The Meaning of Meaning


“Walk through the door and you’ll know you are in the right place.”                                                             – R. Levitz

The question stopped me in my tracks. In response to an article, On the Meaning of Meaning, by Seph Fontane Pennock, I wrote to Seph, sending him a saying by Tal Ben-Shahar that I liked, namely, that happiness lies at the intersection of pleasure and meaning. Seph immediately fired back a question: “What is meaningful – to you?” Thankfully, he narrowed it down to my personal viewpoint, but I as I formulated one answer after another in my head, I realized I had no ready response. Weeks went by, and the question continued to nag at me. How can I write, teach, or urge people to pursue meaning, when I can’t put my definitive finger on what it even is? I use the word all the time, and I can write pages about it, but I couldn’t find that one pithy Zen-like line that would sum it all up.

Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl is known for opening the eyes of modern psychology to the concept that the essence of man lies in his search for meaning. And so, if this is my true essence, my fundamental nature as a human being, how can I be so dense? Why is this so hard to nail down? Our Founding Fathers guaranteed us the right to the “pursuit of happiness.” No guarantees, of course, and as we well know, even when we attain “happiness,” it is transient, and off we go on the chase ad infinitum.   Sustained happiness, on the other hand, is not derived solely from pleasure and positive emotions, but has another essential ingredient: meaningfulness.   Maybe, as the title of Viktor Frank’s famous book would suggest, it is the very search for meaning – that is meaningful. Perhaps it is simply the process of being open to seeing and experiencing the possibility of meaning that is offered to each of us moment-by-moment, right here, right now.

Inch Deep Versus a Mile Wide

Nitzavim, or Nitzavim/Vayeilech when it’s a double Torah reading, occurs on the last day of Moses’ life. The stakes couldn’t be higher, the words truer, the plea more from the heart. We also read these Torah portions right before Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, where we pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life for the coming year. The Days of Awe are sobering and naturally, our thoughts run to the lofty side; we want to grow and change and be better, do better. It’s also a time of year for emotional hyperbole. We beat ourselves up for being sinning miscreants and promise to be righteous and praiseworthy from now on. You don’t have to take my advice, but I suggest that you go small, and take it moment by moment. For in looking for the grand gesture, you may miss the opportunity right in front of you, missing both the forest and the trees.

In Nitzavim, the last day of Moses’ life, Moses tells the Jewish people that Torah is neither far away and foreign, nor unobtainable and unnatural.

“It is not hidden from you and it is not distance. It is not in heaven, [for you] to say, ‘Who can ascend to the heaven for us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it? Nor is it across the sea [for you] to say, ‘Who can cross to the other side of the sea for us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?’ Rather, the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and your heart – to perform it.”

How many times have I read these few lines without understanding the huge lesson they contain? We don’t even have to look outside of ourselves – we are hard-wired for holiness and meaning. It’s our natural state of being. Perhaps that is why Torah is compared to water and Abraham, Isaac, and Miriam were well diggers. Futilely, we try to quench our thirst with exotic waters, ignoring the wellspring within.

And so perhaps, ultimately, the search for meaning is who you are as you face whatever the next moment has to offer.   Moses is telling us that our authentic self is our godly nature and that we naturally yearn to express our core essence in our words and deeds.

Recently, I joined a Meet Up group that hosts musical gatherings in people’s homes. On the evite, along with the address, were the directions: Walk through the door and you’ll know you are in the right place.  In other words, in case you are not sure which house is his, if you open the door and hear the sound of music, you have found what you are looking for.   We know the right thing to do; we really do, but in over thinking it, or knocking on the wrong door, we lose touch with our essence and contort ourselves to justify doing whatever we want to do.

Peeling the Layers

As the saying goes, “less” is “more;” and so the less inauthentic we are, the more godliness we can reveal. Thus, our lives become meaningful as the natural consequence of meeting the moment with our best selves. We are said to be “thirsty souls,” and so may we satisfy our thirst from the well of Torah that runs deep within, and may the magic and meaning of the moment unfold and reveal itself to us.


On the Meaning of Meaning

Devarim/Deuteronomy 30:11-15.

