To Find Meaning One Must Make Meaning

By Bentzi Avtzon, Bala Cynwyd, PA
Essays 2017 / Finalists

MyLife Essay Contest 2017

About this there’s no question: In today’s digital age the average person is exposed to more information than ever before. What happens across the globe is known before it can be referred to in past tense. Even when we don’t seek it, when we begin the morning insistent that this time we will concentrate on our own business, the distant manages to seek us out. As a ping on a cell-phone, a pop-up on the screen, or even a call from a friend who asks us if we “know what happened,” the corners of the world don’t let go.

One would think this inter-connected, hyperlinked reality is a golden era in man’s timeworn search for meaning. After all, space and time have been compressed, and the answer to this question, wherever it may be, is, like for any question, only a click away. But the truth, both self-evident as well as corroborated by analysis , is that the answer is in many ways farther now than ever before.[1] The constant flow of information moves too fast to ever understand what it might mean, and slowing it down is as possible as holding down the wind. What is a meaningful life? What makes something meaningful? These are nostalgic questions, remnants of a not-so-ancient time, when people read paper books and walked on a phone-call only as long as the cord let them.

In pushing, as it were, against this nostalgia, this essay will highlight a foundational, although somewhat obscure, handwritten fragment of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who, leveraging the hassidic understanding of Divine Providence, demonstrated that meaning is a constant, not a variable, and furthermore, as the essay will argue, that today’s world of whizzing data may in fact be the most exciting and promising chapter in the long-as-time quest for meaning. (As a secondary investigation, and to provide contrast, this essay will briefly explore the parallels and lacks thereof between this fragment and the philosophy of Dr Victor Frankl, a professor of psychology mentioned by the Rebbe, and whom, as has been discovered in recent years, may have been a recipient of the Rebbe’s encouragement, this, despite him being a rather assimilated Jew.[2])

In the fragment, the Rebbe distilled his thesis into Euclidean-like axioms.[3] Firstly, he said, it is our firm belief that, “Nothing in this world is created for naught.”[4] Everything in this world is under the Providence of G-d, nothing happens as a random, un-Divinely-intended offshoot of something else. In short, nothing just happens. And if nothing just happens but is, rather, made to happen, then, and this leads us to the second rule, everything has a purpose.

Secondly, all purpose in this G-d-created world falls under a hierarchy of purpose in which highest up is the service of G-d, the fulfilling of His commandments. As the Sages said, Every man should say: “The world was created to service me.”[5] This means, and this leads us to the third and final rule, everything serves my service of the Creator.

Thirdly, all purpose, even the fulfillment of G-d’s commandments, man’s service of his Creator, are subsumed into the ultimate purpose, His Purpose: that this world become a place fit for His dwelling.[6]

To put these axioms in different words, they answer three fundamental questions: First, How do I know there is a purpose? (To this we say nothing is made for naught; everything lies under Divine Providence.) Second, Is the purpose already there or must it be effected? (To this we say it must be effected.) Third, What is the purpose? (To this we say all purporse serves the ultimate purpose, G-d’s Purpose.)

As a rule Chassidus is timeless, but in this case it helps to keep in mind the historical backdrop against which the Rebbe wrote this fragment. The exact date is unavailable, but we know it was written between right before the rise of Nazi Germany and the end of World War II. In other words, this piece was written in a convulsing world, suffering from the aftershocks of one of two world wars.

One needn’t be a great student of history to know that even before these wars the world, at least intellectually, was in the grips of nihilism, a school of thought that believed traditional values had run their course, had, in other words, exhausted their value. The quickening changes of modernity that ruthlessly upended the old way of life brought with it new questions that seemed to run far ahead of any compelling answer.[7] Works of literature that spoke of the absurdity of the modern condition only brought to the fore what was simmering underneath the surface: not only discontent but deep-to-the-core confusion and anxiety. Where did one belong in this new reality? What was reality? And so on. These questions were only sharpened, to the harshest of edges, by wars so unimaginable brutal they revealed conclusively a world gone mad.[8]

It was against this backdrop that the Rebbe wrote this fragment, in which he argued that even in such a world meaning was to be found, and was to be found by being made. (One cannot help but note that Dr Frankl, who insisted on the constancy of meaning, was a survivor of Auschwitz, and that this experience not only didn’t persuade him against his argument but fortified it.[9] The parallel is striking: To argue that meaning can always be found, that is, to truly insist there is meaning in everything, one must make his argument in the most extreme cases, in those instances where meaning seems all but laughed at.)

Having laid out his three axioms of purpose, the Rebbe arrives at this astonishing conclusion: Because everything in this world has a purpose, to service G-d’s ultimate purpose, and because this purpose is fulfilled only my man, it follows the world realizes its purpose only by man’s knowing the world. The objective world is saved by man’s subjective experience. In other words, it isn’t enough to say that everything in this world has a purpose, but one must say more: everything that man comes to know, the particular, idiosyncratic way in which he or she experiences the world, also has a purpose.

