Why the longest day is the greatest of gifts

Yom Kippur allows time for the questions we are often too busy to ask: what values give meaning to our lives


By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, October 6, 2011
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Many people are simply too busy for existential questions.
"The meaning of life? - I've half an hour to get the family dinner on the table!" "Meaning? I'll give you meaning! The lady next door's got chemo and needs a lift to the hospital." The hustle of everyday, caring for our neighbour: who has got time for philosophy?

These people are probably natural givers. But they may also be lucky; it is a blessing to feel so involved in life. It is not the hectic, happy (at least in retrospect) days but the gaps in between which bring us the doubts. What's it all for? What's the point?

Intense loneliness can make most of us ask: so what if I was dead? Losing a job, not finding another, being forced into unwanted retirement, everyone's fears nowadays, may bring feelings like: "I thought I'd something to give but nobody needs me, so why bother?" Rejection, or betrayal by someone we love and thought loved us, sets poisoned arrows in the heart: "If I'm treated like that, am I better than dirt? Was it real, what I once considered happiness?"

The death of someone with whom the flow of our shared days seemed as reliable as the sunrise itself can turn a whole life's dreams to dust and pain. Is this what it amounts to in the end? When he lost his adored Lara, Pasternak's hero Dr Zhivago wrote:

"Tears and an aching head

Prevent him from seeing the measure of his ruin."

We cannot manage without meaning. we need it just like love

But that ruin catches up with us sooner or later, accompanied by loneliness, anxiety and an aching, incurable wound to the heart. If life hurts so much, what's it for? Is cruelty the ultimate reality? "Life gives, then takes it all back again", I heard someone say, rephrasing Job's famous acknowledgement - "God has given and God has taken away; blessed be God's name"- but without any reference to blessing.

Thus the issue of meaning runs through our lives like sand through the timer. Though present in the prayers every day, the questions are sharper, harsher, more urgent on Yom Kippur: "What are we? What is our life, love, goodness, strength?"

It is easy to feel that life is pointless. In Ecclesiastes the key word is hevel. Usually translated as "vanity", it literally means "used breath". The author takes virtually every human activity and calls it hevel, a waste of breath. It is like multiplying any number by zero; the result is depressingly familiar. If he could do that then, in an age when it was believed that the earth was the centre of the universe and all its activities fell beneath the watchful gaze of a concerned God, how much more so today, when life can seem like a futile chance thrown up by the mindless laws of evolution on an insignificant planet in an immeasurable expanse of space and time? If everything we love will be dust in a cosmic ray, why bother?

Furthermore, the questions do not just come from the head; the heart's pain formulates them too: Why so much hurt? Does anyone care?

Yet we cannot manage without meaning. We need it, just like love, companionship and community. It is an inextricable part of human identity; it matters utterly that who we are matters. Where then does meaning begin?

It starts here, in my relationship to you, whoever that "you" is. It is unarguable that I can make a difference to how you, my neighbour, my friend, my child, you working at the supermarket checkout, feel right now. Nowadays we also have the capacity to affect the lives of people we have never seen, enabling them to eat, not starve, and go to school, not grow up in destitution. On the cosmic scale the difference we make may be almost zero, but the impact on lives here and now is immeasurable.

The meaning of our life is what we give. Love, kindness and responsibility bring healing to our sharpest questions about point and purpose. They fill our days and validate our existence. They outlive us in the love we foster in other people's hearts. True, one can argue that this will die with them, that it too becomes nothing in the end. But in the meantime it travels out to further hearts in the love they give to others.

It matters not just that we contribute to life, but that we create a society which appreciates what we each have to give. In this utilitarian age, when we are tempted to assess people by net worth or their job, we should remember that Judaism accords the highest value to kindness, wisdom, learning and piety. Here everyone has something unique to offer.

Everything matters. Judaism has no concept of an insignificant deed. One has only to think of the words "Asher kiddeshanu bemitzvotav", "Who has sanctified us with His commandments", a formula applied to the smallest action of rinsing one's hands just as it is to the greatest activity of studying the Torah, which teaches us justice and compassion.

Why should such importance be bestowed on washing in the morning? Perhaps because it affirms a basic dignity inherent in life: hands matter, people matter, actions matter and time itself, embraced in measureless eternity, is a sacred gift. If I matter so much, then so do you, each and every "you" in the world. Ethics, wrote Levinas, is first philosophy; how I treat you is the essential question for all thought.

Speculation can no doubt pull apart such an immediate embrace of life. Why? What happens to us all in the end? But the error here is to approach meaning as if it were an objective reality, best chartered by discursive thought. Meaning is what we create out of the opportunity of our lives to which we are called to commit ourselves by the urgency of now: "If not now, when?"

There is a further, transcendent dimension: it is also our relationship with God which gives significance to our lives. Judaism has always affirmed that God not only knows, but cares; God not only is, but loves. How we understand this is invariably a personal matter. I feel God as the vitality which flows through all existence, most especially all consciousness, and which addresses us not only from all living being but also from within the self, saying, commanding, "Give! Love!" God thus validates each person not just as a part, but as an active participant, in this great sharing and becoming of existence.

"I'm too busy for these questions"…I admire people so involved in caring for their neighbour they have no time for speculation. Yet sometimes it is important to touch base with why we live, to cease temporarily from doing in order to reconsider the direction of what we do: is this the life my spirit and my conscience tell me I want to be living? For that purpose Yom Kippur is the greatest of gifts.

Jonathan Wittenberg is rabbi of the New North London (Masorti) Synagogue

Last updated: 11:09am, October 6 2011