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What Makes Life Meaningful?

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

I wanted to share with you a few lines from an article in the Arizona Republic Jobs section on May 10th[1] entitled, “Without Meaning, Work is a Chore.” Angelo Kinicki writes that, “People are happier, healthier and more productive when they are doing “meaningful” work. . . We believe that something is more meaningful when it provides value to a greater good. In other words, we tend to see our work as meaningful when we view it as contributing to something bigger than ourselves.” He quotes Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s search for Meaning that “striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force.” “Meaning,” Kinicki concludes, “comes from having a purpose in our lives.”

Okay, so the man is writing in the Jobs section. I guess we can forgive him for his narrow focus on work as a source of meaning. It is certainly true that to have work that one loves is a tremendous blessing. I know how fortunate I was to sense a calling to be a rabbi at the age of 11, and to wake up every morning genuinely thrilled to engage in this holy work. Not everyone has work that is so inherently meaningful.

But really? It’s not just that without meaning work is a chore. Without meaning, life is a chore! The joy of religious life, of Jewish life, is the sense of meaning it infuses into every moment of our being, challenging us to unlock the potential for holiness that hides just below the surface. The words of the prophet Micah (6:8) offer a guide to the search for meaning. The prophet asks, “What does God really want from us?” His answer 3 things, “To do justly, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with the Holy One.”

The breadth and depth of our tradition and its endless wisdom provide a lifetime of study on the subject of goodness, of meaning. Yet Micah, in these few words, reminds us of the fundamental values that are the foundation of the Jewish way to find meaning in life. Justice, first and foremost. Justice in the means, justice in the ends, justice for all. Justice overrides every other principle. Pirke Avot (5:11) teaches us that, “The sword comes into the world due to the delay or perversion of justice.”

Second, the love of kindness. How beautifully Micah expresses it! Not only must we be kind, we must love kindness. We must treat each other with deep kindness and understanding. We must always give each other the benefit of the doubt. We can never know the pain another person may be suffering, so chesed, loving acts of kindness, are always in order. Compassion and tenderness should guide our way. And, not only that. More. When we see others acting with kindness, the prophet tells us that our hearts should be touched. The love of kindness is a path towards meaning.

Third- humility. Humility leads to awe. When we have an appropriate sense of our place in the world, we open up space to appreciate the glory of the universe, the beauty of the creation, and we are humbly grateful to the Creator. Acting justly, loving kindness, walking humbly. Putting Micah’s words into action will imbue our days with meaning, way beyond the meaning provided in our work lives.   The philosopher Henry Nelson Wieman expressed it thus, “Men must find greatness somewhere, else the humanity dies out of them.”[2]

One more thing. A personal footnote to Micah. Meaning emerges from relationship. Family, friends, community. When my beloved husband died on May 19th, I lost the central relationship of my life. In my sorrow, I resonated with the words of Bertrand Russell in his autobiography (p. 305)- “Why should you suppose I think it foolish to wish to see the people one is fond of? What else is there to make life tolerable? We stand on the shore of an ocean, crying to the night and the emptiness; sometimes a voice answers out of the darkness. But it is a voice of one drowning; and in a moment the silence returns. The world seems to me quite dreadful; the unhappiness of most people is very great, and I often wonder how they all endure it. To know people well is to know their tragedy: it is usually the central thing about which their lives are built.”

I miss David so much. Little poignant non-events make me teary, and every day I want to call him, email him, comfort him and be comforted by him. Yet, I know I can’t let my life be defined by this loss. I am challenged, as we all are, to find meaning in so many relationships. Let me conclude by sharing with you the words I wrote on Facebook in the days following his death. I quoted Jane Howard- “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” I needed a clan, I needed a network, I needed a tribe, I needed a family. You were all there. A lifetime of thank yous is not enough.

Thank God we have each other.






[1] Kinicki, Angelo, “Without Meaning Life is a Chore,” Arizona Republic, May 10, 2015, p. 6E

[2] Wieman, Henry Nelson, The Source of Human Good, p. 112

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