Off the Pulpit

The Mystery of Meaning

In the Jewish tradition a desecration of God’s name is called a “Hillul Hashem.” R. Chaim of Volozhin teaches that ‘Hillul’ comes from the word ‘Hallal’ meaning empty or void. The greatest desecration of God’s name is to believe the world is meaningless, without purpose. 

Each morning in the service we say that the advantage of the human being over the beast is nothing, “ki hakol havel” — for all is emptiness. The prayer echoes Ecclesiastes, with its refrain that in the face of death all can be seen as empty or vain.

But following a suggestion from Rabbi Simon Greenberg, we should translate “ki” in the morning prayer as the Sim Shalom prayer book does, meaning “when.” Then the prayer teaches that we are no better than beasts when we see everything as empty or vain. If we do not understand that the world is meaningful, that our actions matter, then we ultimately live empty lives.

The deepest wisdom is not knowing your exact purpose in this world, but knowing that you do indeed have one. The conviction that God placed you here for a reason is a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name.