what is the purpose of life according to Judaism?
In last week’s XL and our first episode of From the Source, we explained the paradox of purpose with the ancient parable of the fruit tree whose trunk and branches were meant to taste like its fruit, but failed to do so.
In a nutshell, the paradox can be expressed like this:
If the purpose of a tree is to make fruit, and the purpose of its fruit is to grow trees, so then what is the purpose of either?
If we work for the weekend, but use our weekends to merely recharge for work, we’re winding ourselves up for an existential crisis.
The ancient solution to resolve this paradox is that purpose must always be found in the present. The meaningful weeks are the ones that produce meaningful weekends.
The future is merely a present moment that hasn’t arrived yet. If we can’t find meaning in our lives today, what makes us think we will find meaning in our lives tomorrow?
Our trunks and branches should taste as sweet as the fruit they produce. Our day-to-day pursuits should be as flavorful with meaning as the goals we are striving towards.
The problem is that while we’re very familiar with the kinds of images that represent benchmarks of future success — and we constantly judge our present moment against those images — it’s much harder for us to articulate the purpose that can be found directly in the present.
What is this mysterious purpose that we should be aligning ourselves with in any given moment?
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Mesilat Yesharim, the 18th century masterpiece of character development by the Italian Kabbalist-Philosopher Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal) articulates the purpose of life with 3 increasingly sophisticated and encompassing outlooks on life:
LEVEL 1 - The Goal is the Reward
The most rudimentary religious outlook is that you should do what you’re supposed to do, and avoid doing the things you’re not supposed to do, in order to maximize the reward you receive on the other side.
The idea is straightforward. If you perform acts whose value can’t be paid back in our limited, physical world, don’t worry — you will get repaid after 120 in a dimension that is eternal and unlimited.
Using Hebrew terminology:
To the degree to which you fulfilled God’s mitzvot (commandments) in this world, you will be rewarded in Olam Haba, the “The World to Come.”
This perspective must certainly be true insofar that the universe is ultimately fair. Everyone should be justly compensated for how they used their time on Earth. However, as an outlook, this perspective is a gross oversimplification, and naturally gets interpreted childishly by most people.
More importantly, it leaves us with the same empty feeling of a lifelong process that is intrinsically meaningless in exchange for a blurry notion of eternal pleasure at the end of the tunnel. It is yet another tree that tastes like bark that should be tolerated in order to eventually eat of its fruit. Again, true though it may be, this tit-for-tat framework is not a very inspiring vision of life.
Indeed, one of the oldest rabbinic traditions we have is:
LEVEL 2 - Religion as a Relationship
Adults around the world, since the beginning of time, have trained their children using a combination of incentives and punishments:
“If you eat your veggies, I will let you have dessert.”
“If you don’t clean your room, you can’t go out and play.”
The reason we all use these kinds of statements is because they work. Carrots and sticks undoubtedly have the power to alter behavior for children as surely as they do for animals. And if you pick the right carrots to dangle and the right sticks to wave, they work to change adult behaviors as well (as app designers can attest).
Through this prism, we can distinguish education from training. While training can only occur through extrinsic rewards and punishments, education can only occur through a person’s direct encounter with intrinsic value.
A thinking human will certainly get a job done to get a “treat,” but this will never in itself bring a thinking human to genuinely care about that job. People will only come to care about a behavior when they experience pleasure in performing that behavior essentially.
All the candy in the world from your local shul’s “Candy Man” will not make your children enjoy praying.
Obvious though it may be: a child will only come to enjoy praying when that child learns to enjoy praying.
This is why children eventually begin to game the system of incentives to simply maximize the candy they can amass. This, of course, frustrates adults who naively thought they could scam their kids with candy. Very quickly, they find that it is the kids who are scamming them.
This is true, unless the extrinsic value is leveraged to get the child to taste the intrinsic value we want them to experience. When a child finally experiences the joy of playing piano, she doesn’t need to be threatened to get her to practice.
Human beings will never change intrinsically through extrinsic carrots and sticks. We only change intrinsically when we grasp intrinsic value.
Getting them there is the essence of all education.
(Read Spare the Child, an outstanding book on this topic.)
This is the meaning of what King David writes in Psalms, “for me, closeness to God is goodness itself.”
Mitzvot are not good because they get you rewarded and protect you from punishment. Mitzvot are good because they connect you to Goodness.
