Looking for Meaning in our lives
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
This week’s parashah tells us that Jacob ran away from his family’s home because he feared that Esau would kill him after Jacob tricked their father into giving him the blessing, the blessing that should have been given to Esau.
Jacob, our patriarch, reached Haran, where his mother’s family lived. He saw Rachel there, and it was love at first sight. It is written in the Torah: “Jacob kissed Rachel and broke into tears.” (Bereshit 29: 11). He was so excited to find the love of his life that he cried with emotion.
After that, Jacob made an agreement with Laban, Rachel’s brother. Jacob would work for him for seven years in order to marry Rachel. The Torah says, “Jacob loved Rachel so answered, ‘I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel” (Genesis 29:18).
This verse is very special, given that there are few places in the Torah that use the verb ‘to love’ between a man and a woman. We could say that Jacob was the first romantic lover to appear in the Torah.
The parashah tells us that Jacob worked for Laban for seven years, as he had promised, and the text adds a very interesting quote: “Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days, for the love he had to her.” (Idem, 20). Jacob loved Rachel so much that he didn’t realize how hard he had worked, and the time passed quickly.
Despite the fact that Laban cheated him, giving Jacob Leah instead of Rachel, Jacob decided to work another seven years to marry his beloved Rachel. His love for Rachel made Jacob’s life happy and meaningful.
This part of the parashah teaches us about the importance of having dreams, goals, and plans in life. When we have a project to strive for each day, our lives are filled with meaning and joy.
There is an amazing example of this message, one that has always greatly impressed me, written in the book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl, who was a Jewish Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor.
In his best-selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he narrates his experiences as a concentration camp prisoner, which led him to discover the importance of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most brutal ones, and thus, a reason to continue living. Frankl became one of the key figures in existential therapy and a prominent source of inspiration for humanistic psychologists. He was the founder of logotherapy.
Frankl tells about hundreds of prisoners who, in spite of the unfortunate lives they were forced to live, suffering hunger, hard labor, and sickness, when they had a purpose for which to live, a hope, a dream, or a person to love, they stayed alive despite the adversities they had to endure.
When they felt they could not achieve their goal, they no longer continued to fight, and they died.
The author says, “The prisoner who lost faith in the future, in his own future, was condemned to die. With the loss of faith in the future, he lost himself, his spiritual strength; he lost himself and became weakened and turned into an object of physical and mental annihilation”.
There is an interesting and sad example in his book: “The death rate in the week between Christmas 1944, and New Year 1945, increased in camp beyond all previous experience. The explanation of this increase did not lie in the harder working conditions or the deterioration of our food suppliers or a change of weather or new epidemics. It was simply that the majority of the prisoners had lived in the naïve hope that they would be home again by Christmas.
As the time drew near and there was no encouraging news, the prisoners lost courage and disappointment overcame them. This had a dangerous influence on this power of resistance and a great number of them died” (page. 84).
According to the author, in many cases, it wasn’t the hunger or the fatigue or the sickness that killed the prisoners, but rather the loss of hope and the knowledge they could not achieve their cherished dreams.
Even though these experiences might have taken place under very special circumstances, I think that in our daily lives, what keeps us truly alive is the desire, the passion and the effort that we put into reaching our goals and the visions of the future that we dream about. If we have no goals to achieve, it’s difficult to live our lives with enthusiasm.
Eduardo Galeano, a Uruguayan journalist, writer and novelist said: “Utopia is on the horizon. I walk two steps, and Utopia becomes two steps further away, and the horizon becomes ten steps further away. So, what purpose does Utopia serve? It helps us to walk”.
Each one of us should identify his / her own desires, passions, dreams, goals, and plans, and then go forward. Even though the effort tires us out, when the love for what we do and want is so great, as with Jacob, the years go by like days.
The Torah teaches us that when we yearn for something that we know is good for us, we must put forth the effort to achieve it.
It often happens that what we most prize and love is the most difficult to obtain. Nevertheless, it is not impossible. That’s why we must persevere and have patience, just like our patriarch Jacob, when he worked so long and hard for his beloved Rachel.