Purpose in a Moment

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Clock Moment
21 Mar 2007

“We Do Not Know the Purpose of One Moment of Life”

(quote by Rabbi Ezriel Tauber)

Terri Schiavo died almost two years ago after being in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) for fifteen years. After numerous court cases and fourteen appeals, the courts ruled against the wishes of her parents and decreed that her feeding tube should be removed. Thirteen days later, on March 30, 2005, Terri died of dehydration.

The questions provoked by her death will haunt us for a long time. Here is one: Is it possible for someone in a PVS or even in a coma to live a more purposeful life than a normally functioning person? Traditional Jewish texts, spanning ancient through contemporary times can shed light on this unusual question.

As the psychiatrist Rabbi Abraham Twersky states, the world was created with purpose. If a person doesn’t believe that the world was created with order, pattern, and purpose; then how could the minutiae of our individual lives ever hold meaning? One might as well live for the existential moment.

Today, purpose in life is commonly regarded as a lifestyle choice. Something we choose to have, akin to jogging a mile or eating broccoli, because it is good for us. Because it makes us feel good.

But according to the contemporary theologian Rabbi Ezriel Tauber, purpose is part of the blueprint that determines who we are meant to be. When we ignore this need by keeping ourselves too busy for introspection or totally immersing ourselves in trivial endeavors, we are denying ourselves access to our deepest most primal need.

The Kabbalah teaches that this world is considered a shadow of God’s light. According to Rabbi Chaim Moshe Luzzatto, an 18th century philosopher, man’s purpose is to do good deeds. For if we aren’t living a purposeful life, then we are in fact merely serving ourselves.

Serving ourselves is a form of self-worship. This is a deathblow to our souls. Our souls yearn for connection and narcissism cuts us off from our Source. Our souls experience this severing like a hospital patient being cut off from life support tubes.

Rabbi Tauber takes the logic of this further. Not having higher purpose beyond our own physical desires, beyond serving ourselves, means we are not really living. We are like the dead.

We usually consider a person’s decision to pursue a calling as a positive, yet optional, personal decision. Living a self-serving life devoted solely to one’s own whims of the moment is often viewed through today’s lenses of moral relativism as a neutral choice. Be whatever you want, do whatever you want, just as long as you don’t hurt anybody. In earlier, more spiritual times, those words would have the taste of heresy. Now this is considered a morally neutral belief.

But is there really such a thing as a morally neutral choice? Wasting time is in essence no better than wasting other divinely given resources such as food and water. Lack of purpose in one’s life can lead to years spent whiling away time in meaningless activity.

Wasting time should not be confused with taking time to relax or to meditate in order to recharge. But aimlessly wasting time is not life enhancing- “killing time” is exactly thus- the murdering of the moment, a moment that will never return. When we “kill time” we inflict wounds upon ourselves. This is not neutral behavior. This is behavior that is spiritually self-destructive. Rabbi Tauber aptly sums up our modern day malaise: “We do not know the importance of one moment of life.”

Many people who have retired from their life’s work, or who have physical ailments that limit their capabilities, feel that their lives are no longer important, other than to a small circle of loved ones.

If we thought that each moment of life was a special, personal, gift given to us, wouldn’t we drastically change the way we lived our lives?

“In order for the world to continue to exist and possess meaning, man must identify with G-d’s righteous attributes.” (On Ecclesiastes: 29) The 15th Century scholar, Rabbi Moses Cordovero, delineates these attributes. One of them is the attribute of kindness. When a person does kindness in this world, he is doing kindness to his Creator. The early 20th Century scholar, the “Chofetz Chaim”, contends that we are commanded to do acts of kindness each day of our lives. One day filled with doing many acts of kindness to others does not discharge us from responsibility on the next day.

In Psalms we read, “His life is like a passing shadow.” (144:4) Rabbi Tatz, a contemporary theologian, explains the passage’s meaning: It is our obligation to make the most of each day of our life.

“How much is one moment worth?” asks Rabbi Tauber. What would we be willing to pay for one extra moment in life? What can we accomplish an instant?

What about someone in a coma? What is he accomplishing? He is not able to perform any kind deeds. Illness or accident has led him to this state. But would G-d put a human being into a situation where he does not have the option of serving Him? This would contradict His purpose for mankind. Therefore we can assume that a man in a coma is fulfilling his purpose in the eyes of G-d. For him, at this time, his purpose is to exist from one moment to the next. He enables his nurses, aides, therapists, doctors and family members to perform continual deeds of kindness. He inspires his loved ones to pray for him and to give charity on his behalf. His caretakers provide the ultimate kindness; they care for his every need without receiving any gratification from him in return.

But what of the lives of those who are not in a coma? Surely more is expected from us in the way of purpose. A comatose person’s needs are taken care of, while remaining passive and without relating meaningfully to others. But what happens when people who are not in a coma behave in ways that imitate those who are comatose? They were given health, use of arms, legs, and mind, and they do not choose to use these gifts in a giving way.

We recall Rabbi Tauber’s words: “Not having higher purpose beyond our own physical desires means we are not really living. We are like the dead.”

From this we may deduct that a comatose person is living a more purposeful life than a fully healthy person who lives only to satisfy his own personal needs.

When we live our lives in a purposeful manner, we are harnessing the spiritual power of Creation. We will never know what divine purpose Terri Schiavo’s life might have served if she had been permitted to live.


Esther Heller is the director of The Jewish Writing Institute.  She is fiction editor of Binah Magazine and has written for many Jewish publications. She lives with her family in Tsfat.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.