We humans seem designed to seek meaning and make meaning of our lives. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that we humans are meaning-making machines. By our values and philosophies, our choices and actions, we wrest meaning from meaninglessness. We make our lives count.
And sometimes, it seems easier with 20/20 hindsight.
Vayigash 5784 (2023)
"The meaning of life is _______." It's a big question, and it's the question of an examined life. Tightly tied to it are related questions about the meaning of our own individual lives, how we matter, and even whether it's best that we exist at all.
It's a core question of Torah's story of Joseph that reaches a climax in this week's Parashat Vayigash, where Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and tells them that God had sent him ahead to Egypt to save their lives (Gen. 45:4-7). Back to that in a moment.
The inherent human drive to make meaning and know why animated Talmud's rabbis to ask big questions. They debated whether it would've been better had humans not been created – because of how messy our lives are and how often we go astray. Ultimately they concluded that the Creator goofed in creating humanity but, now that we exist, we examine our plans and actions to make them count (B.T. Eruvin 13b). The rabbis even got the angels in on the debate, imagining that the angels tried to talk God out of creating us (B.T. Sanhedrin 38b), but God insisted: we exist for reasons.
From this, Reb Nahman of Breslov (d.1812) famously deduced something profound for each of us who are alive: היום בו נולדת הוא היום בי החליט הקב׳׳ה שהעולם אינו יכולֹ להתקיים בלעדיך / "On the day you were born, God decided that the world couldn't exist without you." In some way, you are essential to the world's working. It's for you to figure out how – and then live accordingly.
When Joseph's brothers appear before him, starving and desperate, Joseph's past gave him plenty of reason to turn them away. They mocked him, disdained him, tried to kill him, threw him in a pit, sold him into slavery, and told their father that Joseph was killed by wild animals. They took from Joseph his home, his family and his freedom. Had the brothers not acted so cruelly, Joseph would've have been enslaved to Potiphar, falsely accused of rape, sentenced to the dungeon and forgotten there for years. Joseph had plenty of reason to be pissed off.
Yet when Joseph the Prime Minister of Egypt revealed himself to his brothers, Joseph took a very different stance (Gen. 45:4-7):
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יוֹסֵ֧ף אֶל־אֶחָ֛יו גְּשׁוּ־נָ֥א אֵלַ֖י וַיִּגָּ֑שׁוּ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אֲנִי֙ יוֹסֵ֣ף אֲחִיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־מְכַרְתֶ֥ם אֹתִ֖י מִצְרָיְמָה: וְעַתָ֣ה אַל־תֵעָ֣צְב֗וּ וְאַל־יִ֨חַר֙ בְּעֵ֣ינֵיכֶ֔ם כִּי־מְכַרְתֶ֥ם אֹתִ֖י הֵ֑נָּה כִּ֣י לְמִחְיָ֔ה שְׁלָחַ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֖ים לִפְנֵיכֶם: כִּי־זֶ֛ה שְׁנָתַ֥יִם הָרָעָ֖ב בְּקֶ֣רֶב הָאָ֑רֶץ וְעוֹד֙ חָמֵ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵין־חָרִ֖ישׁ וְקָצִיר: וַיִּשְׁלָחֵ֤נִי אֱלֹהִים֙ לִפְנֵיכֶ֔ם לָשׂ֥וּם לָכֶ֛ם שְׁאֵרִ֖ית בָּאָ֑רֶץ וּלְהַחֲי֣וֹת לָכֶ֔ם לִפְלֵיטָ֖ה גְּדֹלָֽה׃
Joseph said to his brothers, “Come forward to me.” When they came forward, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves that you sold me here: it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It has been two yearsof this famine in the land, and there are still five years to come when there will be no yield from tilling. God sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.
Joseph journey evokes our own. Perhaps we too are called to transform our own injustices and suffering, to seek from them a new understanding of the meaning of our lives, to ask what sacred purposes we can wring from them. We needn't believe in divine causation – that God made it all happen, as it to justify injustice and suffering. Rather, we can ask what we do next, how our lives evolved in response, and what we – perhaps only we – now can do and become in their wake.
The world as it is couldn't be without you. Find out why, and live accordingly.