A recent study reveals something that most of us likely find obvious and intuitive: those who believe in God unequivocally are more likely to maintain that life has meaning.
Stephen Cranney of the Population Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania recently conducted a study that tests the association between belief in God and feeling a sense of purpose in life. Those respondents who said they believe with no doubts also disagreed most strongly with the idea that life is purposeless. In addition, the latest data on happiness and religious belief from a Pew Research Center survey shows that religious people, on the whole, are happier than nonreligious people.
The opening verse of this week’s Torah portion (Hayei Sarah, the Days of Sarah) conveys a similar message. It informs us that our first matriarch, Sarah, lived for 127 years before her passing. However, instead of simply stating that her life spanned that duration, the verse presents the data choppily, inserting the words “years” multiple times (after the numbers 100, 20 and 7).It concludes with the seemingly superfluous summary, “these were the years of Sarah.”
Rashi explains this unusual presentation by stating that Sarah lived a steady, consistent life. Her noble character and beauty did not change throughout her various ages and stages. The verse’s concluding phrase indicates that her life was a model of stability, with no breakdowns in her approach to life or her actions.
Similarly, Rabbi Yehoshua Aharon Tzvi Weinberger explains the verse’s final phrase based on the dictum that “evil people are called dead even as they live.” (Talmud, Berachos 18b) The idea, says Rabbi Weinberger, is that wicked people do not lead purposeful lives. Their behaviors are characterized by pursuits of pleasure and their deeds fail to reflect a higher purpose. When God asserts that He “does not desire the death of the wicked,” (Ezekiel 18:32) He is saying that He does not wish for them to die as wicked people, but rather to come to their senses and live a fulfilled life, in which each day is treasured as another means by which to conduct a spiritual, noble existence.
Purposefulness emerges from recognizing that our lives have meaning. We understand that we are here for a reason and appreciate our lives as a means through which to advance God’s goals as well as our own. Still, while we recognize fundamentally that we exist to achieve a deep, meaningful purpose we struggle to make that association on a daily basis, and to recognize that every moment is a new opportunity for “life.”
How can we become more conscientious of our need to live purposeful lives? How can we avoid the traps of monotony and routine which tend to diminish our focus, enthusiasm and perhaps even our core commitment? The following strategies may help us in achieving that goal.
Establish and clarify your core values – Values express our philosophy in life and guide us in our decision making and actions. They drive us to make certain associations, such as where we live and daven, the school that we send our children to and the company that we keep. Take the time to articulate and refine your values, to understand what truly motivates you. Share them with someone that you trust, someone who knows you well that could also serve as your moral compass when you lack clarity. Then, commit to live by them, in thought and deed.
Begin with the end in mind – This concept, made famous by the late Stephen Covey, focuses our attention on how we wish to be remembered. Covey’s imagery is that of one’s own funeral. What will people say about him? How did they perceive his life, actions and values? What can we be doing each day to cause other to reflect back positively on our lives and say that we lived it to the fullest?
Expand your vision and take action – People who lead purposeful lives often are people of vision. They see possibilities and growth opportunities where others see challenges. But vision alone is not enough. A person of consequence does not sit idly by. After developing his vision he rolls up his sleeves, ready to take the steps needed to achieve his goals.
Reflect – Every time you engage in an experience, ask yourself how it may have impacted you. Did you grow from it? Could you have approached it differently and achieved better results? This includes interactions with family or your conduct on the road or in a store. In addition, take the time to take stock of your progress as it relates to your values and goals. Are you on target? How can you achieve even more?
No doubt, the items listed above demand time, energy and much focus. They may be somewhat uninspiring, at least at first, and may even feel burdensome. But they are worth it, as they offer the clarity and direction that we all need in our busy, distracting and confusing realities.
We all seek to live a purposeful existence in which our lives are framed by consistency and growth. As with all other noble endeavors, living purposefully requires a framework, a set of values and motivators that keep us along a straight and narrow path while we dream of future success. May the life of Sarah inspire us to identify our goals and dreams and then develop the inner fortitude to maintain consistency and growth even throughout the many vicissitudes of life.