Tag Archives: meaningful life

Time is the Fire

Woman in fireRav 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”
Chullin 58

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”?

Running out of timeOn the one hand, there’s a tremendous urgency about life, living, learning, and serving God. On the other hand, we have this:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
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.

The Prophet and the Shade Plant

JonahJonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Now the Lord G-d appointed a kikayon, and it grew up over Jonah to be shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. Jonah was overjoyed with the kikayon.

But G-d designated a worm when the morning rose the next day, and the worm attacked the kikayon, and it withered.

Now it came to pass when the sun shone, that G-d appointed a stifling east wind; the sun beat on Jonah’s head, and he felt faint. He begged to die, and he said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

And G-d said to Jonah: “Are you very grieved about the kikayon?” And he said, “I am very grieved even to the point of death.”

And the Lord said: “You took pity on the kikayon, for which you did not toil nor did you make it grow; it lived one night and the next night perished. Now should I not take pity on Nineveh, the great city, in which there are many more than one hundred twenty thousand people that cannot discern between their right hand and their left, and many animals as well?”Jonah 4:5-11

Before continuing to read, if you haven’t done so already, go to yesterday’s meditation and review part 2 in this series: Mission Drift, then come back here.

The Rohr Jewish Learning Institute’s Rabbi Mordechai Dinerman wrote a commentary called “Jonah and the Big Shade” on which today’s morning meditation is based. You all probably know the basic story of Jonah. My inserting Jonah’s story here may seem a little mysterious in light of what I’m trying to study in this series of blog posts. Most people walk around the earth searching for purpose and meaning, but for Jonah, those things were abundantly clear. Right from the beginning, Jonah was a Prophet of God and his path was set before him:

The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” –Jonah 1:1-2

I would imagine that if God came out point blank and told me the specifics of my purpose in life, where I was to go to find it, and what I was to do to fulfill it, I’d be thrilled beyond comprehension. But then again, maybe not. Jonah wasn’t thrilled. In fact, he tried to run away from his purpose and from God. He didn’t get very far. He was meant to go to Ninevah one way or the other. Like the old joke says, “we can do this the easy way or the hard way.” Jonah didn’t choose the easy way.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post as a commentary for Torah Portion Masei. One of the key features of this Torah Portion is Moses reciting all of the places the Children of Israel camped during the 40 years of wandering. Why do that? Wasn’t the journey more important than the rest stops?

Perhaps not.

Recall the quote from yesterday’s morning meditation that was taken from the course book for the “Toward a Meaningful Life” lesson:

I wake up in the morning with the knowledge that my unique opportunities will be used to convey my individual personality in the places I find myself, thus inspiring the people around me.

Pay attention to the phrases, “my unique opportunities” and “in the places I find myself”. For Jonah, he could go no place on earth besides Nineveh in order to fulfill his purpose. He tried to go just about anyplace else, but that didn’t work out. Once the Children of Israel were consigned to wander the Sinai for 40 years, were they just wandering, or was there a purpose to where they went and what they did while they were there? What would have happened if they hadn’t encountered the descendents of Lot or Esau? Was it important that Aaron die specifically on Mount Hor? What about the battles and victories over Og, King of the Bashan and Sihon, King of the Amorites?

If the wanderings were truly aimless and the people and events they encountered really just random, why did Moses recount them to all of Israel on the threshold of entering Canaan? Why did Moses even bother to remember? Why were his words recorded in the Torah for all time to come, and why do we have them today?

Jonah's KikayonJonah had a reason to be at Ninevah and there was even a special purpose in his encounter with the kikayon plant (no one know exactly what this plant was supposed to be…it’s just a plant, but it had a purpose, too). Now think about where you go every day. Think about all of the places you’ve lived. Where have you gone on vacation? Where have you been “randomly” sidetracked? What did you do there and did any of it matter?

If your life isn’t random and arbitrary but rather, has a purpose and meaning assigned by God, then so does where your feet have taken you, or your car, or a train, or a plane, or whatever transportation you have used.

