Meaning as an organizing structure

Thoughts of parashat Vayigash

Menachem Mirski

We live in an age of many different and often conflicting narratives. All the different worldviews can be easily pitted against each other, with a promotion of “the only right one”, in order to wage yet another ideological war. One can also go in a different direction: from the fact that there is a multitude of narratives, one may conclude that they are never more than ideological constructs, pure conventions without any grounding in reality and the choice between them is always subjective and/or completely dependent on the situation. From here there is a straight path to justify nihilism or, in a milder version, hedonism, as well as other philosophies which claim that if anything has value at all, it is only experiencing life here and now.

Although there is a kind of ideological pluralism and some freedom of interpretation in the bosom of Judaism, such views and philosophies are, in principle, contrary to the spirit of the Mosaic religion as such (as well as the spirit of other Abrahamic religions). Even though some teachings of our religion are in fact debatable, there are fundamental premises (like You shall not murder or You shall not commit adultery) that belong to the realm of absolute truth.

This contradiction poses challenges and often a danger to many religious traditions and validity of their teachings. The deep narratives about the meaning of life are usually based on many premises, often very context-based, and some part of them is simply taken on faith. It is enough to point out an error or lack of justification of one of them and everything begins to crumble, losing its grounding in our experience.

In this week’s Torah portion Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers, who sold him some years earlier as a slave to Egypt. “I am Joseph,” he declares, and then asks: “Is my father still alive?” The brothers are overcome by shame and remorse but Joseph comforts them. “So, it was not you who sent me here,” he says to them, but “God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.” (Gen 45:7-8)

This is one of many expressions of the idea of a divine plan in the Bible. This idea, in general, either creates certain meaning of the events to which it refers or profoundly changes the meaning we have already ascribed to them. This happens to be particularly useful in our life in the time we experience suffering. Suffering, by its nature, bothers us, and when we experience it, we are much more likely to ask why this or that has happened. Thus, the idea of the divine plan serves often to give meaning to suffering and quite often to justify it. By giving meaning to suffering we overcome hedonistic concepts of life that simplistically equate good with happiness and bad/evil with pain. The idea of divine plan also limits the scope of the philosophies that reduce explanations of everything to mechanisms of cause and effect. This idea simply says that there is (always) a greater meaning in everything that happens, a meaning that is often invisible at first glance.

But the paradigm of a deeper meaning behind the events does not invalidate naturalistic, temporary or casual views on what happens in our life. The true wisdom lies in the ability of combining both approaches: to know when to follow the deeper meaning/divine plan and when to look at things from a purely naturalistic perspective. To get this balance right prevents us from falling for various reductionist radicalisms and allows us to see one thing from multiple perspectives. Indeed, all the small and simple, human (=not divine) actions are necessary components of greater, divine plans. This is exactly the case of the entire story of Joseph.

But maybe we are merely construct these “divine narratives of a deeper meaning,” as philosophers-naturalists and postmodernists say? Even if that’s the case, they remain valid because of their practical or intellectual utility. They usually allow us to look at our experiences more broadly than from the perspective of the moment in which we are experiencing something. In situations where we experience pain or suffering, they allow us to transcend the experience, and more specifically, transcend it in time. Thus, they anticipate, and sometimes even give already a relief, because they allow us to see a future free from inconvenience or suffering. It is enough that such a vision of the future seems credible to us and it immediately motivates us to act, i.e. to realize this vision. This is one of the mechanisms of religious faith, as well as the one of a “secular faith”, i.e. the faith which exists independently from a religious context.

Seeing our experiences through the lens of great and deep meta-narratives may give a meaning to every single event in our life. I believe that the more meaning we have in our lives, the better for us. It helps us to deal with lots of problems and challenges. For example, there are situations in which we, sometimes desperately, want to do something, but we fail. Soon after we realize that doing the thing we desired would be totally unnecessary from the perspective of the larger context. Let’s assume that Joseph, after being already elevated and gained a high position in Egyptian society realizes that his own prophecy about famine is not credible, verifiable and he decides to return to the land of Canaan to meet his father and deal with his brothers. Would that be helpful for them all at all? No, they would all probably die because of famine that pervaded the land. And in reality it doesn’t really matter whether it was God or pure chance that sent him ahead of time to Egypt. The fact that Joseph realized the meaning of all his experiences, including all the bad ones, only helped him to understand and accept the final situation he was in. The same fact made him grateful for it and helped him to reconcile with his brothers.

Without a deeper meaning we can’t really, and certainly not in the long run, live fully and fulfill our plans and desires. All attempts to deconstruct or annul the great meta-narratives made by some naturalistic oriented  philosophies and postmodernists are in practice psychologically and socially destabilizing, and, in fact, are impossible to implement fully and completely. Our minds naturally defend themselves against them, and the effects of understanding our experiences in only “short-term”, flat perspectives may be miserable for us. The presence of this deeper meaning in life also balances its drama and is psychologically healthier.

In the New Gregorian Year I wish everyone to focus their lives on purposeful and thoughtful tasks as well as to find time to implement great plans and long awaited changes, keeping in mind the necessity to divide all the great plans into stages, because in this way they are usually easier to implement. However, we should never forget about the significance of what is happening here and now, as well as about the causes and effects of our actions. These two ways of thinking are not mutually exclusive; to think that they are would be just yet another false alternative. Only in this way, only by being aware of different time perspectives and layers of meaning in our lives, we are able to participate (consciously) in the Divine plan.

Shabat shalom!

Menachem Mirski

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