Life's Purpose

Why am I here? What is my worth? Does my life have purpose and meaning? These are questions we all ask ourselves, if not consciously, then subconsciously.

We humans are meaning making machines. We crave meaning because we need our lives to be purposeful. We fall into despair and depression in the absence of purpose and meaning. Torah, in describing God’s plan for, and creation of the universe, is asserting that our lives are purposeful, not accidental. Genesis, chapter 1 describes a loving God, carefully and precisely constructing a universe so that humanity, the pinnacle of creation, can dwell in it and fulfill its potential to be righteous. Psalm 90 reminds us – as if we need this reminder – that time is our most precious commodity and therefore our primary goal should be to acquire a heart of wisdom. A heart of wisdom greatly enhances the quality of our finite lifetimes.

I offer seven responses to the question, “What is the purpose of life?” There is no one Jewish answer, and my list of seven surely does not cover all possibilities. I am drawn to the number seven, the mystical number of Creation (Torah tells us God created the world in seven days). Since Torah teaches that the universe of which we are part was created purposefully in seven days, I offer seven responses. I begin with the broadest circle of our experience – the world – and work my way to the inner core of being.

  1. THE WORLD: A purpose of life is tikkun olam (the repair of the world); this principle has long shaped Jewish thinking, priorities, and action. The communal memory of having been slaves in Egypt reinforces the obligation to bring justice to others. Our prophets railed against the social injustices of their time, and taught us to invest ourselves in promoting justice for all.  This includes human rights, ending poverty, stopping violence, ending human trafficking, and much more. Perhaps the most core ethical value animating all Jewish thinking is the sanctity and preciousness of human dignity. In Jewish tradition, human dignity trumps virtually ever other religious obligation, and can demand the reshaping of age-old traditions. It is often said, “Life is not a picnic.” But our parents taught us that after we picnic in a park, we are to leave the place cleaner than we found it. So, too, the world should be a “cleaner place” for our having lived. Our purpose is to participate in tikkun olam (the repair of the world) to bring justice and thereby human dignity to all people everywhere, and move the world closer to the messianic vision.

  2. COMMUNITY: A purpose of life is to engage in productive and meaningful work that advances community and culture. We are commanded to stop and rest on Shabbat, but we often fail to remember that the very same verse instructs us to work for six days each week. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the stranger within your gates.” (Exodus 20:9-10) Our Rabbis spoke of God’s desire that we “settle the world,” building societies on the foundational pillars of human dignity, justice, and compassion. Productive and meaningful work – whether paid or volunteer – gives our lives purpose, supports our families (if it generates income), enables us to generously give tzedakah (charity, again if it generates income), benefits society, and contribute to “settling the world.”

  3. FAMILY: A purpose of life is to participate in the nurturance of the next generation. The next generation is a gift we give the world. Whether we give birth to our own children, adopt children, or contribute out time and effort to the needs of the next generation, our biological and emotional progeny give our lives purpose, and contribute to the community and all humanity. The welfare of all children should be high on society’s agenda, as should support to families raising children – our future doctors, teachers, inventors, and so much more.

  4. HAPPINESS and PLEASURE: A purpose of life is to enjoy the blessings of our lives. When we die and stand before the Throne in Heaven, the Rabbis taught, we will have to account for the pleasures we were permitted but did not enjoy in this world. We live in a world filled with wonder and possibility. God’s agenda for us includes joy, pleasure, and happiness.

  5. LOVE: A purpose of life is to forge loving relationships. Rare is the person who can live without a close, loving relationship. Indeed, genuine love (not infatuation nor a coerced show of affection) is the most divine experience a human can have. When we enter into loving relationships, we establish a bond of love, support, healing, encouragement, and inspiration that flows in both directions. Our love gives another a sense of purpose, as their love does the same for us.

  6. SELF: A purpose of life is for each of us to realize our full potential. Our job is to become who were meant to be. This is more easily accomplished if we tap into the deep well of divine resources within us (many would call this God), examine and shed the restraints holding us back, trust in God to be our help and support, and trust in ourselves to succeed in realizing our potential.

  7. GOD: A purpose of life is engagement with God. For some this means obedience to what they understand to be God’s requirements. For others, this means discovering the God within and beyond (immanent and transcendent) who animates existence. No one has a lock on God and everyone conceives and experiences God’s presence differently. This is not a matter of correct and incorrect. Rather, it is a reflection of the miracle of human diversity.

What would you say is the purpose of life?

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