In Douglas Adams’s cult novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, several characters build a giant computer to tell them the meaning of life. After millions of years of experimentation, the computer (with much fanfare) finally spits out an answer: the number 42. But that makes no sense! How can “42” be the answer to life, the universe, and everything? The computer has some insight into this: “I think the problem is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”
Judaism, perhaps like Sci-Fi, is also an attempt to find meaning in life. But the Jewish way isn’t to do it through complex computer equations, but rather through the way we live. When the Rabbis of the Talmud asked this question, they didn’t come up with a number, but a set of instructions:
The world stands on three things: on Torah, on worship, and on acts of kindness. (Pirke Avot 1:2)
This is the Rabbis’ threefold “recipe” for a meaningful life:
Torah – Study is absolutely central to Jewish life. It is the route by which we learn about ourselves and about the world around us. Through study, we reach for meaning intellectually, by trying to understand it.
Worship – We might expand this to “spirituality.” It is the act of building a relationship with what is larger than us (however we conceive it – as a supernatural God or as the natural processes that make for meaning). This might look like prayer, mindfulness, meditation, or reciting blessings. Through worship, we reach for meaning by trying to touch it.
Acts of Kindness – As Jews we are called upon not only to think, not only to strive for meaning, but to do things that actively make our world better. Through Tikkun Olam, we reach for meaning by trying to actualize it.
I think Adams got it right: the meaning of life isn’t an answer – it’s a question. As Jews, it’s not that we’re “looking for” the meaning of life – we get to create meaning in life through the way we live our lives.