Monday, June 13, 2011


I forsook sleep and finished my rereading of Chaim Potok's The Chosen this morning. The book, written in simple prose and lavished with Hebrew and Yiddish terms that make it feel somehow foreign yet familiar, is filled with glittering bits of human wisdom; you could create a series of 365-day meditation calendars from them. I first read Potok's novel sometime in high school; I've come back to it a few times over the years, usually long after the plot's details have become fuzzy. Here is one passage that grabbed and held me this time:

But my father didn't seem to have heard me. He sat on the bed, lost in thought. We were quiet for a long time. Then he stirred and said softly, "Reuven, do you know what the rabbis tell us God said to Moses when he was about to die?"

I stared at him. "No," I heard myself say.

"He said to Moses, 'You have toiled and labored, now you are worthy of rest.'"

I stared at him and didn't say anything.

"You are no longer a child, Reuven," my father went on. "It is almost possible to see the way your mind is growing. And your heart, too. Inductive logic, Freud, experimental psychology, mathematizing hypotheses, scientific study of the Talmud. Three years ago, you were still a child. You have become a small giant since the day Danny's ball struck your eye. You do not see it. But I see it. And it is a beautiful thing to see. So listen to what I am going to tell you." He paused for a moment, as if considering his next words carefully, then continued. "Human beings do not live forever, Reuven. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So it may be asked what value is there to a human life. There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to have to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye?" He paused again, his eyes misty now, then went on. "I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. Do you understand what I am saying? A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one's life with meaning. That I do not think you understand yet. A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here. Do you understand what I am saying?"



  1. “Meaning” can be a very deceiving word. Some lives are filled with meaning the likes of (like Nazis’, narco traffickers', and those of the Taliban for starters) which most of the world’s inhabitants would have truly benefitted had they had no meaning at all.

    Then there are the lack of concrete facts that still don’t dissuade those who toil and toil to fill their lives with what they have been brainwashed by the leaders under their gods (gotta love brainwashing that starts at birth when the victim has no free will of their own) that will eventually end up meaningless come judgment day (or the lack of said day) when there are no pearly gates, virgins, or reincarnation as a slug or dung beetle because all religions can't be the one true one, can they?

  2. I'm not sure what sort of meaning infused the lives of the Nazis, et al., but I'm pretty sure that that's not what Potok was aiming for. Reuven's father, a Zionist, was talking about being of service to his people, but in his conversation with Reuven he was talking about more than just himself, I think: he was enjoining Reuven to go live a meaningful life as well.

    I agree that "meaning," as a word, can be deceiving-- or, I might say, open to interpretation. But interpreted charitably in the context of the father-son exchange in The Chosen, I'd venture that it refers to a sense of happiness and fulfillment that comes from focus, effort, and service to others.

  3. "it refers to a sense of happiness and fulfillment that comes from focus, effort, and service to others."

    Those who belong to groups like the Nazis, the Taliban, and even offshoots of the same religion (Shia and Sunni, Protestants and Catholics, Protestants and other Protestants, etc.) all preach the exact same thing. It's just that nonbelievers are justly expendable according to the meaning of their ways.

  4. I really enjoyed this, Kevin. Thanks for sharing.

    I think it resonates now because I think I'm currently struggling to find meaning in my post-retirement life...



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