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Existing is like driving a car. It can be a lot of fun, but one can also get frustrated. There's a manual that must be studied and tests to be taken before one can go solo.
Like the Tom Cochrane song says, "Life is a Highway." (To that sentiment, Meat Loaf adds, "If life is like a highway, then the soul is just a car.") But, as Diana Ross asks, "Do You Know Where You're Going To?"
Having been involved in Jewish education and outreach for over two decades, I have had occasion to discuss why we're here and where we're going with a broad spectrum of people. My standard reply: "We're here to improve ourselves and to do good for others, which will bring us closer to G-d."
I don't claim any great insight or originality in reaching this conclusion. At best, I can take credit for putting it concisely. But this conclusion can be seen consistently through a survey of Jewish literature. This approach, however, does not preclude us deriving benefit and experiencing pleasure from the material things of the world. If anything, it's inherent that we do enjoy our time on Earth.
The Mishna in Sanhedrin (4:5) adjures every individual to act as if the world was created specifically for him. Lest one mistakenly think that this is license to misuse the resources of the world, let us look at the charge given to the very first man, for whom the world literally was created. In the second chapter of Genesis, we are told: "G-d took the man, and put him in the garden in Eden to work it and to guard it" (2:15). Only after that are we told, "And G-d commanded the man saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may eat...'" (2:16). We have rights, but they are predicated on our responsibilities.
Pleasure is a good and necessary part of our existence, as Judaism does not believe in asceticism. Celibacy is not a virtue in Judaism and the Nazirite brings a sin-offering to atone for self-deprivation. But, conversely, hedonism is also unacceptable. Moderation is key.
Mesillas Yesharim, "The Path of the Just," is a classical work of mussar ("self-improvement," for lack of a better term), authored by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto in the 18th century. In it, he describes the proper approach one would take in order to master the traits of watchfulness, zeal, cleanliness, separation, purity, saintliness, humility, fear of sin and holiness. This certainly seems to be the last place one would expect to find the merits of pleasure. Nevertheless, in the very first chapter, Rabbi Luzzatto tells us that G-d created man for one reason and one reason only: so that man might know pleasure in G-d's Presence. But Rabbi Luzzatto is quick to disabuse us of the notion that this world is the place where that occurs. Rather, this world is the place to do G-d's will in order to earn that reward in the Next World.
This idea is beautifully expressed by a Mishna at the end of the tractate of Makkos, which is reprinted at the end of every chapter of Pirkei Avos ("Ethics of the Fathers") and commonly recited following a Torah lecture. In it, Rabbi Chananya ben Akashya says, "G-d desired to benefit the people of Israel, which is why He increased Torah and mitzvos (commandments) for them." Getting close to G-d is the greatest good, so He gave us many opportunities to do so. (This is also true of non-Jews; they just have a separate list of responsibilities.)
We can understand the benefits of earning our reward. After all, doesn't studying four years for a diploma make one feel prouder than ordering it from the back of a magazine? But, with the opportunity to earn reward comes the possibility of failure. In the Talmudic tractate of Eruvin (13b), the students of Hillel and those of Shammai debated for over two years about whether it is better that man was created (and can earn such great reward) or whether it would have been better had man never existed at all (rather than risk failure). In the end, this is not a productive debate: we are here, so we should do our best to hone our actions.
To return to our opening metaphor, existing is like driving a car. It can be a lot of fun, but one can also get frustrated. You don't just give your keys to a 16-year-old and say, "Go, have a good time!" There's a manual that must be studied and tests to be taken before one can go solo. And driving is not a goal in and of itself. Rather, it a means to an end. So enjoy the ride, but drive safely and don't forget your destination.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Associate Director of Synagogue Services for the Orthodox Union. He is the author of NCSY's acclaimed Torah on One Foot series of educational pamphlets, as well as the newly-released book The Nach Yomi Companion Volume 1: Neviim - Prophets, available on shopOU.org.
Read more articles on the meaning of existence in the Public Square
1/1/2000 5:00:00 AM