Finding Meaning in Nothing

Headshot of Rabbi Cheryl Peretz
Headshot of Rabbi Cheryl Peretz
Rabbi Cheryl Peretz

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, is the Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, where she also received her ordination. She also holds her MBA in Marketing Management from Baruch College, and helps bring those skills and expertise into the operational practices of rabbis and congregations throughout North America.

posted on September 21, 2016
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

Author Jane Tillner, in a book called Nothing, tells the story of Pierre-Anthon, a seventh grader who learns about death and realizes there is no meaning to life. Pierre leaves his classroom, climbs a tree, and stays there. Despite their greatest efforts, his classmates cannot make him come down, not even by pelting him with rocks.

From the moment you are born, you start to die, he says, taunting his classmates – life has no meaning so may as well give up now. So, to prove to Pierre-Anthon that life does indeed have meaning, the children decide to make a pile of meaning, including the things that are important to each one of them. The plan is simple. They each bring the thing most meaningful to them and then Pierre will have to come down from his tree when he sees the physical, tangible collection of meaning.

The pile starts with the superficial—a fishing rod, a new pair of shoes. But, as the sacrifices become more extreme… (I will spare you the gory details but suffice it to say it involves body parts, animals, and even human remains)... Ever more, the students grow increasingly desperate to get Pierre-Anthon to come down from the tree, to justify their belief in meaning.

And, in the process, the questions they seem to be grappling with abound…

  • What is the meaning of life? What/who matters to me?

  • What is the purpose of living if we are going to die?

  • What is meaning? Is there such a thing as meaning?

  • What creates meaning? Things? Me? Us?

  • Can you prove there is meaning?

A profound set of questions for a bunch of 13 year olds, don’t you think?… All on this secret journey they keep from their parents, from their teachers, and at times from each other, adding to existential angst and loneliness they seem to be feeling even as they implement this collective experiment.

These are not just the words of a well written, thought-provoking book for young adults. These are the fundamental questions of the religious person and the crux of what the High Holiday season is all about – birth and death, rededication and renewal.

So, what is the meaning of life? Why does life matter when we know we are going to die? And, what purpose is there for everything or even anything we do? We are? We have?

Tillner was certainly not the first to wonder this… In the Book of Ecclesiastes, Kohelet, which we will read on Sukkot, Solomon wonders if we are all destined to die, then what is the purpose to living?

The book opens – hevel havalim, hakol havelim, hakol havel – Utter futility! All is futile! What real value is there for a human in all gains he makes beneath the sun? One generation goes, another comes, but the earth remains forever. Only that shall happen which has already happened, that which will occur has already occurred and there is nothing new under the sun! In other words, we are all going to die. So, what’s the purpose of life? Does anything really matter?

These are the words, we are told of Kohelet, the son of David King of Israel. These are the words of the man who had it all – King Solomon - Riches, stature, success, wisdom – Still, he wondered of what good it was if we are all going to die.

If all of life is futile, what then are we to make of the ten day period we begin on Rosh Hashanah? For that matter, perhaps we too, should simply climb into our own literal or metaphorical tree and simply wait to die, throwing stones at all who pass just like Pierre Anthon in the story.

Our story cannot end there. And, our lesson again comes from the story of Nothing. Pierre’s classmates were so focused on their tangible proof of meaning, that the very things they put in the pile ended up destroying the fabric of their existence – they started lying, they destroyed holy material, they killed animals, they harmed each other, they turned on each other, they sold out on their values and ultimately ended up with nothing.

There are countless times in all our lives when we struggle, trying to make sense of it all. As soon as a cogent answer presents itself, along comes another question to take its place.

A teenager dies in a fiery car crash - and we struggle to make sense of it.

In Israel the peace process is shattered by murder – acts of terror - and we cry as we try to make sense of it.

A loved one lingers on life support - and we struggle to make sense of it all.

Our lives are made up of an infinite number of pieces. And, just when we think we are in the groove and have it figured out, something else happens and we are forced to reconsider the whole picture. As one rabbi put it, Why trade a perfectly good question for a simple answer? In other words, the trapping of Pierre’s classmates and even our own trapping is that sometimes in pursuit of an answer we become so focused on the answer, so convinced that there must be proof, that we forget the essence of meaning found in the quest itself.

More than anyone else, Victor Frankl, Jewish psychiatrist and philosopher, made us aware that the search for meaning is as much at the center of the human experience as is the existential angst. An inmate in Auschwitz, he wrote: it seemed as if nothing and no one would survive me; neither a physical nor a spiritual child of my own... "I found myself confronted with the question of whether under such circumstances my life was ultimately void of any meaning."

A few days later, the Nazis forced the prisoners to give up what little clothing they still wore. "I had to surrender my clothes and in turn inherited the worn-out rags of an inmate who had been sent to the gas chamber," said Frankl. "Instead of the many pages of my manuscript, I found in the pocket of the newly acquired coat a single page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, which contained the Jewish prayer 'Shema Yisrael.'

He continues: "How should I have interpreted such a 'coincidence' other than as a challenge to 'live' my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper?"

Meaning, even at its most basic level, involves figuring out how you fit into the world around you. It is in developing faith in your environment, in those around you and in the power that sustains our world. Faith is about affirming the truth that the world is essentially good, in spite of any evidence to the contrary. The meaning of life is found not in a particular belief, but in the process of faith we develop along our way. We find meaning in knowing we love and are loved. And, we find meaning in contributing to our society through our professional endeavors and our personal commitments. We find meaning in the acquisition of knowledge which leads to moments of awe. And, we find meaning in contributing to the world.

This is what brings us together on this Rosh Hashanah. In these days of awe, we will come together as a community of Jews to ask ourselves deep and troubling questions, as we sit on the birch of our wood tree, just like Pierre. But, unlike Pierre, we also step down hoping to find meaning in our own lives, in the loving embrace of friends and family, and praying to be touched by God’s presence. Ken Yehi Ratzon – so may it be for each one of us today and throughout this new year.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah!