The American Declaration of Independence speaks of the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Recently, following the pioneering work of Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology, there have been hundreds of books published on happiness.
Yet there is something more fundamental to the sense of a life well-lived, namely meaning. The two seem similar. It’s easy to suppose that people who find meaning are happy, and people who are happy have found meaning. But the two are not the same, nor do they always overlap.
Happiness is largely a matter of satisfying needs and wants. Meaning, by contrast, is about a sense of purpose in life, especially by making positive contributions to the lives of others. Happiness is largely about how you feel in the present. Meaning is about how you judge your life as a whole: past, present and future.
Happiness is associated with taking, meaning with giving. Individuals who suffer stress, worry or anxiety are not happy, but they may be living lives rich with meaning. Past misfortunes reduce present happiness, but people often connect such moments with the discovery of meaning.
Furthermore, happiness is not unique to humans. Animals also experience contentment when their wants and needs are satisfied. But meaning is a distinctively human phenomenon. It has to do not with nature but with culture. It is not about what happens to us, but about how we interpret what happens to us.
In a fascinating article in The Atlantic, “There’s more to life than being happy,” Emily Smith argued that the pursuit of happiness can result in a shallow, self-absorbed, even selfish life. What makes the pursuit of meaning different is that it is about the search for something larger than the self.
No one did more to put the question of meaning into modern discourse than the late Viktor Frankl. In the three years he spent in Auschwitz, Frankl survived and helped others to survive by inspiring them to discover a purpose in life even in the midst of hell on earth. It was there that he formulated the ideas he later turned into a new type of psychotherapy based on what he called “man’s search for meaning.” His book by that title, written in nine days in 1946, has sold more than ten million copies and ranks as one of the most influential works of the twentieth century.
Frankl knew that in the camps, those who lost the will to live died. He tells of how he helped two individuals to find a reason to survive. One, a woman, had a child waiting for her in another country. Another had written the first volumes of a series of travel books, and there were others yet to write. Both therefore had a reason to live.
Frankl used to say that the way to find meaning was not to ask what we want from life. Instead we should ask what life wants from us. We are each, he said, unique: in our skills and talents, and in the circumstances of our life. For each of us, there is a task only we can do. This does not mean that we are better than others. But if we believe we are here for a reason, then there is a tikkun, a mending, only we can do, an act of kindness or courage, generosity or hospitality, even a word of encouragement or a smile, only we can perform, because we are here, in this place, at this time.
“Life is a task,” he used to say, and added, “The religious man differs from the apparently irreligious man only by experiencing his existence not simply as a task, but as a mission.” He or she is aware of being called by a Source. “For thousands of years that source has been called G-d.”
That is the significance of the word that gives our parsha, and the third book of the Torah, its name: Vayikra, “And He called.” The precise meaning of this verse is difficult to understand. Literally translated it reads: “And He called to Moshe, and G-d spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying …” The first phrase seems redundant. If G-d spoke to Moshe, why say in addition, “And He called”? Rashi explains as follows:
“And He called to Moshe: Every [time G-d communicated with Moshe, whether signaled by the expression] ‘And He spoke,’ ‘and He said,’ or ‘and He commanded,’ it was always preceded by [G-d] calling [to Moshe by name]. ‘Calling’ is an expression of endearment. It is the expression employed by the ministering angels, as it says, ‘And one called to the other’ (Yeshaya 6:3).”
Vayikra, Rashi is telling us, means to be called to a task in love. This is the source of a key idea in Western thought, namely the concept of a vocation or a calling — the choice of a career or way of life not just because it offers benefits, but because you feel summoned to it. You feel this is what you were placed on earth to do.
There are many such calls in Tanach. There was the call Avraham received, telling to leave his land and family. There was the call to Moshe at the burning bush. There was the one experienced by Yeshaya when he saw in a mystical vision G-d enthroned and surrounded by angels.
One of the most touching is the story of the young Shmuel, dedicated by his mother Chana to serve in the sanctuary at Shiloh as an assistant to Eli. In bed at night he heard a voice calling his name. He assumed it was Eli. He ran to see what he wanted, but Eli told him he had not called. This happened a second and third time, and by then Eli realized it was G-d calling the child. He told Shmuel that the next time the voice called, he should reply, “Speak, L-rd, for Your servant is listening.”
It did not occur to the child that it might be G-d summoning him to a mission, but it was. Thus began his career as a prophet, judge and anointer of Israel’s first two kings, Shaul and David (1 Shmuel 3).
When we see a wrong to be righted, a sickness to be healed, a need to be met, and we feel it speaking to us, that is when we come as close as we can in a post-prophetic age to hearing Vayikra, G-d’s call. Why does the word appear here, at the beginning of the third and central book of the Torah? Because the book of Vayikra is about sacrifices. We are willing to make sacrifices when we feel they are part of the task we are called on to do.
From the perspective of eternity we may sometimes be overwhelmed by our own insignificance. We are no more than a wave in the ocean, a grain of sand on the seashore, a speck of dust on the surface of infinity. Yet we are here because G-d wanted us to be, because there is a task He wants us to perform. The search for meaning is the quest for this task.
Each of us is unique. Even identical twins are different. There are things only we can do, we who are what we are, in this time, this place. For each of us G-d has a task: work to perform, a kindness to show, a gift to give, love to share, loneliness to ease, pain to heal, or broken lives to help mend. Discerning that task, hearing Vayikra, G-d’s call, is one of the great spiritual challenges for each of us.
How do we know what it is? Some years ago, in To Heal a Fractured World, I offered this as a guide, and it still seems to me to make sense: Where what we want to do meets what needs to be done, that is where G-d wants us to be.