This weekend we will read the last chapters of Genesis. The Torah portion’s first word is vayichi which means “and he lived.” It referred to the patriarch Jacob, who was dying. It’s a lovely epitaph – to me, perhaps the highest compliment. He lived a full life, a meaningful life.
And yet the very next Torah portion begins with his son Joseph’s death, and the chilling line that presages the people’s suffering in slavery: “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”
Like Jacob and Joseph, we can live meaningful lives, and after a few generations be forgotten. In their case, they were forgotten in the short term, but ended up as major players in the Bible. Not so with most of us. So what’s the point?
It’s a question that is often asked and seldom answered well. Douglas Adams said that the answer to the question of the meaning of life is 42. The problem, he said, is that no one knows the question.
Hermann Hesse had his own answer: “I believe that I am not responsible for the meaningfulness or meaninglessness of life, but that I am responsible for what I do with the life I’ve got.”
Like Hesse, I believe that my responsibility is not to a shadowy future. I am responsible for today, for how I live my life, how I serve my community. Will someone else find it deeply meaningful? Perhaps. But that’s not what matters.
What matters is that we can find meaning in our daily lives without knowing the future, without even knowing the effect we have on others. The ripples spread until they are beyond our sight. We may never know who we touched or what good we did in this world.
Here’s what the people of Kol HaNeshama, my small but mighty congregation, did this week. It is a perfect example of casting a small stone into the water, one whose expanding circles of ripples will have untold meaning in the lives of others.
Thanks to the inspiration and leadership of two women, they collected nearly 100 purses filled with brand-new toiletries and other personal items for women who have experienced domestic violence and rape, and who turned to local women’s organizations for help.
The bags were donated anonymously so the recipients will not know the individuals behind their gifts. But the two organizations do know who we are, because we want them to know that they can count on Kol haNeshama in times of need.
My favorite part of the project? The pure joy on the women’s faces as they proudly brought their donations to synagogue on the designated morning. Beautiful purses, large and small (but mostly large!) filled to the brim. They would never know the recipients, or where the purses would end up. All they knew was that they had done something important, something meaningful.
The message is simple: Living a meaningful life is also living a joyous life.