy of the moment.  Rabbi Soloveitchik is not moved: “all human efforts to comprehend death and to lessen its dread are futile without an acceptance of a providential God.”  As such, there are basically two ways to confront death, and by extension, to live life: one can either live with hope, with meaning, with God or one can live in the tragic joy of the moment.

Interestingly, the myth of Sisyphus itself has something significant to say on this choice.  The interpretation Camus offered, shadowed by his bleak perspective on man’s fate, is, by his own admission, his alone; as he writes: “Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them.”  While this is certainly true, one cannot disconnect the various parts of the myth to suit one’s needs, and Camus never explained how Sisyphus’ afterlife was related to his actual life.

To review, the myth describes Sisyphus as having angered the gods, upon which they send Death to retrieve him; Sisyphus, however, succeeds in chaining Death and thus creates a world immortal, if but for a short time.  When the gods release Death, Sisyphus is naturally the first victim.  Upon arriving in the underworld, Sisyphus employs his knowledge of cultural mores and gains passage back to the world of the living where, according Camus, he “enjoyed water and sun, warm stones and the sea.”  Sisyphus continues to elude death until the gods bring him down by force, condemning him to his eternal rock.

Let us “breathe life” into the myth.  Sisyphus’ punishment was made, not in random vengeance but in careful consideration, to fit, most precisely, his crime.  Having denied death time and again, he clearly had a “passion for life” – but what did he do with that life?  He “enjoyed water and sun, warm stones and the sea.”  Sisyphus’ passion for life was not about purpose but about pleasure.  At this, “Mercury came and seized the impudent man by the collar and, snatching him from his joys, lead him forcibly back to the underworld, where his rock was ready for him.”

The message of the myth, then, is that life is about purpose and if one seeks not meaning then his eternity will be more of the same in simply starker terms.  There is really no meaningful difference between “enjoying water and sun” and pushing a rock up a mountain – for while the former is undoubtedly more enjoyable, it is every bit as meaningless as the latter.

If man’s passion for life is simply to live “facing the curve of the gulf, the sparkling sea, and the smiles of earth”, then perhaps Camus’ approach is best, hold no hope for anything greater.  On the other hand, if one’s passion is purpose, then “hope in the Lord and keep His way, and He will exalt thee to inherit the land [of eternity]… ” (Psalms 37:34).

About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at