Fixed Times for Meaning in Life

Headshot of Elliot Dorff
Headshot of Elliot Dorff
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, PhD

Sol & Anne Distinguished Professor in Philosophy, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
University Rector, American Jewish University

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, PhD is AJU’s Rector and Sol & Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor in Philosophy. He is Chair of the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and served on the editorial committee of Etz Hayim, the new Torah commentary for the Conservative Movement. He has chaired four scholarly organizations: the Academy of Jewish Philosophy, the Jewish Law Association, the Society of Jewish Ethics, and the Academy of Judaic, Christian, and Islamic Studies. He was elected Honorary President of the Jewish Law Association for the term of 2012-2016.  In Spring 1993, he served on the Ethics Committee of Hillary Rodham Clinton's Health Care Task Force. In March 1997 and May 1999, he testified on behalf of the Jewish tradition on the subjects of human cloning and stem cell research before the President's National Bioethics Advisory Commission. In 1999 and 2000 he was part of the Surgeon General’s commission to draft a Call to Action for Responsible Sexual Behavior; and from 2000 to 2002 he served on the National Human Resources Protections Advisory Commission, charged with reviewing and revising the federal guidelines for protecting human subjects in research projects. Rabbi Dorff is also a member of an advisory committee for the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History on the social, ethical, and religious implications of their exhibits. He is also a member of the Ethics Advisory Committee for the state of California on stem cell research.

He has been an officer of the FaithTrust Institute, a national organization that produces seminars and educational materials to help people avoid or extricate themselves from domestic violence.  For eight years he was also been a member of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Federation Council of Los Angeles, chairing its committee on serving the vulnerable.  In Los Angeles, he is a Past President of Jewish Family Services and a member of the Ethics committee at U.C.L.A. Medical Center. He serves as Co-Chair of the Priest-Rabbi Dialogue of the Los Angeles Archdiocese and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.  

posted on May 6, 2012
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

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 ShaharitMinhah 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.

Shabbat shalom.