In the unending nightmare of Auschwitz, Austrian psychologist Viktor Frankl wondered “What is the meaning of life?” In the landmark book he began writing there, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl held this to be a meaningless question because it assumes every life has the same meaning, if only we could discern it. But a universal meaning of that nature is not merely elusive; it is non-existent.
Instead, the ultimate question is, “What is the meaning of my life?” As Frankl put it, “Everything can be taken from [us] but one thing; the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” “Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment…” “One should not search for an abstract meaning of life,” he continues, “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out, a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it….”
In other words, we don’t discover meaning, we create it.
In declaring that we each have a particular mission or vocation, Frankl reminds us that meaning comes from choosing to be part of things that are larger, more significant, and more enduring than our fragile, mortal, sometimes lonely and bewildered selves. As Jews, we share and shape the faith and fate of the Jewish People. Our lives, though transient, are chapters in the grand, inspiring narrative of Jewish history.Among the most compelling of human sagas, ours began some 4000 years ago with an unlikely, world-changing encounter between the Creator of the Universe and an idol maker’s iconoclastic son. In Abraham and Sarah, the Holy One vested the hope and possibility of a world suffused with justice, compassion, and peace, a world in which God and humanity would become one.
That lofty aspiration was embodied in a brit, an eternal, unbreakable covenant among God, the two of them, and their posterity, which is to say: us. After two hundred generations of triumph and travail, creativity and fidelity, study and prayer, holiday and life cycle observances enriched by sacred custom, generations of service, tzedakah, and sacrifice, the Jewish People’s covenant with the Holy One of Blessing endures. It helps us make life-enhancing choices through a framework of spiritual insight and ethical values validated over millennia. It guides us in choosing between good and bad, less and more worthwhile, between important and unimportant, superficial and substantial, ordinary and extraordinary, sacred and mundane.
Essentially, Judaism is a curriculum for forming our character and fashioning a worthy life: sharing ourselves generously with others; striving to repair our broken world; performing consistently the deeds by which we hope most to be remembered; setting an example to emulate; investing our precious life-time in things that truly matter because they make a lasting difference in the lives of others. These mitzvot endow our lives with mindfulness and meaning.
It follows that meaningful choices are purposeful, and that our aims must go beyond ourselves. As Frankl observed, “The more one forgets oneself — by giving oneself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human one is and the more one actualizes oneself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more one would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel expressed a similar perspective in Human Being and Being Human. “What is involved in authentic living is not only an intuition of meaning, but a sensitivity to demand.…A person is one of whom demands can be made, who has the capacity to respond to what is required, not only to satisfy one’s needs and desires…The most important experience in the life of every human being [is this]: something is asked of me. Meaning is found in responding to the demand…”
From a Jewish perspective, then, the meaning-making choices by which we each define our life can realize their full potential only in relation to other souls, in community. The very first emotion experienced by Adam, our original human parent, was not meaning, but loneliness. Hence, God declared, “It is not good for a person to be alone.”
As it was in antiquity, so it remains. For us, however, community is more than an antidote to aloneness. It is an incubator of lasting relationships, personal growth and spiritual fulfillment. It enables us to nurture and be nurtured, comfort and be comforted, to live our values and transmit them to younger generations. As Professor Arnold Eisen wrote, in an incredibly complex, rapidly changing world, where we often feel adrift and isolated, “Judaism offers precisely what many in America have lost thanks to the freedoms and choices conferred by modernity: integral community and meaning profound enough to live by.”
Frankl’s foundational premise, that each person has a unique task and a specific opportunity to perform it, confirms the Torah’s assertion that human beings are created in God’s image, an unprecedented insight whose audacious implications cannot be overstated. To bear the Divine imprint means that human dignity is not contingent or conditional. Race, religion, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, national origin, appearance, abilities or disabilities and other characteristics have no bearing. Human dignity is inherent and intrinsic; it need not be earned, explained or justified.
An ancient midrash compared God, “the Sovereign of sovereigns,” with human monarchs. When the latter had coins minted bearing their profile, all were identical. By contrast, when God impresses the Divine image on us, each one is unique. Martin Buber quoted a Hasidic text: “Every person should know and consider the fact that you, in the particular way that you are made, are unique in the world, and no one like you has ever been. For if someone like you had already been, there would be no reason for you to [exist].”
Never before and never again has there ever been or will there ever be another person exactly like you. Never before and never again has there ever been or will there ever be another person exactly like you. That affirmation, that ultimate truth, is especially vital to embrace in times of loss and suffering, uncertainty and confusion, disappointment or disillusionment. Created in God’s image, we each hold a piece of the puzzle of human existence and, as Jews, the puzzle of Jewish existence, that no one else can supply. If we fail to do so, it will forever be missing. When we identify and share that piece, we experience meaning and transform the universe!