Now, as has already been said, the way man actualizes the purpose of what he knows is his fulfillment of G-d’s commandments. But this has become a more consequential step than it had first seemed. Though he begins from the subjective, though he embraces his individual experience, man actualizes purpose, he finds the fullest expression of meaning, not in what he does for himself, nor in what can be measured strictly in terms of personal benefit, but in what he does for G-d. Meaning is something only man can discover, but he discovers it looking outward, looking above. Man’s subjective experience can save worlds – but only if it constantly strives to move outside itself. (Here we find another striking corollary with Dr. Frankl’s thinking: He too believed that meaning can always be found by man precisely because meaning is found outside of man, [10] that is, meaning is the answer man must give to questions the world presents him.[11] Inasmuch as there is always a world there is always meaning.)

The last step is also the most significant. Because the purpose man seeks to actualize is not his purpose but G-d’s, because what gives his actions meaning is not what he gains from them but what G-d gains from them, meaning is in fact omnipresent. If purpose is defined in G-d’s infinite terms then everything has a purpose that must be realized, demands to be realized. Meaning presents itself to man in absolutely everything he sees and not as an opportunity, a word defined from within, but as a demand, a word from without, originating in G-d. (This is where the Rebbe’s thesis diverges most sharply from the philosophy of Dr Frankl. Ultimately, Frankl, a scientist, cannot assert any such transcendent demand. He can and does speak of how belief in G-d can help a person find meaning in the darkest of moments, but the search for meaning in general and the choice to believe in G-d in particular is always the person’s.[12] The scope of Chassidus’s argument, that not only man but G-d Himself searches for meaning, lies far beyond his field of inquiry.)

To put the Rebbe’s systematic thrust in other words, man was not put on this world to fulfill G-d’s commandments solely in order to collect his reward for fulfilling them in the World to Come. Such an approach would mean that man’s endeavor is, in the end, self-serving, when what’s at stake is something infinitely more important, G-d’s Desire to dwell in this world. As he puts it, the soul doesn’t need fixing, rather it comes into this world to fix the world. This is a dramatic way of contextualizing the fulfillment of the commandments. What man sees in them is not what he stands to gain but what G-d does. As the Rebbe writes in this fragment, man finds himself in the world alone with G-d. Everything, including the commandments, is only there to serve his Creator.

This approach is already hinted to in the first chapters of Likkutei Amarim, the foundational work of Chabad chassidus, authored by the same Rebbe Shneur Zalman. In that work, Rebbe Shneur Zalman discusses first the G-dly soul, the innermost and most essential connection a Jew has with G-d, a space in which there really is only the Jew and G-d.[13] Only afterwards, two chapters later, does Rebbe Shneur Zalman discuss the commandments, and only then as garments to the soul, albeit garments that empower the soul to actually embrace G-d.[14] To be sure, the soul’s being discussed before the commandments does not, G-d forbid, diminish the importance of fulfilling G-d’s commandments, but it does say that a Jew’s connection to G-d comes first. As the Sages said, A Jew who sins is still a Jew.[15] And commandments built on this connection are commandments that serve their highest purpose. In the fragment’s terminology, because his soul is so connected to G-d it’s precisely the Jew’s subjective experience that brings out the deepest light hidden in G-d’s commandments.

We will forever wonder if and what to the Rebbe wrote this fragment as a response. Was it to the nihilistic movements proving to be ascendant? Or was it an argument for a world gone mad, in which the notion of meaning seemed distastefully luxurious? Whatever the case, we can certainly see its relevance to today’s digital age in which meaning must be identified before the time it takes to scroll down. For if the meaning we seek is also sought by G-d there must be meaning even in those things in which we never thought to find it. To the contrary, everything we see, these seemingly irrelevant bits of information (tweets, memes, GiFs, etc) that whiz around us, all of it is part of G-d’s world in which nothing is for naught. And more importantly, if the way these things realize their meaning is found in what man does because of them, then each of them comes with a Divine mandate to realize their purpose.

Perhaps we’ll still ask if the subjectivity of our ever-distracted minds has any depth at all, perhaps we won’t find the answer, but we can know for certain that in this moment what we know and how we know it has not only the possibility to become meaningful but the necessity to. If meaning has become impossible to find underneath the blizzard of data it also means the tables have been flipped. More than us looking for meaning, meaning is looking for us. Today more than ever the world seeks us, looks to be reclaimed, made meaningful, saved. In the torrent of information, in the feed of news and fragments and likes, much promise and much obligation abounds. To paraphrase, To whom much is given much is expected.



Sources and Footnotes

[1] See, for instance, Nicholas Carr, The Shallows, for a comprehensive analysis of the Internet and how it changes our minds.


[3] Reshimot, Vol. II, p. 419

[4] Talmud, Shabbos 77b

[5] Talmud, Kiddushin 82b

[6] Midrash Tanchuma, Naso, 16a.

[7] See, for example, Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom.

[8] See, Reshimos, Vol I, p. 29, and Vol IV,  p. 357, on relativism and its connection to the horrors of Nazi Germany.

[9] Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 65 (“There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irratability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.)

[10] ibid, p. 110 (“By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche…In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”)

[11] ibid, p. 109 (“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.)

[12] ibid, p. 118 (“This ultimate meaning necessarily exceeds and surpasses the finite intellectual capacities of man…)

[13] Tanya, ch. 2

[14] ibid, ch. 4

[15] Talmud, Sanhedrin 44a