The Meaning of Life is a Life of Meaning
Rosh Hashannah 5769
Delivered before Congregation Beth Meier on Rosh Hashannah
“Hold fast to the spirit of youth – let years to come do what they may!” Emblazoned on the mantle of the fireplace in hallowed John Jay Hall, this is the toast of the Philolexian Society, my literary society when I was an undergraduate at Columbia. It translates into Hebrew as “L’chayim!” “To life!” is a very loaded statement, as we well know from Fiddler on the Roof, “If our good fortune never comes here’s to whatever comes”, “life has a way of confusing us, blessing and bruising us, drink l’chayim to life!”
Nothing captures the complexity of life like this past week’s Torah portion: The Rabbis mandated that Nitzavim always be read the Shabbat before Rosh Hashannah. Though one of the shortest parshiot in the Torah it repeats numerous times the importance of life: God places before us life and death, blessing and curse, good and evil. Choose life!
The ultimate philosophical question is, “what is the meaning of life?” “Why are we here?” Ma Anu? Meh Chayeynu? We ask this at the very beginning of Psukei D’zimra and it will be a central piece of the Yom Kippur liturgy. I believe that the answer lies in the second chapter of Genesis. “And the Lord God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to till it and tend it”, today being traditionally the 5,769th anniversary of this event. Be God’s gardeners and shepherds to make the world a better place. Though at first glance this may seem a good idea for the meaning of life, it is only the start: I believe it is the very next verse. “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die”. The choices of Nitzavim are here: The trees of Life, Good, Evil, and the threat of Death for partaking in any of them.
Now pay close attention because there will be a test on this: Adam and Eve had a major decision to make: Whether to eat or to not eat from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil:
If they don’t eat they will live forever in paradise and walk with God. They will never hunger with a guarantee of food and provisions forever, never get sick, never die. They will also never learn anything, never experience feelings or emotions. Ignorance is bliss. If they ate, on the other hand, they would be exiled from paradise, banished from the obvious Presence of the Lord. Their biological clock would begin to tick as they experience mortality, sickness, painful childbirth, barrenness. They will engage in backbreaking toil to attain bread (a successful harvest, food and rain are not even a guarantee). But they would feel emotions. Pain and sorrow, yes, but also love, happiness, and satisfaction.
True to my word there is indeed a test on this, in the form of an informal poll. With a show of hands, how many of you, if in the position of Adam or Eve would NOT eat from the Tree of Knowledge? How many of you would indeed eat from the tree?
If you tell a child they can have any food in the kitchen except for the cookies. “Don’t eat the cookies,” you scold. What is the first thing he is going to go for? The cookie! That is human psychology whether you are a child or an adult with or without the ability to reason. Eating from the tree was a natural choice.
As opposed to my Christian colleagues who call this the downfall of man and Original Sin, I actually find this to be one of the most positive events in History. I am firmly convinced that God actually intended us to eat from the Tree. The catalyst of human history is one honey-tongued serpent. If God is Omnipotent and Omniscient, then He must have placed the snake in that tree. God intended us to have a free will to make the decisions whether to follow or shirk His laws and ethics and not be his drooling Garden drones. There are consequences to our actions but we have the freedom to make these decisions.
We were removed from the garden which is eternally guarded by fiery cherubs lest we eat from the tree of life and live forever. So why choose life in these four options?
By eating from the tree we have already chosen Good, Evil, and Death (as the tree has given us both knowledge and mortality). There is only one more option we have not yet tried: Life. Now God finally gives us access to something which we have been denied since our expulsion from the Garden of Eden by locked gate, fiery cherub and ever-turning sword: The Tree of Life. We choose life by holding fast to the Torah, and the wooden Torah rollers are called Etzei Chayim. which we grab onto when taking an aliyah or lifting the Torah.
