Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Meaning of Life (With Apologies to Monty Python)

I was recently asked to write a short piece about a short question: What is the most important thing to you in life and why? What a meaningful question to address during the High Holiday season, during which the ancients imagined the deity opening large ledgers of the good deeds and bad deeds of each individual, and pronouncing judgment upon them accordingly! (I assume it is all on large humming servers now…) The most important thing to me in life, at the risk of running head on into a cliché, is to make a difference.

From the scientific point of view, we know that we live on a small planet orbiting a rather minor star in a rather insignificant location on the lower arm of our galaxy, which is in the backwaters of a vast universe. Furthermore, as the great evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, reminds us, the number of potential people that could have been here in our place due to the various possible DNA combinations, outnumbers the sand grains of Sahara (which the British, annoyingly, do not like preceding with a definitive). This could lead us to discounting the potential significance of our lives.

I believe that that would be a mistake. Why? All you need to do is open the newspaper (note to the kids – that is a non-electronic blog written on large flimsy papers), and look for a reference to the last person who won the lottery. Is that person at that moment happy or sad, feeling significant or not so much? Well, we have all won the biological lottery, just by being here, each and every one of us! The question is, what do we do with this fact? The rabbis of old tell us, “Against your will, you are born; against your will you die, and against your will you are to account (for what you did in between).” You don’t have to be a religious person or even a theist to accept that statement. The great hero of the Antebbe (July 4, 1976) rescue (and brother of the current Israeli prime minister), Lt. Col. Jonathan “Yoni” Netanyahu, was by no means a traditionalist. In his letters he talks about his personal desire to be different from others, and live a life of true meaning, not just potential significance, where he is ready to account to himself for his actions at any moment. The only one not to return from that heroic rescue operation, Israel’s current President, then Minister of Defense, Shimon Peres, eulogized him saying that indeed some live long lives with no real significance, but not Yoni; he lived a short life, but what a significant and meaningful life it was!

There is a very powerful scene in Brian De Palma’s second and much underappreciated movie, Casualties of War. The protagonist, played by Michael J. Fox, has just reported the gang rape and murder of a Vietnamese peasant girl by his platoon sergeant and fellow soldiers, only to be ignored, and almost assassinated. His company marches down a dirt road, and he heatedly discusses what he is going through with a friend, and they shoo away the company “nudge”, who promptly falls into a Viet-Cong trap and dies. His friend, seeing this, suggests that since they could die at any moment, then maybe nothing really matters. Fox’s character, sees it very differently, and (this may not be verbatim, but this stuck in my memory ever since) he says, “No. Maybe we got it all wrong! Maybe because we could die any minute it matters more than anything, maybe it matters more than we will ever know!”

We cannot choose our fates. We cannot choose to whom or where or when come into this world. We have little say over many of the challenges we will face in life. We owe it to ourselves, though, to choose our destinies, to live lives of meaning, to make a difference. And, this cannot be in some abstract way. We must make an ongoing positive difference in the lives of our spouses and lovers, in the lives of our children, in lives of our friends, and in the lives of our larger communities. A tall order, sure, but I aim to have a whack at it!

© Copyright 2010 – Rabbi David S. Gruber – All Rights Reserved

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