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Our Drive For Meaning

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith

Meaning is one of man's greatest needs. Can life have meaning if existence is the result of a random occurrence?

In "Man's Search for Meaning", Viktor Frankl recounts what happened to F., a fellow inmate in Auschwitz:

"I would like to tell you something, Doctor. I have had a strange dream. A voice told me that I could wish for something, that I should only say what I wanted to know, and all my questions would be answered... I wanted to know when we, when our camp, would be liberated and our sufferings come to an end."

"And when did you have this dream?" I asked. "In February, 1945," he answered. It was then the beginning of March.

"What did your dream voice answer?"

Furtively he whispered to me, "March 30."

When F. told me about this dream, he was still full of hope and convinced that the voice of his dream would be right. But as the promised day drew nearer, the war news which reached our camp made it appear very unlikely that we would be free on the promised date. On March 29, F. suddenly became ill and ran a high temperature. On March 30, the day his prophecy had told him that the war and suffering would be over for him, he became delirious and lost consciousness. On March 31, he was dead. To all outward appearances, he had died of typhus.

Meaning is one of our greatest needs. Without it, we can't live. For the prisoner in Auschwitz, the promise of liberation became his sole purpose for living. When the appointed day passed, his will to live evaporated.

With meaning, it is possible to even survive the unspeakable horror of a concentration camp. Frankl writes:

"There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one's life. There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: 'He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.'" (Viktor Frankl, "Man's Search For Meaning")


The deep-seated conviction that there is a purpose to existence, that life is worth living, rests upon the axiom that life is not an accident. There is a reason for our existence.

Imagine pulling a series of cards randomly from a hat and writing the numbers down.

If life were merely a result of a random occurrence, what meaning could it ultimately have?

A friend walks in and notices the series of numbers you have written, not knowing that the order has no rhyme or reason. He stares at the numbers, racking his brain. Suddenly he lights up and exclaims, "I get it! This is why you put them in this order!" And he starts rattling off some explanation of the arrangement.

The friend's brilliant commentary on the meaning of the number sequence does not change the reality: There is no meaning to the order. It is entirely random, pulled out of a hat with zero intent.

If life were merely a result of a random occurrence, without prior aim or intent, what meaning would existence ultimately have? Life would be just an accident, a fluke spontaneously leaping from chaos, without rhyme or reason. It may be possible to supply a fabricated layer of meaning and context, adding a gloss of order and reason like the friend did with the number series. But at the end of the day, the reality would remain unchanged -- there would still be no real purpose to life.


The issue of invented meaning is a key difference between Judaism and Existentialism.

Judaism maintains life is not random. There is a God who created us for a reason, and that purpose is inherent to existence. Existentialism believes that life has no intrinsic purpose. There is no God who created the universe with intent; existence is an accident.

Judaism maintains that there is a God who created us for a reason, and that purpose is inherent to existence.

How then does the existentialist wake up every morning ready to face the pains and frustrations of life -- for no purpose? What prevents him from taking the final exit?

Existentialism's solution: the human being is challenged to "create" meaning.

"Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is... Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism." (Jean-Paul Sartre, "Existentialism")

But what does this "created meaning" amount to?

Samuel Beckett's enigmatic tragi-comedy, "Waiting for Godot," wrestles with this dilemma. The play's two main characters are hobos who are literally trapped in a world represented by the stage. They seem incapable of taking leave, even though at times they desperately want to go. Thus the repeated refrain throughout the play:

"Well, let's go."
"We can't."
"Why not?"
"We're waiting for Godot."

Trapped in a world devoid of meaning, they are frequently enticed by the idea of leaving it all behind. "Let's go." But the option of suicide proves too difficult -- "We can't." Staying alive, they are immediately confronted with the need to justify their painful and absurd existence: "Why not?" What is our purpose for being here?

"We're waiting for Godot. Ohhh..." That's their fabricated purpose -- to wait for the mysterious Godot figure to arrive. The tragedy is twofold: Godot never shows up, and even worse -- there is no Godot. He doesn't really exist -- they made him up. For these hobos, their meaning is a delusion. Because they live in a world where there is no God, the stark reality is that life is an accident and has no meaning.

In the words of the existentialist author Albert Camus: "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide." For the existentialist, confronting reality head-on eventually leads to despair, and ultimately the necessity to escape from a useless life. The only option for survival is submerging oneself in an illusion of meaning, a world of make-believe.

"Dostoevsky said, "If God did not exist, everything would be permissible." That is the very starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him or without does he find anything to cling to." (Jean-Paul Sartre, "Existentialism")


Judaism is just the opposite. Reality is to be embraced, not shunned. The existence of God means that life is not a pointless accident. Life was created, placed here by design by a purposeful Being. There is authentic meaning, a reason for existence that is objective and real, not invented.

Hope and celebration replace suicide as the natural responses to reality.

In Judaism, hope and celebration replace suicide as the natural responses to reality. Purpose engenders a commitment to build a life of integrity, a passion to embrace the beauty and holiness that pervades the universe. True love, goodness and meaning are not illusory figments of a desperate imagination. They are the soul of existence.

Existentialism and Judaism present two diametrically opposing views:

  • Existentialism: Reality does not have genuine meaning.
  • Judaism: Reality does have genuine meaning.


  • Existentialism: God is just another Godot figure, invented to pacify a hopeless life.
  • Judaism: God is objectively real, the source of life's true meaning and goodness.


  • Existentialism: Feelings of love, spiritual connection and being of service are illusions. Virtue has no objective reality.
  • Judaism: Love, spirituality and being good are authentic moments of experiencing the essence of life. Virtue has absolute existence.

Where do you stand? Like any important issue which can be looked at from opposing viewpoints, our task is to try to discover the truth to the best of our ability, making informed decisions based on sufficient evidence, reason and experience.

[An upcoming article will examine some of the evidence on the existence of God according to Judaism. To examine some of the evidence of the Divine origin of the Torah, go to: Did God Speak at Sinai. For information about the Discovery Seminar, go to: Discovery]

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