But what about the kikayon? Why did Jonah care more about that plant than he did for over 120,000 people in one of the largest cities in the world (at that point in history)? For that matter, why did God care about Ninevah when they had sinned greatly, including against the Israelites? God has exterminated whole people groups for their sin. Why did he care enough to spare Ninevah?

The most common explanation is that He felt compassion for their lives. They didn’t know their left hand from their right. They were helpless and blind, as far as God was concerned. Did Jonah care about the kikayon in the same way that God cared for Ninevah?

Yes and no.

Rabbi Dinerman explains:

In fact, the final message of the Book of Jonah is much more than a message about compassion. It is a message about the utter indispensability of every creature. G-d allows Jonah to enjoy the shade of a simple plant that protects him from the blazing sun. And the relief that Jonah feels as a result is so great that he cannot imagine being deprived of it, and when it is taken away, he is so upset that he cannot imagine living without it.

Jonah wasn’t upset about the kikayon’s death because he had compassion for it. He was upset because the kikayon served the purpose of shading him from the elements, and its death ended that purpose in Jonah’s life. How does this apply to the people and animals of Ninevah? Did God spare them because they repented and He had pity on them, or did He spare them because they repented and they were ready to fulfill their purpose in life?


Yesterday, I quoted Rabbi Simon Jacobson’s famous definition of purpose:

Birth is G-d’s way of saying “you matter.”

Perhaps life is G-d’s way of saying “you still matter.” As long as it lived, the kikayon had a purpose and when its purpose ended, God appointed the means of its death. Though Jonah fully expected to die when he was thrown into the sea, God appointed a sea creature to preserve his life and to deliver him to his destination. Although the Book of Jonah ends abruptly, as if stopping in the middle of the story, we know that God spared Ninevah for a reason, we just don’t know what happens next.

You and I are still alive today, but the rest of our story hasn’t been written yet. There are still places to go, people to meet, things to do, and somehow, that’s all part of the reason we are here, even if we don’t always understand it.

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? –Matthew 6:28-30

The kikayon was only a plant, and yet it had a purpose assigned by the Creator of the Universe. Even the cattle in Ninevah each had a purpose. Jesus talks about grass growing one day and being thrown into the fire the next, and yet it is clothed in more splendor than King Solomon in all his royal glory.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. –Matthew 10:29-31

Grass, kikayons, sparrows, and cattle. Are you not worth more than all of these? If these common things all have a purpose and significance in the eyes of the Creator, how much greater is your purpose and significance to God?

Don’t go away. I’ll publish my commentary for Torah Portion Eikev in a few hours.

This series will continue on Sunday’s “morning meditation” Shattered Fragments. How does man and woman becoming “one flesh” affect the reason God made us?

Mission Drift

AdriftI wake up in the morning with the knowledge that my unique opportunities will be used to convey my individual personality in the places I find myself, thus inspiring the people around me.

-from the Jewish Learning Institute course
“Toward a Meaningful Life”

I gratefully thank You, living and existing King for returning my soul to me with compassion.
Abundant is your faithfulness.
Modeh Ani

Before continuing to read, if you haven’t done so, go to yesterday’s morning mediation Struggling in the Dark. The conversation about meaning and significance really starts there.

Do you have a purpose in life? Does your life matter to others or even to one single other human being? Would it make any difference if you had not been born? Why are you here?

I suppose everyone has asked those questions about themselves at one point or another. We can look around us and see a gifted teacher, a compassionate doctor, a brilliant scholar and know immediately why God created them and why they are here. For a lot of people though, it may not be immediately apparent. We live ordinary lives. We work ordinary jobs. We don’t seem to be special in any way whatsoever. Would the world turn any differently if we weren’t here on the planet?

That’s hard to say. It comes down to the fundamental question of whether or not each individual person matters in God’s plan, as opposed to only certain key individuals being part of God’s plan, and existing within the mass of the rest of humanity.

Simon Jacobson, author of the book Toward a Meaningful Life asks that question and answers it by saying, “Birth is G-d saying that you matter.”

“Birth is G-d saying that you matter.”