The Brain Game

Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Victor Frankl

2 brainsThe Emotional Brain

I knew I was being targeted, manipulated and controlled – yet I didn’t care. When I turned over the cover of the latest edition of the Wine Spectator and saw “the car,” I “knew” I had to have it. I put the word “knew” in quotes because the part of my brain that made that decision was not the rational thinking and knowing neocortex part of my brain, but my unconscious, emotional brain, which responds to its desires. Just as the advertisers hoped I would, my unconscious brain did the emotional math and put two and two together. Wine connoisseurs drive this car. I think of myself as a wine connoisseur; ergo, I should buy this car.

I wasn’t buying a car as much as I was buying my idea of what this car represented. The subsequent half-hearted on-line research for info about the car (the auto manufacturer’s website) was my feeble attempt to think I was enlisting the rational part of my brain so I could justify a purely emotional decision. Crashworthy – smashworthy – who cares. Anything short of it’s being rated the worst death trap on wheels, and I was filling out that loan application at the car dealership.

When it’s Personal

Kinda sounds a little like some form of slavery to me. And so even though I know we left the slavery of Egypt a few thousand years ago, the question is, whether Egypt has fully left me? Even though a part of me knew I was being used for commercial gain, I just wanted what I wanted (or thought I wanted), and I put the critical thinking part of me on hold. Being a free human being, however, is to be mindful, present, conscious – and to think critically. Just as are not supposed to be slaves to Pharaoh, neither are we supposed to be slaves to habit, emotions, and unconscious reactions. God doesn’t want us to do things blindly in a knee-jerk way without enlisting the support of our rational faculties. Neither does God want us not to do something, however – where we refrain from acting – in the same mindless manner. After all, in our daily morning blessings, we thank God for not making us a slave. Therefore, our mental enslavements are a superfluous and voluntary add-on.

The Torah portion, “Acharei-Mot,” means “after the death” and it refers to the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who had entered into the Holy of Holies without any authority to do so, and brought with them “strange fire,” described as an incense mixture of their choosing. While this action was born of a genuine desire to connect with and to serve God, their actions were met with instant death. The commentaries explain that while their motivation was to cleave to God, their behavior ignored the requirements and directives that God had given them. They acted emotionally, not rationally, and their behavior literally consumed them, resulting in their deaths.  

God then instructed Moses to tell his brother, Aaron, not to come unbidden into the Holy of Holies lest he were to die – as did his sons. The question arises – why did God deem it necessary to couple the instruction to Aaron with the death of his sons? Would it not have sufficed to have said  – “Don’t do this thing.”

One of the classic commentators, Rashi, compares this to a doctor telling a sick person what to do and what to avoid. Face it, how many of us take our doctor’s advice seriously? How many of us change our lifestyle and habits even after we weigh in, get our elevated cholesterol levels, and tell the truth about our lack of sleep and exercise? On the other hand, if we have a family member who died young from heart disease, or if the doctor tells us that unless we avoid doing certain things we will die – just as so and so died – it makes it real, more powerful. Therefore, we are much more likely to take the doctor’s advice to heart. Whether we are acting – or refraining from acting – God wants us to use our cognitive functions, as well as our emotional desires, in a harmonious way for our benefit. For Aaron, considering what was at stake, God wanted the warning to make a deep impression, by appealing to both his rational and emotional brain.  

Leaving the Egypt Within

Leaving Egypt was not just a physical change in geography. Transitioning from a slave mentality to a free-willed human being that could embody holiness was the real journey, and it’s the journey of a lifetime. The message here is not to be enslaved by emotions, desires, and unconscious habitual behaviors. On the other hand, we are not to be detached from our feelings and live in a purely cerebral world. It’s a fallacy to think that is even possible, and futile to pit these aspects of us as adversaries. Rather, they are an inseparable part of the human condition. The trick, however, is to be conscious, so that these support and enrich each other.                                                                                             

In the last few Torah portions, we learned about the mind/body/soul connection, where improper negative speech, borne of improper thoughts and emotions, manifests as physical ailments on the body. In this Torah portion, we need to understand how emotions drive thoughts and thoughts drive emotions. Be not a slave to either, but integrate them so that you can be in the driver’s seat.

No Bad Angels – How to Creatively Engage with Stress


The heart must face its tests. Only then can we discover who we really are and what extraordinary things we are capable of achieving.

– James O’Dea

No one gets through life without being tested, repeatedly. So when we come face to face with the terrors that can keep us up at night, how do we achieve grace under fire? “Vayishlach” contains the famous episode of Jacob wrestling with the angel. At long last, brother Esau is ready to exact revenge for the “stolen” birthright and has come with a small army to confront Jacob. In advance of that confrontation, Esau sent his “angel” to do battle with Jacob to weaken him before their encounter.

