28th Elul: What are we, what is our life, what are our deeds?

28th Elul September 5th

As the moon of Elul begins to wane, we increasingly reflect on our lives and their purpose. What are we here to do? What is our reason for being?

Jewish tradition tells us that our purpose is to embody the principles of torah, to live lives that demonstrate and fulfil the words of the living God.  And in so doing, in bringing the words and ideas to life in every generation, we become part of the chain of relationship that takes us right back to Sinai and our people’s encounter with God.

The idea that each human being is a kind of living torah – or at least has the ability to become a living torah – can be found in the Talmud (Sotah 13a-b) where a connection is drawn between the two boxes (aronim) that travel with the people of Israel in the desert. One is the coffin of Joseph, whose bones are brought out – as promised on his deathbed – when the people leave Egypt. The other is the Ark in which the stones containing the Ten Commandments are carried, on the instructions of God at Sinai. Both are described as being an “Aron”. So we read:

And all those years that the Jewish people were in the wilderness, these two arks, one a casket of a dead man, Joseph, and one the Ark of the Divine Presence, i.e., the Ark of the Covenant, were traveling together, and passers-by would say: What is the nature of these two arks? They said to them: One is of a dead person and one is of the Divine Presence. The passers-by would ask: And in what way is it the manner of a dead person to travel with the Divine Presence? They said in response: This one, i.e., the deceased Joseph, fulfilled all that is written in this. Therefore, it is fitting that the two arks should lie side by side.” (Sotah 13a-b)

Similarly in Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, a halachic midrash on the book of Exodus dating from c135 CE we can read a rather more expanded version of the story:  Moses occupied himself with the bones of Joseph.. …..And, what is more, with (the casket of) Jacob there went up the servants of Pharaoh and the elders of his household, while with Joseph there went up the ark and the Shechinah and the Cohanim and the Levites and all of Israel and the seven clouds of glory. And, what is more, the casket of Joseph went alongside the ark of “the Life of the Worlds” (i.e., the Ten Commandments), and when the passersby asked: What are these two arks? they were told: This is the ark of a dead man and the other is the ark of “the Life of the Worlds.” And when they asked: How is it that the ark of a dead man goes alongside the ark of “the Life of the Worlds”? they were told: He who lies in this ark fulfills what is written in what lies in the other ark. … 13:19:5)

Bachya ibn Pakuda reminds us that days are scrolls, and that what we do in our lives is not forgotten but the consequences live on. But here in these texts we are the scrolls themselves, embodying the living words of torah in our own choices and actions – we are to try to fulfil to the best of our ability the ideals and values of our sacred texts. 

It is notable that the aron of Jacob was accompanied by Pharoah’s servants and his family when he was taken for burial at Machpela, but the aron of Joseph – who seemed to have a much less “Jewish” life was accompanied by the Shechinah. Of course, the journey with Jacob took place before the Sinaitic encounter, although Jacob was the ancestor who most famously encountered God and struggled with God before being renamed so that his very identity became one of a person who engaged in a struggle with the divine.   However it is Joseph, who lived his life on foreign soil, who was less of a struggler with God, who lived apart from his family for much of his life- it is Joseph who fulfils the Torah goals. How so? Could it be that however assimilated, he never forgot his place in the chain of tradition; he brought his children into the fold;  he used his power to prevent mass starvation; he straddled both his old and new worlds, embalmed in the Egyptian manner in order to be taken back home for burial when his people left the country.

What is our purpose in life? It is to be living torah, to embody and act the values of shared humanity. To add our understanding to how the texts are read, to play out in ordinary life the extraordinary ideas in Torah, to build human connection through time.

Albert Einstein asked the question too – his answer, though framed a little differently, is essentially the same as the Talmudic answer:

“Strange is our situation here on earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: That [We Are] Here for the Sake of Others… for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day I realize how much my own outer and inner life is built upon labours of my fellow[s], both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received and am still receiving.” –Albert Einstein in Living Philosophies