By Rabbi Jacobson’s definition (and hopefully God’s), if you were born, you matter. More than that, you matter specifically to God because He created you to have a special mission to accomplish with your life.


I’m sure a lot of people would be. For most of us, we can’t imagine what we can do that would be special to God. What’s more important is to realize that we have that importance in the eyes of God no matter what anyone else thinks or feels about us.

That part can be difficult. It’s easier to imagine we are important to God when we’re important to other people. It can be more difficult to imagine we are important if we feel as if we don’t really matter to other people, beyond their obligation to say that we matter. Do we feel valued for who we are intrinsically as a person, or only for the role we play (employee, parent, child, family wage earner, taxpayer, and so on)? If we stopped doing what others expected of us, would they still care about whether or not we even existed?

Remember, I’m not talking about people who expect you to show up at work every day or to pay the bills on time. While those activities are certainly important, do you think God created you just to pay bills? Isn’t there something more to your life in the plan of the Creator of the Universe? I’m not particularly talking about something “flashy” or “fantastic”, but I am talking about something meaningful beyond the mechanics of everyday existence and particularly in terms of what God considers valuable, rather than the values of the world around us.

Through all that and more, as human beings, we struggle to find significance in the eyes of God, whether we really believe in that significance or not.

When Jesus (famously) said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) was “so loved the world” a generic reference to people in general, or did he mean “so loved each and every individual in the world across all human history”? If birth is the criteria, then the latter must be true.

That means when you get up in the morning, you have a particular mission to accomplish. This first chapter in the JLI lesson I’m reading (no, I’m not taking the course, my wife “gifted” me with the lesson book from the class she previously attended) guides the student into creating a mission statement: a one to two sentence statement of goals and purpose, usually for an organization. According to the class material, people need mission statements as well. Without one, a person will be about as successful in discovering their purpose in life as a company without a well-stated and defined reason for existence.

Here are a few examples of the original mission statements from now successful companies:

“To produce high-quality, low-cost, easy to use products that incorporate high technology for the individual. We are proving that high technology does not have to be intimidating for noncomputer experts.” –Apple

“We create happiness by providing the finest in entertainment for people of all ages, everywhere.” –Disney

“To make the world’s information universally accessible and useful” –Google

Modeh AniI think you get the idea.

But what is your mission? For that matter, what is mine?

Maybe you know exactly what yours is or perhaps, staring at a blank piece of paper and expecting to write it down, you have come to the abrupt realization that it will take you a lifetime to figure out.

One of the main reasons I created this blog is to provide a platform for me and others to start the day exploring something about ourselves and the world around us that gives meaning and purpose to our lives. There are days when, looking at the web traffic to my blog, I feel as if I’m talking only to myself. If just one other person reads my blog and benefits from it, is that a sufficient fulfilling of my existence in the eyes of God? Am I fulfilling my purpose, or have I lost my way? Do I have a path or am I wandering aimlessly.

I found something said by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks that addresses this query and that has provided the main theme for today’s morning mediation:

One of my favorite contemporary phrases is “mission drift”. First used by the military, it’s what happens when in pursuit of an objective people forget what objective they were pursuing. You get sidetracked. The territory turns out to be not like the map. The going is harder than you thought it would be. You lose your way. The car breaks down. On the brink of departure, it looked so simple. But then, as someone (no one’s quite sure who) once said, “In theory there’s no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is.”

In a single chapter in one lesson book, there’s probably material for half a dozen blog posts or more, maybe because the lesson is that good or, more likely, because the questions of  purpose and “mission drift” are just that fundamental to humanity.

If we are only human and God is a God who needs nothing, what can we do on Earth that He needs from us?

There’s more to discover in subsequent morning meditations. Like the topic of depression brought up in yesterday’s missive, exploring your meaning and purpose may not be a comfortable journey, but I invite you to join me on the trail. Let’s see what we can find together, starting in tomorrow’s morning meditation, “The Prophet and the Shade Plant”.

As you keep reading through this series we will continue to ask one challenging and terrifying question: “Who am I and why am I here?”