Rav Yaakov Meir wrote, “In Chullin 58 we find a fascinating story. The Gemara records that people tell of a gnat who rebelled against her husband for seven years since he once enjoyed sucking a man’s blood without telling her. The Gemara explains that although gnats don’t live that long this number of years is meant to be relative to its brief lifespan. Its short life is divided into seventy segments. For seven of those segments this insect abandoned her mate in anger. Although gnats live a very short lifespan, these creatures still squandered their days on folly, fighting and taking vengeance. This story begs for an explanation.”
Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Life’s Too Short”
This is part of a series of blogs I’m writing based, though not always directly, on the JLI course Toward a Meaningful Life. If you haven’t done so yet, please review yesterday’s installment, Why Are We Who We Are?, then return here and continue reading.
Yes, it certainly does beg for an explanation. Fortunately, the explanation is obvious.
The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more. –Psalm 103:15-16
LORD, what are human beings that you care for them,
mere mortals that you think of them?
They are like a breath;
their days are like a fleeting shadow. –Psalm 144:3-4
The aforementioned “Story off the Daf” includes the following:
A certain person had a hard time capitalizing on his time. He learned but also wasted lots of time on what he knew was nonsense. Although he wished to stop, he didn’t feel like he could do so himself, so he sought some inspiration to wake him up.
It’s not like we don’t know that life is short. It’s not like we don’t know that we are wasting time in frivolous pursuits. Social networking is just the latest method we have of pouring our hours down the drain, but we also have many other activities that don’t contribute to those things we know are most important:
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” –Matthew 22:37-40
So what are we doing? Is even blogging on topics such as this one a waste of time? What should I be doing instead?
When I realize all that there is to learn, all that there is to accomplish in even attempting to understand one more thing about God, about humanity, about how to live a better, more meaningful life, I feel time gaining on me. I am aware that in my life, there are more days behind me than there are ahead. When you’re young, you think that time is an infinite resource, like the ocean or the sky, but as you get older, you realize that even the water and the air can become used up. So it is with life.
Is there an optimal amount of learning that, when accomplished, can be said to be “enough”? I can’t imagine that there is, and yet so many Christians, Jews, and other people of faith seem to behave as if that were true. I guess that’s how we justify sitting in front of the TV, or going to a baseball game, or even taking an afternoon nap.
But on the other side of the coin, is life just for toil, even in the service of God? That’s hard to say. We don’t see the Apostle Paul ever taking a vacation. Moses didn’t ask God for time off when leading the Children of Israel in the desert so he could relax in Cabo or Aruba. Did Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel ever take a break to go and “smell the roses”?
On the one hand, there’s a tremendous urgency about life, living, learning, and serving God. On the other hand, we have this:
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.”
What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever. –Ecclesiasties 1:2-4
We’re here today and gone tomorrow. Does what we do really matter? In seventy or eighty years in life, what sort of real impact do we make? Sure, there are very famous people whose lives do make a tremendous difference on the national or global landscape. I’m sure most people know of the accomplishments of people like Dr. Martin Luther King or Mother Theresa, and many people will continue to learn about them for years to come. But most of us aren’t like them. Most of us…the vast, vast majority of us, don’t really make that much of a difference.
Maybe it just comes down to making a decision about what to pay attention to. If we focus on the futility of life and realize that not much we do really affects more than a tiny handful of people in the world, we can then just sit down and stop moving, because it doesn’t really matter. Or we can focus on that tiny handful of people who do think what we do matters…our spouse, our children, our parents, our friends…if we stopped doing and being, what would happen to them?
I know we can’t learn everything and we can’t do everything. When I’m gone, nothing I’ve ever done will really be remembered. Eventually, it will be as if I never existed. On the other hand, maybe it’s enough to matter, even a little, to just a few people. If one person’s life matters to just five or ten other people. and everything those five or ten people do matters to another five or ten each, if we multiple all of that out, eventually reaching all the people there are, then we do matter. Futile or not, each individual is a small part of a larger system. From the point of view of a molecule, it’s hard to see that it makes up the structure of something vital like a human heart.
Also, from our temporal point of view, it’s sometimes hard to see the wider scope that we are a part of, simply because God cares for us and we are His children:
Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For,
“All people are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of the Lord endures forever.”
And this is the word that was preached to you. –1 Peter 1:22-25
As people, we know that regardless of what we accomplish in any endeavor, it will never be enough. But we have to let whatever we can do be enough against the larger background of eternity. Even, if like the gnat, we waste some portion of our precious lifespan, we are still a part of something that is much, much larger than we could possibly imagine…and that our days, even when exhausted, spent, and depleted, will continue to extend to that place that has no time, when our tiny feeble sparks once again fly free and reunite with the fire that is the source of all things…God.