“Judaism is the Pursuit of Meaning” — Elie Wiesel

“Judaism is the Pursuit of Meaning” — Elie Wiesel

From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon

Two weeks ago, I was in Israel. At 2am, one morning, my phone began to buzz. The message was that a terrible death occurred. A 29-year-old man, whom I had known since he was a boy, had succumbed to a drug overdose. He was suffering from real physical pain, but six years of fighting addiction was an underlying issue. There was nothing I could do but counsel the family over the phone from Israel, and wait for the funeral arrangements to be made. When I returned home from Israel, I met the family that night to prepare for what would be a painful, mournful, and tragic funeral the next day.

At the cemetery and memorial service that followed, few words could adequately address the pain that was so palpable and the loss that was so profound. Though Judaism guides mourners through stages of death and mourning, there is nothing that prepares a family for such an untimely and tragic death. The point is that we who are commanded to “Choose Life,” (Deuteronomy 30) must do more, sooner, to prevent the onset of addiction that’s robbing our children of a full life. As many know, once addiction takes hold, a long and arduous struggle begins.      

At the heart of the matter is an essential Jewish understanding. You see, a mitzvah is a Divine commandment. However we might imagine the Divine commandment, or the “still small voice” within us, we respond to the Commander with an act called a mitzvah, a commandment, a good deed. When death occurs, Jews mourn because we can no longer respond with a mitzvah. Naturally, we also mourn because Judaism has prepared us to see death as the end of the lifecycle. Other faith traditions see this world as a depot; a weigh-station to the next world where heaven is their hope. Our hope is long life in this world, in the here-and-now, where we are partners with God to make a positive difference in a world God entrusted to human hands.

That’s why the Houston Jewish community is taking the matter seriously. Jewish Family Service is just one source of critical training and resources for individuals and families. In the New Year, dozens of people will be asked to engage in training to identify needs and facilitate help for anyone who’s facing addiction or thoughts of suicide. Congregation Beth Israel is participating in the programs that will prepare us to be better at identifying and helping those in need. Perhaps you might be willing to be trained, too.

Long life, even a hard life, is better than no life. Elie Wiesel taught, “Judaism is not the pursuit of happiness. Judaism is the pursuit of meaning.” Let’s not aim for happiness as an antidote to pain or struggle. Let’s aim for meaning. Life is hard. Let’s look for meaning in all times and be eager to choose life, every day.

Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights, 2011) available on Amazon.com. He can be heard on “iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM every Sunday at 6:45am CST. Listeners around the greater Houston area, and now the internet, tune in to hear his words about life and its meaning from a Jewish point-of-view. Each radio program is available as a Podcast, called “Heart to Heart with Rabbi David Lyon”. Click here to listen online, or download the iHeartRadio app.