Life as a Calling

Ever since my adolescence, I intuited that there must be more to life than the material dimension of human existence. That the human story is about so much more than what Karl Marx called “Homo faber,” – the human being as the producing and manufacturing animal.

This deep-seated intuition, that there’s more to life than the race for income, was factually and empirically corroborated for me back in 2006. During that year, the General Social Survey in the US revealed some astounding findings about what the Dalai Lama called “the art of happiness.”

The survey found that the practitioners of the following professions reported the highest rates of career satisfaction in their work: clergy, educators, nurses, fire fighters, artists and therapists. What do all these professions have in common? They are all about so much more than “making a living.” Rather, they are also about elevating and enhancing the lives of others.

Many of us are brainwashed from our very childhood by the market economy ethos that inner contentment is to be achieved by pursuing professions which carry exceptionally high monetary dividends. But as Albert Einstein wisely discerned: “not everything that counts can be counted.” Existential satiation, implies the general social survey mentioned above, is to be derived by also having a sense of a calling in life, by cultivating a constant inner striving to also contribute to the well-being of others, and the overall advancement of human welfare.

This germane existential insight about the inherent connection between altruism and happiness, is exemplified in the very opening word of the book of Leviticus in the Torah. That word is “Vayikra,” which means “Called upon.” Usually, when God Almighty allegorically addresses Moses in the Torah, the text uses the word “Vaydaber” (“And God spoke”), or “Vayomer (“And God said”).

Why is it that the opening word of the Torah book which discusses at length the necessity of sacrificing in life, begins with the peculiar phrasing of God “calling upon” Moses, rather than God merely “saying” to Moses, or “speaking” to Moses? The answer, as the Chassidic tradition intimates, is that the Torah is addressing here the universal Moses lurking in potentiality within each and every one of us. That the Torah is alluding here to the pristine altruistic streak inherent in the human soul. We are all being existentially summoned and challenged here. We are all being “called upon” by a cosmic voice, which is also an inner voice, to see life not only as a solipsistic socio-economic endeavor, but also as a sacred altruistic vocation.

If you feel a little depressed, advised me once a wise relative, then “go and volunteer.” For few things in life enhance and invigorate the human spirit more than the knowledge that you are useful, relevant and helpful to those around you. That you truly make a difference in people’s lives, and that you lead an impactful existence by enriching and beautifying the lives of others. In the words of Rabbi Hillel in the Talmud “the rest is commentary,” now go and “be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2).

I leave you today with the sagacious words of the great Bengali mystical poet Rabindranath Tagore: “I had a dream, and dreamt that life was happiness. I awoke and found that life is service. I served, and found that in service happiness is to be found.”

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Sessler

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