Doing mitzvot should not be seen as carnival games through which we collect tickets we can exchange for prizes at the big glass case next to the Gates of Heaven.
Doing what our Creator put us in the world to do is nothing more and nothing less than an opportunity for us to connect with He Who created us. The pleasure of doing His Will is the pleasure of alignment with the same Will that willed us and the entire universe into existence. Anything other than this, which people ascribe value to, can, at best, be a currency to arrive at this. But this has no monetary equivalent.
Life is not meant to be a tasteless tree we tolerate in order to get to the tasty fruit. The tree is the fruit. For this reason, the daily blessing on Torah, known as the “Tree of Life — עץ חיים,” asks that God makes our study that day “sweet in our mouths” during our learning itself.
Of course, in the same way that our human relationships are forged only through our efforts to overcome our own laziness and self-absorption and the complexities of life, so too, our relationship with God requires constant investment in that relationship in the face of challenges that demand our efforts.
It is, however, precisely this effort that we invest, which ultimately connects us to Hashem in a lasting way.
It’s for this reason that the LEVEL 2 perspective is much more expansive and nuanced than the LEVEL 1 perspective. LEVEL 1 is simple: do mitzvot now, and get paid later. In LEVEL 2, mitzvot aren’t the only avenues for me to develop a relationship with the One Who placed us in the world. Any challenge in our lives that we face, and make an effort to grow through — is equally a channel to develop our relationship with our Creator — no less than the 613 “official” channels that are explicitly outlined in the Torah.
While LEVEL 2 is a huge upgrade to LEVEL 1, when you start to see it play out, you come to see that it is incomplete. This is what brings the Ramchal to present the perspective of LEVEL 3.
LEVEL 2 is undoubtedly more mature, sophisticated and encompassing than LEVEL 1. There are, however, at least three major deficiencies with the LEVEL 2 “Personal Relationship” perspective on life:
Spiritual Self-Absorption - If your sole goal is to pursue your private relationship with God, it can blind you to the needs of the world around you — a world that is desperate for connection, meaning, and alignment with purpose. How will you ever transcend your own spiritual self-absorption without a vision that includes the rest of the world?
The Universe is NOT Out to Get You - If you train your mind to view the world as a raging current that opposes at all times your forging a real relationship with your Creator, you can easily come to harbor an antagonistic disposition towards the “secular world,” and ultimately, towards the One Who deliberately placed you in such a challenging environment in the first place. “Hashem, if You want us to have a relationship with You, why did You make it so hard?!”
Missed Opportunities - The LEVEL 2 model of reality paints the physical world as a monolithic obstacle that we must constantly fight in order to reach our destination i.e. our relationship with God. This puts us in a position of either battling or circumventing the situations we find ourselves in. But what if there is a way to use the physical world in our favor? What if maybe, just maybe, the Creator Who put us here, designed ways to use the world that not only doesn’t oppose connection with Him, but actually facilitates that connection?
The LEVEL 3 perspective resolves all of these issues by placing the human being in the center of the map. It’s not merely about us using mitzvot to connect us to our reward in after we pass on to the next world (LEVEL 1), nor is it just about using mitzvot and life-challenges to connect us alone to Hashem (LEVEL 2). The LEVEL 3 perspective posits that Hashem created a world that “hangs in the balance,” and depends on us and our decisions. If we connect to our mission and use the world as it was designed to be used, as a tool to connect ourselves and those around us to all that is good in the world, we bring out the best in the world, and raise up this world to its God-given potential. If, however, we misuse the world, we denigrate ourselves and bring down the world with us.
This is the winning outlook when we roll the first two perspective into it.
Shifts the focus from “my connection” to elevating the world around us — avoiding the problem of spiritual self-absorption.
Embraces an outlook that Hashem is good and generous, and wants us to succeed.
Allows one to not view the “secular world” as the enemy or obstacle, but rather a world of tools that one merely needs to figure out how to use with wisdom and good judgment for it serve its higher purpose.
This outlook allows us to find meaning in every moment. Every moment is an opportunity to deepen our honest relationship with Hashem while knowing that our connection is meant to lift up the world around us.
The question we have to explore next time is:
What was God’s purpose in creating this elaborate world in the first place?
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Click below to watch episode #2 of From the Source on this subject. Please like, comment, and share if you like it!