Does My Life Have Meaning?

Is there a Biblical proof for this idea?

I recently re-read Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. I’m confident that you are familiar with this account of one man’s efforts to survive a Nazi concentration camp.

Is there a relevant story in the Torah about the importance of having something to look forward to in order to give life meaning?

Regards, Tom P.

Dear Tom,

In our opinion, Victor Frankl’s book should be on a required reading list. We certainly highly recommend it. As a prisoner in Auschwitz and Dachau, among other concentration camps, his theses as to what makes people yearn to survive carries great weight.

As the title suggests, Dr. Frankl recognized the human need for meaning in life and the necessity of living for more than ourselves. You ask if we can point to a relevant story in the Torah. Without being facetious, may we recommend Genesis 1:1 through Deuteronomy 34:12? We would throw in all of the books of Prophets and Writings as well.

You summarize his point as “something to look forward to.” We wouldn’t phrase it like that. We might look forward to a trip to Disneyland, but it doesn’t give our life meaning. Playing a role in shaping the future, whether through our own families or through our communities and nation, however, gives great meaning.

Whether we look at Moses or David, Rebecca or Miriam, ancient Jewish wisdom emphasizes that Biblical leaders are chosen because they exhibit empathy and caring for others rather than elevating their own needs above all. The entire Torah is forward looking, whether it is the Matriarchs pleading for children (Genesis 30:1) the text admonishing us to tell our children about the Exodus from Egypt (Deuteronomy 6:20), or King David composing the songs for the Temple even knowing that he would not merit to build it.

There is a terrible phrase in modern Hebrew – magiah li – that loosely translates as, “I deserve it,” or “they owe it to me,” with ‘they’ being the world or other people or society. That destructive outlook parallels the entitlement mentality that has suffused American public life for the past few decades. This is almost universal today. It requires deliberate effort to raise children uncontaminated by its poison. It does not surprise us at all that anxiety and depression, with all its toxic accompaniments, soar when the emphasis is on what each individual deserves/wants/covets vs. what each individual can do for others. A lack of desire for children goes hand-in-hand with that, though which comes first and which follows is a chicken and egg question.

In the Lord’s language, Hebrew, God’s name is made up of three words—past, present, and future. The idea is obvious. People who live only in the past are sad caricatures of old people who have surrendered life. People who live only in the present pursue hedonism with a tragic desperation. People who live only in the future are shackled by a childlike indifference to what is happening around them. Fulfillment is found by ensuring that each day we retain a focus on past, present and future. Therein lies hope and meaning.

A belief shared by Jews and Christians is that whatever we are facing is part of a process leading to an ultimate Messianic redemption. This too, provides meaning for looking forward. When we see ourselves as part of a chain starting with Adam and Eve and moving towards redemption, our existence has intrinsic significance. As Dr. Frankl observed, we cannot control the actions of those around us, as heinous as they may be. We can strive to control our own minds.

Keep on reading great books,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin


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