Jacob was no stranger to this dynamic, however. Clashing with Esau in the womb, Jacob’s earliest encounter with conflict began in utero. Born in the midst of a power struggle, Jacob lived a life that can be characterized as one challenging battle after another – more or less – what we would call “the human condition.” But is that such a bad thing?

The Dis-empowered Reaction to Stress

Some people engage stress by reacting in these polar opposites: they becoming super aggressive or even violent, or they abruptly disconnect. Others, however, take the middle road of passivity, where they try to avoid any form of conflict. Even at a cost to their well-being, vested interests or personal integrity, people who are frightened of conflict will cling to being “non-confrontational” to avoid difficult individuals or situations.

If you asked such people whether conflict avoidance works as an effective strategy, however, the honest ones would admit that it does not. Whether they become entirely passive or passive-aggressive, these folks are simply trading one form of suffering for another.

Similarly, have you ever noticed that the very people who complain so bitterly about wanting to be “free from suffering” seem so unbelievably attached to it? They insist that stress is an external and arbitrary imposition that keeps them from being happy – which is just so unfair! Offer them a solution, a new mindset, or a coping strategy, however, and they are not so quick to get on board. Oddly, we seem addicted to the very thing we say we don’t want.

Never Letting a Crisis Go to Waste

In “Vayishlach,” Jacob gives us a role model that takes the engagement with conflict to a new level of empowerment and transformation. In his earlier conflict with Esau, Jacob was not straight with his brother. (While it was pre-destined that Jacob would receive the first-born blessing, there is still much discussion amongst the Torah commentators criticizing how he went about getting it.) When it came obtaining the blessings for the first-born, Jacob did an end-run around his brother, which caused Jacob to have to flee for his life. Twenty years later, Jacob came towards his brother. In taking his family away from the household of his father-in-law, Jacob could have circumvented him again and avoided him entirely. This time, however, Jacob sent messengers to let Esau know he was coming. And in so doing, he set the stage for the encounter, because at last, he was playing it straight.

It wasn’t merely that Jacob didn’t avoid the conflict. Rather, he didn’t waste his time and energy resenting it, complaining or making it wrong. Instead, Jacob prepared himself to engage. While the text is translated as “prepared,” the term literally means, “repaired.” When Jacob centered himself with truth and integrity, he repaired himself. And so when this version of Jacob wrestled with Esau’s angel, he authentically engaged it “full-out,” and yet at the same time, he was humble. At the end of the nightlong struggle, when Jacob prevailed, he did something that seems to make no sense. Jacob asked the angel to reveal its name and to give him a blessing. Imagine getting mugged, and then asking the mugger for a blessing. How strange is that?

So what can we learn from this odd request? Consider this – if we confront a stressor with a direct encounter – face it, engage it and wrestle with it – then we can learn from it and even make it our teacher. It is then that it can become a source of blessing. Relationship expert, Harville Hendrix, re-frames conflict as growth waiting to happen. And as Viktor Frankl, said, “Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”

And so, stress will either open you up or shut you down. Those are the only two possibilities. If you choose to open up, you may stay engaged with the discomfort, but by wrestling with its meaning, you will see that there are lessons to be learned and that the pain can help free you to become a bigger, better and wiser human being. Like Jacob, you too can emerge from the darkness into the dawn of a new persona. Is that not a blessing?

In the Search for Meaning, Where Do we Look?

If you don’t know what you’re living for, you haven’t yet lived.

– Rabbi Noach Weinberg

There is a familiar story of a man searching the sidewalk for his keys and looking frantically under the streetlight. When questioned by a passerby as to where he may have lost his keys, the man admits that he lost the keys inside his house. Since the light was so much brighter outside under the streetlight, however, he thought it best to look there.

            We read this and think – what a fool, looking for his lost object in obviously the wrong place, just because it is the “easiest” place to look. But at least this fool knows what he lost and where he lost it. Can we say the same? Many of us are not only looking in the wrong place for our lost objects, but we are even not sure what we’re looking for. And yet, we are driven to search on and on. To what end?

            According to Freud, the primary drive of man is the pursuit of pleasure. “Not so,” said Nietzsche, “the primary drive of man is the pursuit of power.” Viktor Frankl, the famous Viennese psychiatrist who suffered for three years in concentration camps during the Holocaust and who endured the murder of his entire family and pregnant wife, nevertheless founded “logo-therapy,” which is the theory that the primary drive of man is not pleasure or power, but the search for meaning.

