These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions. (Leviticus 23:2)
I once had a good friend, Perry London, z'l, with whom I would go bike riding at 6:00 in the morning. Perry at the time was a Professor of Psychology at the University of Southern California. He later moved to Harvard and then to the Hebrew University, and he wrote the introductory psychology textbook used by many universities in addition to the scholarly work that earned the rand of Professor.
One morning, as we were beginning our ride, Perry asked me, 'Elliot, how do you get meaning in life?' Blurry eyed, I said to him, 'Good morning, Perry!' Discussing such deep philosophical issues at 6:00 a.m. was just not what we usually did, and it certainly not what I was prepared to do.
As I thought about it, though, I remembered a friend that I had had in junior high school and high school who knew from as early as I remember that he wanted to be a dentist. We both took biology in tenth grade, and we both got an A in it, but for me it was just the next thing you took if you were on the academic track, and for him it was his first formal introduction to what he needed to know as a dentist. The course and his grade in it therefore meant much more to him than they did to me. So I told Perry that meaning comes from having goals and working to attain them.
At that point Perry said to me – and I am quoting him – 'Your Bubbie and mine did not think in terms of long-term goals. But they knew that Shaharit was Shaharit, Minhah was Minhah, and Ma’ariv was Ma’ariv. They also knew that there was the weekday and Shabbat. They knew too that there was a round of the seasons and a lifecycle, each element of which was marked by special ceremonies. It was that marking of events, Perry said, that gave them not only a sense of structure in their lives, but a reservoir of meaning as well.
It then occurred to me that what Perry had pointed out was the exact opposite of what Jean Paul Sartre writes about in his book, No Exit. There he describes a life in which every moment is like every other. When that happens, there is no meaning in life, and so, he says, we must create meaning on our own, the classic existentialist stance.
Judaism, though, affords a different path to meaning. It establishes not only long-term goals of creating a Messianic world of peace, justice, knowledge, family and friends, and fulfillment, but a calendar of the year and of our lives that marks days and portions of days as distinct from others. In doing so, it punctuates life, giving it structure, art, and meaning.
This is no more in evidence than it is in this week’s Torah reading, where Chapter 23 of Leviticus summarizes the way we mark Shabbat and the Festivals. Those of us involved in Jewish life may well take them for granted – they are just part of what it means to be a Jew. We may also appreciate the various meanings that each of the occasions described in this chapter has. What we should also be aware of, though, is what Perry taught me that morning – that the very fact that we mark each week with Shabbat and the seasons of the year with special Festivals is itself a source of meaning, quite apart from the special meanings each of these occasions has.
May we all find meaning in life, and may we appreciate the Shabbatot and Festivals that our Tradition provides us as important sources for that meaning.