Many spend their lives pursuing wealth, climbing the career ladder, accumulating possessions or pursuing leisure activities. But we all know that these activities do not lead to lasting happiness and do not give us a sense of fulfillment.
What then leads to a meaningful life?
Ethics of the Fathers answers this question with a teaching from Simon the Righteous (1:2), “The world stands on three things: (1) on the Torah, (2) on (Divine) service and (3) on acts of kindness.”
God created the world as a place for us to accomplish these goals. To the extent that we fulfill the purpose for which we were created we feel fulfilled.
Think about the people you know who lived happy, fulfilled lives. Were they moral and ethical (key aspects of a Torah life)? Did they have a connection to God through the Divine service of prayer? Did they spend time helping others?
In general, the more they embodied these three areas, both through their actions and passing on those values to their family, the more fulfilled they were.
There is no guarantee that we will always feel fulfilled, no matter how spiritual a life we lead. Life is filled with challenges and setbacks and at times we feel weighed down by them. We cannot use how activities make us feel as a barometer for how to live our life. We do what is right, regardless of how we feel in the moment. Especially during challenging times, if we persevere and engage in meaningful activities as best we can, we will reap the fruits of our labor. Looking back, we will be proud of how we chose wisely and overcame difficult life circumstances.
Personalize these three areas to make them most meaningful for you. God created you with unique strengths and abilities and you bring the world to a greater state of wholeness through your unique contribution. You have potential that no one before or after you will have. The more you actualize your potential, especially in these three areas, the more meaningful and satisfying your life will become.
1. Torah. The area of Torah includes living the Torah’s teachings as best we can, as well as plumbing the depths of Torah wisdom. Personalize living the Torah by choosing a particular area of Jewish law in which to excel (in addition to doing your best in general Torah observance). It might be being extra careful not to gossip, to be scrupulously honest, or any other area of the Torah. In terms of personalizing Torah study, look for the area of Torah wisdom that speaks to you. While we all need to know basic laws, each one of us has specific areas of Torah knowledge as well as specific teachers and authors that resonate with our unique soul. Many find learning with a study partner to be especially beneficial. You can be paired with one for free at Partnersintorah.org.
2. Divine Service (Prayer). The Sages teach that without the Temple, we engage in Divine service through prayer. Each day, while reciting the formal prayers or Psalms, think about how they apply to your unique situation and challenges. Using a translation can be very helpful in doing this. There are a number of options both for the formal prayers as well as Psalms. One translation is Psalms that Speak to You by Yitzchok Leib Bell (available in either interlinear or traditional translation editions). In addition, pray to God informally, thanking Him for His blessings, sharing with Him your challenges and asking for His help.
3. Acts of Kindness. Throughout the day there are numerous opportunities to be kind and benefit others, starting with our family and friends and branching out. Even if we are paid for our services, if our intention is to benefit others and help them, we are doing acts of kindness. Whether through your work or informally, look for ways to use your unique abilities to benefit others. In addition, to the extent that God has blessed you with financial resources, share them with those less fortunate. Lastly, ensure that you are only a force of goodness in people’s lives; make amends as soon as you realize that you have caused someone emotional or financial harm.
The common denominator of the above three areas is God. It is God’s Torah that we study. It is God to whom we pray and it is God’s creations that we help. God created us to have a relationship with Him and fostering a relationship with our Creator makes life meaningful and not a random accident as atheists believe. Moses told the Jewish people to make God the focal point of their lives. He said to them, (Deuteronomy 10:20-21), “Hashem your God shall you fear, Him shall you serve, to Him shall you cleave and in His name shall you swear. He is your praise and He is your God…” The more we make God the focal point of our lives, the more we elevate ourselves and are deserving of praise.
The important things in life take effort and these three areas are no different. It is possible to do them superficially, but that will be missing out on discovering their true value. Our efforts make us worthy of reaping the rewards of a meaningful life. The Sages teach that God wants to shower us with blessings, but we need to first become a vessel to receive those blessings. Our efforts to overcome challenges in these three areas create that vessel.
It is challenging to study and live the Torah amidst distractions and temptations. It is challenging to pray daily with feeling. It is challenging to be generous with our time and resources. But if we do what is easiest, what will become of our lives?
Be courageous! Push yourself to achieve greatness and break through the barriers holding you back. Make these practices nonnegotiable and soon they will become anchors of your day and life. Make them a priority, even if you don’t see benefits right away. Through your efforts you will break through the shell that holds others back and you will be among those who discover the sweetness hidden inside.
Put in the effort to decipher and apply God’s wisdom. Put in the effort to pray to God with feeling. Put in the effort to help others. When you persevere with single minded focus, then you will taste the deep and enduring sweetness of spirituality, of a connection to God. Everything else is shallow and fleeting in comparison.
At the end of Moses’ life he tells the Jewish People that they will lose their way, and worship foreign gods (modern day gods include worshiping the ego or the almighty dollar). Yet, they will realize their mistake and not be lost forever. Moses tells them (Deuteronomy 4:29), “You will seek from there Hashem your God and you will find (Him) if you search for Him with all your heart and with all your soul.”
You want to find God? You want to find meaning in your life?
You need to search with all your heart and soul.
It’s not going to be easy and there will be obstacles. But those who refuse to give up are guaranteed by Moses himself that eventually they will find God.
One barrier to success is procrastination: We might tell ourselves, “I’ll study when I have time. I’ll pray when I’m in the mood. I’ll volunteer when I have the energy.” But since these three areas are what give life meaning, how can we risk missing out on the very purpose for which God created us?
After we push through the barriers holding us back, we can reach a point where we sense the incredible opportunity that is life and we yearn and thirst for these three areas: we thirst for God’s wisdom, we thirst for the chance to speak to Him and we thirst for the opportunity to help His children.
Use this clarity when unsure what to do and ask yourself, “Which course of action brings me closer to living God’s Torah, to deepening my relationship with Him and to being a force of goodness in people’s lives?” Whatever pulls you away from that, you know to avoid.
Each day, tap into the power of these three areas. Begin with small, concrete steps: read or listen to an inspirational Torah thought daily. Recite daily from Psalms or a prayer book with a translation and speak to God in your native language, unburdening yourself to Him. Each day, look for opportunities to be of service to others. If a day is coming to a close and you haven’t done an act of kindness yet, put some money in a charity box.
Track your progress in implementing these practices. Make a weekly or monthly chart, with the days of the week or month running along the top of the chart and on the side list the behaviors you want to track: Torah study, prayer and acts of kindness. You can either put a check box or the number of minutes you spent on each one. Aim to not leave a day blank and certainly not two days in a row. If possible, team up with a friend or family member and each week go over your chart together and give each other encouragement.
Do the following exercise: Imagine that central to your life is learning and following Divine wisdom, deepening your relationship with God and helping others. Those activities fill your thoughts and free time. Now ask yourself, “Living a life with that focus, would I feel happier and more fulfilled than I am now?”
That life is within your reach. Take the first step today.