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THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF RABBI PINKY SCHMECKELSTEIN
On The Meaning Of Life
I have been asked so many question by Menuvals like you! "Rebbe, what Bracha should I say on fresh squeezed orange juice, with pulp?" "Rebbe, can I tea bag on Shabbos?" "Rebbe, I just slaughtered a chicken, and the blade had a nick, but it is Tuesday, and I just had to take out a third mortgage to pay for Yeshiva tuition. Is the chicken Koisher?" "Rebbe, my wife has little stains in her... Ummm... Untervesch. We think it may be nail polish, or left over strawberry jam. Do we have to worry about a Chashash of Nidah?"
These are very procedural, transactional questions. I am delighted that you trust me with such critical issues. I am frankly impressed that you can turn on a light by yourself without consulting me.
But sometimes I also get more intelligent question, of the existential type. "Rebbe, what is the nature of the Reboinoisheloilum." "Rebbe, what happens when we die." "Rebbe, what does the Aimishteh want from us?"
These are the most fundamental questions, the questions of the ages. But they ultimately boil down to one essential question: "Rebbe, what is the meaning of life?"
People spend many years in yeshiva studying at the side of great rabbeihim trying to understand the meaning of life. Other spend time with priests and ministers and imams and gurus of all sorts. Still others study the great philosophers, ancient and contemporary.
But I learned the meaning of life from a four year old girl. This is actually true. Mamish.
Many years ago, when my daughter Bracha was four years old, I was teaching her the music of The Beatles. I mentioned in passing that John Lennon was murdered a few years after the band broke up. She asked, in her childish innocence, why someone would kill John Lennon. And I was stumped: How does one explain the irrational, the unexplainable?
And so, after a minute of thinking how to respond, I told young Bracha, "You know, people spend their whole lives trying to gain control of their destinies. Sometimes things happen that we cannot control, as was the case of the murder of John Lennon. But for the most part, we spend our lives trying to wrest control from randomness and try to determine our own destinies."
It was with these unplanned words that I, for the first time, understood the meaning of life. However, this is not a statement of existential, theological, of philosophical belief. This is the practical meaning, the purpose, the intent of everything we do in our lives - our long term planning, as well as our day to day.
Why do you continue to worship the Reboinoisheloilum? Or why did you reject Him? So that you can influence your own fate.
- If you believe in the Aimishteh, you likely subscribe to the most basic notion - that good behavior is more likely to beget good rewards in this world, and/ or in the world to come. And bad behavior is likely to result in punishment, or at least a urinary tract infection.
- If you do not believe in Hakadoshboruchhu, it is because you reject the belief that an Old Man In The Sky is in control of your life. You have decided to take control from what you perceive is a placebo, "the opiate of the masses".
Self determination, being the master of ones own fate and taking control of ones own life, is why people go to college. And to graduate school. And to other professional trainings - so that they can be employed an a career of their choosing, maximize their income potential, in order to support themselves and their families.
Self determination is why people exercise, in order to positively impact their health. It is why people eat healthy food. It is why people go to doctors for well visits and see therapists for "self realization".
Our purpose in life is to gain control of our own fates.
And this is not simply an individual objective. It is a national one as well. Why do we vote? To shape the policies of the country that we live in. To put in place an environment that reflects the world as we would like to see it. To create an environment that is more conducive to our national future.
For Klal Yisroel, this issue played out in particular over the past 130 years or so. Why was there a massive return to Zion, ultimately culmination in the establishment of the State of Israel? Because we, as Klal Yisroel, discovered that we could not survive peacefully and securely under the sovereignty of others. The lesson of two millennia, culminating in the Shoah, was that we need to determine our own fate as a nation. And so we ceased waiting for the Moshiach to arrive on its own, to save us from oppression in the Diaspora. We decided to bring the Moshiach ourselves. We decided to create a national entity in which we would be in charge of our own destiny.
Rabboisai, what are the fundamental implications of this essential truth?
It means that we cannot remain silent in the face of injustices. From wherever they come. We need to shape our world around us as much as we have to shape ourselves, our own Daled Amois.
-- It means that we are responsible for our own educations, and the educations of our children, if our community denies us the opportunity.
-- It means that we need to stand up for what is right and against what is wrong. The Rebbe or the Rabbis will not solve the plague of sexual abuse in our community - we must bring about that change.
-- It means that we cannot sit idly by as our brethren and sistren are trapped in modern day Ultra Orthodox cults, rooted in tradition, but corrupted by the centralization of power around individuals who deprive their communities of social progress, fiscal opportunities, and basic freedoms of choice and expression.
-- It means that we must speak out for common sense, when dangerous or offensive ideas are expressed by either the extreme left or the extreme right.
"Moishe Kibel Toirah MiSinai U'Musruh LeYehoishua..." As we read in Pirkei Avois, Moishe Rabbeinu received the Toirah on Sinai and passed it along to Yehoishua, who subsequently passed it along to the leadership of each generation. Yet we are also told in a famous Midrash "Toirah Loi BaShamayim Hee", Toirah is not in the purview of heaven; it is in the hands of mankind.
Our purpose on this earth is to take control of our lives and to improve our communities for the well being of ourselves and our children and our colleagues. "Toirah Loi BaShamayim Hee." We cannot wait around for a Deus Ex Machina. Or as Shakespeare put it, "Our fate lies not in our stars but in ourselves". We must be our own Moshiach. We must actively work to bring about our own salvation.
Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval
Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess