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Op-Ed: The Sudden Death of a Friend

Personal Reflections on the passing of a friend ob”m and the Purpose of Life

by Rabbi Pinchas Allouche

A Journey, Without a Destination

“As for me… life has been a living hell… but along the way, it’s been a journey.” I was told that the ink of these words was still fresh when they were found. Mark Shuster, my dear friend and congregant of blessed memory, had written them, in all probability, just moments before his shocking death.

Mark had a gentle soul. Perhaps it was too gentle for his afflicted body. Mark also had a very big heart. And beyond his self-described “living hell”, lay a flickering flame of warmth and kindness that shone luminously. At times, I was even blinded by its gleaming light that constantly yearned to help and give. He wanted to be a “philanthropist”, he once told me quietly, with his characteristic humility. Indeed, he wanted to change the world. And although I have heard many a visionary uttering this dream, I believed Mark. For Mark was authentic and real. A true, straightforward New-Yorker, that resented fabrications and lies. But above all, it was Mark’s voracious thirst that touched me. He was always thirsty for meaning, for growth, for understanding. We would sometimes talk for hours about the meaning of life, his past, our present, and the world’s future, which he sadly did not live to see. I doubt Mark was ever satisfied with life in general. His thirst was unquenchable, his quest – insatiable. Mark was right: “it’s been a journey.” Indeed, a journey, alas with no destination.

Unanswerable Questions and The Purpose Of Life

Mark’s sudden, incomprehensible death shook my very depths. Heavy tears fill my eyes each time I think of Mark’s inner flower that never fully blossomed. I wish it could have erupted with its splendor and beauty, to bask in the light and joy of the sun. As a Rabbi and a personal friend, it is certainly one of the most challenging tragedies I have ever faced. Could we have done anything to prevent it? Would a good word, an encouraging email or a kind gesture have halted his fatal deterioration? Can we sincerely claim that “our hands did not shed this blood nor did our eyes see it”1?

No one will ever know. “Some questions”, as my dear Rabbi once taught me, “can never be answered.” Thus, despite their loud cry, our focus must rest on an entirely different matter: Is there a purpose to life, especially given its imprisoning limitations? Mark, my dear friend, took this question with him to the grave. It’s time we now answer it for him.

Three Schools of Thought

Thinkers and philosophers throughout the ages have tackled this question from every possible direction. In general, three approaches are offered:

The first, claims that life as a whole has no purpose. This school of thought takes pleasure in quoting King Solomon’s rhetoric question, “What profit has a man of all his labor under the sun?”2 Man’s life is destined for futility, in a world of “vanity of vanities, everything is vanity”3. Theories such as ‘absurdism’ hold that life is meaningless, and the pursuit for purpose is pointless. Albert Camus, a twentieth century French philosopher, once wrote: “He who has hope for human condition is a fool.”

The second approach asserts that man is capable of filling his life with meaning, but his chances are slim. Not due to a lack of talent or desire, rather, it is because man is subservient to powers beyond his control. After all, how can the average man truly be productive and influential, when he is constantly guided by external forces, and imprisoned by innate limitations? Consequently, theorists such as Baruch Spinoza, Zigmund (Shlomo) Freud, and Karl Marx attempted to prove that man can seldom be free to unleash and actualize his authentic self for he is forever subject to biologic and social laws.

The third approach is revolutionary in its categorical belief in man. “Man is capable of everything,” it states, as it places man in the center of our consciousness while supplying him with every possible tool to achieve his missions. However, its message carries a sour tone. It overemphasizes man and his traits, to a repulsive degree of man-worship and idolization. Our modern-day society lacks no example of this approach’s detrimental influence. Just open your eyes and you will see television programs adorned with the very word “idol”, magazines worshipping ‘stars’ and ‘celebrities’, and countless public figures dressed with an uncomfortable demeanor of narcissism.

A Fourth Approach

Thankfully, Judaism has invigorated humanity with a fourth, elucidating approach. Paradoxically, it too was expressed by King Solomon: “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days, you will find it.”4 Man will never fully know his real purpose in life. But G-d, and not man, has provided each and every human being, with veritable ‘bread’, with unique skills, talents and strengths, to cultivate and harvest, and thereupon ‘cast’ upon the ‘waters of the world’ and nourish it with its eternal power.

True, we may be limited by internal or external influences. True, we do not live alone and are forced to abide to G-d’s laws and the laws of our countries. Yet, we all possess a ‘bread’, unique in its odor and taste, which we must seek, find, and share with the world. And perhaps, this act may even “tilt the balance of our fate and the whole world, bringing salvation and deliverance,” as Maimonides remarked5.

“My Job in Life Is Not to Win Arguments”

In 1963, the father of a close friend, Professor Velvl Green of Minessota wrote a lengthy letter to the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, presenting his scientific views and disagreements with the revered Rabbi. Shortly after, the Rebbe responded with a letter relating to Professor Green’s Jewish life, ignoring the scientific views of his letter completely. After a long while, the Rebbe finally addressed the views of Professor Green in a separate letter. “You are probably wondering,” remarked the Rebbe, “why I waited this long to respond to your remarks on the scientific matters. But my job in life is not to win arguments. My job is to bring Jews closer to the Torah and its Mitzvot.”

Similarly, our job in life is not to belittle or aggrandize the human condition with arguments and wars. Rather, it is to impart ‘its bread’ and message of Torah and peace onto the ‘waters of the world’. This is our purpose. This is our vocation. We will never know the impact of our deeds. At times, they may never achieve their goals. Other times, they may carry a ‘butterfly-affect’6, and change the globe.

We will never know. But it is worthwhile trying, again and again. “For after many days,” as King Solomon wrote, “you will find it [your bread]”, and marvel at its everlasting achievements.

This Op-Ed reflects the views of its author. It does not necessarily reflect the views of nor of its Editors.

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  • 1. impressed wrote:

    Very inspiring op.ed and a Beautiful and original take on the purpose of life! thank you rabbi allouche.

  • 2. thank you wrote:

    Very inspiring, especially to anyone who’s ever experienced a death of a friend or relative. Thank you for posting this op-ed!


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