To truly grasp, or even glimpse, the miraculous nature and unique possibilities each of us embodies, consider how improbable human life was in the first place. Astronomer Fred Hoyle argued that the odds of the first single cell life form emerging from Earth’s primordial ooze were akin to those of a tornado assembling a jumbo jet out of a junkyard heap as it passes over.
Evolutionary biologist Matthew Cobb observed that there are more single-celled organisms alive on Earth than there are Earth-like planets in the observable universe, that the number of single-celled organisms that have lived on this planet in the course of 3.8 billion years is beyond calculation, and that these organisms have interacted “gazillions” of times. Yet, Cobb claims, “We’ve never had a second instance of…that remarkable moment when one unicellular life form lodged inside another, forming something more complex.”
Clearly, despite the epically miniscule likelihood of complicated life forms coming into being, they did. But that doesn’t take into account the unimaginably long odds of any particular person coming to be. Dr. Ali Binazir, a physician and philosopher, looked at the odds of one’s parents meeting, given how many men and women there are on Earth and how many potential mates one’s parents would have met in their first decades of life. Then he estimated the chances of them meeting, forming a long-term relationship, and having children together, and of the particular egg and sperm combining to make those kids. Going further back, he calculated the probability of all of one’s ancestors successfully mating, and the exact right sperm and eggs combining to make each of those ancestors. He concluded, “It is the probability of 2 million people getting together each day to play…with trillion-sided dice and everyone coming up with the exact same number….The odds that you exist at all are basically zero.”
Binazir offered a second analogy. Imagine that a singular life preserver is floating in the world’s oceans and there is exactly one turtle swimming somewhere underwater. He wrote, “The probability that you came about and exist today is the same as of that turtle sticking its head out in the middle of that life preserver, on [the first] try.” He estimated the odds at about one in 700 trillion, or one in 10 to the 2,685,100th power. He concluded, “A miracle is an event so unlikely as to be almost impossible. By that definition…you are a miracle. Now go forth and feel and act like the miracle you are.”
On January 1, 1946 at 8:30PM, the 23 year old Commanding Officer of U.S. Navy minesweeper, YMS 129, in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, wrote a letter to his bride of 15 months, Marian, his “Darling Sweetheart.” He announced the exciting news that his successor had arrived that evening, so he would soon be released from active duty and return to her. Showering her with endearments and expressing his eagerness to start a family, he closed, “I love and adore you with all my heart, mind, and body, my darling. You’re my whole world…Your adoring Hubby, your Bob.” The young couple’s first child, born January 6, 1947, is the author of this reflection: the miracle of me addressing the miracle of you.
If my father hadn’t been assigned to that particular vessel… If we had invaded Japan rather than dropped the atom bomb…If dad’s “relief” had arrived a day earlier or later…If my parents hadn’t felt like intimacy that night…if a different sperm reached the egg first – If, if, if, if- and countless other if’s, neither I, nor Susie’s and my children and grandchildren would exist, nor would any of our family’s future generations come to be. Yitzchak Tabenkin, a founder of Israel’s kibbutz movement, put it beautifully: “New worlds are born within us, and they endow our evanescent efforts with the feeling of eternity.”
If describing one’s particular existence as miraculous seems too poetical, metaphysical or theological, one alternative is “lucky.” Columnist Carl Richards described a friend who authored several best sellers. Asked what role luck played in his career, his friend replied, “Oh, luck has been everything. I can point to at least 10 occasions where pure, dumb luck landed me a huge break in my career….A guy I met on a plane, a random stranger, an introduction to a friend of a friend who happened to know a great book agent – that kind of luck.” Richards suggested, “Practice saying out loud, ‘I am very, very lucky” and says that “by recognizing the role luck has played in our lives, we can go forward with just a little more humility and a little less ego.”
What Richards called luck, others would consider “coincidence,” and as Albert Einstein is said to have remarked, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” Jewish tradition urges us to embrace the miraculous dimension of life, to begin and end each day by saying, “I am very, very blessed,” and identifying one or more reasons why. Our daily liturgy would have us recite, Modeh ani l’fanecha…” “I offer thanks to You, ever-living Sovereign, for restoring my soul to me in mercy.” Heightened awareness of our superabundant blessings stimulates humility and gratitude and reinforces our motivation to share our blessings, helping us become a miracle and a source of meaning for others, and not for ourselves alone.
Mary Oliver wrote,
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean —
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down —
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
As a new year begins, as each day dawns, as every sacred moment issues its unique invitation, the Creator of All proclaims, “Never before and never again has there ever been or will there ever be another person exactly like you…You are a miracle. Go forth and feel and act like the miracle you are.”
As a new year begins, as each day dawns, as every sacred moment beckons us toward meaning, the Holy One of Blessing insists, “You are part of things much larger, more significant, and more enduring than yourself: A sanctified community, a consecrated People, an eternal covenant with Me. Be faithful to them.”
As a new year begins, as each day dawns, as every sacred moment sends forth its personal summons, the Soul of the Universe gently, urgently inquires, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
How will we answer?