What’s the purpose of Torah and the meaning of life?

Questions that are often – quite understandably! – asked by students in Hebrew school, or any adult taking a class in philosophy or religion: What is the purpose of Judaism, and of Torah? What is the meaning of life? Are these even fair questions? As Jews, how do we think about these ideas?

What were you taught?

To benefit others

In his introduction to Nefesh haChaim, Rav Itzele (Yitzchaq) Volozhiner (1780-1849) recalls about his father (and the author), Rav Chaim:

והיה רגיל להוכיח אותי על שראה שאינני משתתף בצערא דאחרינא. וכה היה דברו אלי תמיד שזה כל האדם. לא לעצמו נברא רק להועיל לאחריני ככל אשר ימצא בכחו לעשות.

He regularly rebuked me, because he saw that I did not participate in the pain of others. And these were his constant words to me: This is the entire person. One is not created for himself, but to benefit others with the full extent of his powers.

This is the founder of the Yeshiva Movement, and yet he defines the purpose of creation not in terms of Torah study, but as “להועיל לאחריני – to benefit others”! (He is also responsible for the split-off from the Yeshiva Movement, Mussar, but that is not surprising from this quote.)

Similarly, to quote the opening words of Rav Shimon Shkop’s introduction to Shaarei Yosher:

יתברך הבורא ויתעלה היוצר שבראנו בצלמו ובדמות תבניתו, וחיי עולם נטע בתוכנו, שיהיה אדיר חפצנו, להיטיב עם זולתנו, ליחיד ולרבים בהוה ובעתיד בדמות הבורא כביכול, שכל מה שברא ויצר היה רצונו יתברך רק להיטיב עם הנבראים, כן רצונו ית׳ שנהלך בדרכיו כאמור “והלכת בדרכיו”, היינו שנהיה אנחנו בחירי יצוריו, מגמתנו תמיד להקדיש כוחותינו הגופניים והרוחניים לטובת הרבים, כפי ערכנו,…

Blessed shall be the Creator, and exalted shall be the Maker, Who created us in His ‘Image’ and in the likeness of His ‘Structure’, and planted eternal life within us [i.e. gave us the Torah], so that our greatest desire should be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator (as it were).

For everything He created and formed was according to His Will (may it be blessed), [that is] only to be good to the creations. So too His Will is that we walk in His ways. As it says “and you shall walk in His Ways” (Devarim 28:9) – that we, the select of what He made – should constantly hold as our purpose to sanctify our physical and spiritual powers for the good of the many, according to our abilities.

Note that this answer could be taken as his definition of what it means “to fix / establish the world as His kingdom” (לתקן\לתכן עולם במלכות שד-י) or to give Him a home in this world, or to sanctify this world (the latter definitely, as the intro continues “In my opinion, this whole concept is included in Hashem’s mitzvah “Be holy, [for I am Holy]….”), etc.

Rabbi Michah Berger

To get back to the state of being in Gan Eden

Our goal is to get back to Gan Eden before sin to the wholesome one soul which was shattered, and to get that is to infuse materialism within spirituality.

– Aharon Feldman, The Juggler and The King, Feldheim, 1991, Chapter 19, The Blocked Entrance.

Community allows us to know that our lives mean something

Rabbi Harold Kushner writes

“Religion offers us a cure for the plague of loneliness by bringing us into a community of people with whom we share what is most vital in our lives … [R]eligious faith also satisfies another, even deeper human need – perhaps the most fundamental human need of all. That is the need to know that somehow we matter, that our lives mean something, count as something more than just a momentary blip in the Universe.”

Harold Kushner, You’ve Got To Believe in Something, Redbook, 170(2), p.93, 1987

To have awe of God

In his Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed,) Maimonides says that the main purpose of the Torah is to arrive at deep fear (awareness) of God at all times.

“If thou wilt not observe to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that thou mayest fear this glorious and fearful name, the Lord thy God” (Deut. xxviii. 58). Consider how clearly it is stated here that the only object and aim of “all the words of this law” is to [make man] fear “the glorious and fearful name.

Moreh Nevuchim Part 3:51-52

Mystical unification of God in our world and in the upper worlds

This in fact is … the purpose for which humans, and all the worlds, both upper and lower, were created: that God should have such a dwelling-place here below. Humanity’s faith in the unity of God fulfills this goal. For when God’s unity is revealed in the mind and heart of people, this world becomes an abode for God; God is revealed there just as one reveals himself completely in his own home.

From Likutei Amarim Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi

Likutei Amarim, Tanya, Chapter 33

What is the purpose of existence?

Meaning in life doesn’t exist independently of what we do

American author and TV producer Joe Michael Straczynski writes this philosophical dialogue

If I told you to climb a mountain and bring me a flower from the highest point……and you will die after completing your task… …would that be meaningless?

Of course. It’s trivial.

And if there are a million people waiting at the base of that mountain, to whom that one flower was a symbol of their freedom, and they would follow that symbol and your death into a struggle that would liberate half a billion souls, would that have a meaning?

You see? We create the meaning in our lives. It does not exist independently.


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