            Many of us have an inner ache, a discontented restlessness, without knowing why. Viktor Frankl coined the term, “Sunday Neurosis,” an existential anxiety that is formed from the vague awareness people get that their lives are empty and meaningless when they are not otherwise distracted by the work week. Some remained bored and apathetic; others try to fill the void, but cannot succeed because we cannot fill a spiritual hole with non-spiritual stuff. Yet, we keep trying.

            So if man’s primary drive is the search for meaning, where do we look? If it’s not in the Himalayas, the ashram, the shrink’s couch, the self-help section of the bookstore, the office, the lab, the studio, the field, or even the sanctuary, then where?

            In the Torah portion, “Nitzavim” Moses tells us exactly where to look. “It is not in heaven. Nor is it across the sea. Rather, the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and your heart – to perform it.” Moses spoke these words to the Jewish people on the last day of his life – knowing that it was the last day of his life. The stakes couldn’t be higher. What is this matter “that is near and dear that we are to perform”? “To love God, to walk in His ways, and to observe His commandments.” In a word, to embody the Torah.

            Wait – did I just lose you? “Sorry,” you say, “but Torah is not the meaning of my life. I’m outta here.” If your view of Torah is that it is a bunch of dry, archaic “do’s” and “don’ts,” commanding strict, automaton-like adherence to meaningless and empty ritual, then I would totally agree with you. I wouldn’t find that meaningful in the slightest. But that’s not my view of the “matter of Torah.”

I care not for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it.

– Abraham Lincoln

And so, if your religion doesn’t make you a better person, better spouse, parent, friend, and lover of your fellow, it’s not the “matter of Torah”. If your religion doesn’t make you compassionate and yearn to alleviate suffering, it’s not the “matter of Torah”. If you are not inspired to love justice and truth and strive to live humbly with integrity, then it’s simply not the “matter of Torah”.

            The “matter of Torah” that Moses tells us to look for is within us, in our hearts. It has to be real, and we have to own it. Otherwise, it may as well be high up in the heavens or across the distant sea – it means nothing as it is too far out of our orbit to be relevant. But let’s be clear. It is we who push Torah away, who say it’s not relevant or accessible. And as long as we keep this lie on our lips we will keep looking for meaning under that streetlight.

            That doesn’t mean we get to decide on our own what Torah is or what it means. It doesn’t mean that we can overlay the Torah with the imprimatur of our emotions, political viewpoints, etc. Many phenomena exist objectively and independent of us. Certain things just “are,” like gravity, which doesn’t need our “buy-in” to be real and to affect us. On the other hand, while Torah also has an independent truth and reality, Torah very much wants our “buy-in.” God wants our partnership.

            And that is the challenges – to take the light of an independent Godly reality, and, through loving God, walking in His ways and observing His commandments, understand that it is our reality also. We ask God to “circumcise our hearts,” to remove the spiritual impediment and barrier that keeps us locked in the illusion of separation from God – and each other.

            Tradition teaches that when we are in the womb, an angel teaches us all of Torah, but that we forget it when we are born. We only “forget” it on the conscious level, however. After birth, the memories of all of our experiences lodge within us on a cellular level – how much more so that which we learn as we are forming in utero? That is why learning Torah is re-discovering Torah, and uncovering a truth we already hold within.

            When our hearts beat with the knowledge of this truth within us, then the “matter” is in our mouths. It drives our speech and our actions. It’s who we are at our core. When an inauthentic persona does not imprison us, we are free to live in the joyful vibrancy of a congruent life.

            While we are necessarily concerned with finding the meaning of our lives, let us start by finding the meaning of life itself. Then, we will find our real purpose and ourselves. Then, the object and the light will coincide, and, unlike the fool, we will be looking for the right thing in the right place…where it always was and where it always will be.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. What are three things you are looking for in your life? Where have you been looking for them? Do you feel you are looking in the right place? If not, where do you feel you need to be looking that you have perhaps been avoiding?
  1. We often mistakenly believe that if we have certain external things, that we will be happy, fulfilled, successful, etc. What are those things for you? How do you think they will change things for you and why?
  1. Close your eyes, take a deep look within, and focus on all the strengths, abilities, talents and gifts that you have internally. How can you use what you already have and what you already are, to find the other things you are looking for in your life?