Torah is ultimate knowledge, it is everlasting life. It links us to our past. Most of our liturgical additions for the High Holidays focus on life: “Zochreynu L’chayim, Melech chafetz bachayim, v’choteveinu b’sefer hachayim lemancha Elohim Chayim”, “Remember us for life, O King who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life – for your sake O Living God.” Throughout the liturgy of these Ten Days of Repentance our liturgy is rife with pleas to be inscribed in the Book of Life.
Even in death there is life. If, God-forbid, someone dies we don’t focus on their death but talk about their life and when we come together to recite Kaddish there is not a single mention of death, only life, because shiva, mourning, comfort, these are all for the living.
Torah is the Family Tree of Life. It records the names and deeds of our ancestors, men and women of piety who, through our study, live forever. How will the world remember us when we are gone?
When burying their dead, the Ancient Greeks would place an obolus coin under the tongues of the deceased so they could pay the fare to Charon to ferry them across the River Acheron on their journey to Hades. Jews however are not buried with trinkets nor vested in designer suits but in a disqualified tallis and simple white shrouds, a feeling which the white robe I wear today is meant to evoke. We Jews believe that we cannot take anything with us. Our legacy is rather through our deeds. Whether good or evil this is how we will be remembered.
We were created B’tzelem Elohim, in the Image of God. But how can we take this literally if one of the basic tenets of our faith is that God is non-corporeal? The medieval commentator Nachmanides says that we were made of two Neshamot, like all other animals we are formed of the dust of the earth, thus like all other animals we are mortal, need to eat, sleep, reproduce, but also have a free will. And we are also like the celestial beings made in the Image of God we are made with an immortal soul with the ability to reason and understand and that thirsts not for water but for God. An amalgamation of the two, we can be at once dust and ashes and heavenly. Unlike angels we have a free will.
And yet, It is not in Heaven. One of the most famous stories in the Talmud, and the unofficial theme of the Conservative Movement Bava Metzia 59b quotes Nitzavim. Rabbi Eliezer, convinced that he is right on his arguments, causes supernatural occurrences at his command, the movement of a tree, the reversing of a flow of a river upstream, the collapse of the walls of the house of study, yet all are rebuffed by Rabbi Joshua and the rest of the sages as meaningless. When a Heavenly voice cries out “Rabbi Eliezer is right! He’s always right”. Rabbi Joshua responds, “It is not in heaven’, for since the Torah was removed from the realm of God when given at Sinai, we no longer pay heed to heavenly voices. It is up to us to make our own decisions whether to continue the divine work of Creation or to destroy.
Our great philosopher and codifier of Jewish law, Maimonides records that the Jews that left Egypt recited a blessing over the manna: “Hamotzi Lechem Min HaShamayim”, “Praised are You Lord our God, King of the Universe who brings forth bread from the sky”. This blessing makes sense, in the desert God cared for us and gave us ready to eat manna. This parallels the blessing we say over bread: “Hamotzi Lechem Min Haaretz”, “Praised are You Lord our God, King of the Universe who brings forth bread from the ground”. Have you ever pulled ready-to-eat bread out from the ground? No! The process is extensive getting bread from the ground to your table. We plant seeds in the ground, which with the help of sun and rain eventually cause wheat to sprout. Humans still cannot digest the wheat at this point. It needs to be gleaned and harvested, threshed, milled, mixed with water and other ingredients, kneaded, baked, all before it can be eaten. So why do we thank God for pulling bread from the ground? We do God’s work when we make bread just as we do God’s work when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, help out someone in need, cry out against injustice. This is what it means to be made in the image of God. When Adam and Eve followed the advice of the snake and made that history-altering decision to eat from the tree, God said “now the man has become like one of us”. No longer do we eat the manna falling from the sky, but have become God’s partners in creation. So the meaning of life, my friends, is not merely to till and to tend, but to live. God wants us to eat from the tree.
May years to come bring what they may, but may this year be a year of health, love, life and peace. Shanah Tovah.