By Rabbi Tuvia Teldon
There are many words in English which on the surface appear to point to the same idea. Thus, we have many synonyms to draw from to express ourselves. However, often when we go deeper into a word’s meaning we see that indeed there are significant differences between the two. I would propose that this applies to the words meaningful and purposeful. Meaningful activities are those which stand out as more than the knee-jerk reactions which often rule our life. They give us a sense of satisfaction, add to our sense of accomplishment, and may even make us feel that we are doing something that makes ourselves or the world better. Perhaps a donation to an environmental cause, a favor for a friend, a phone call to repair a damaged relationship, or an idea which uplifts us or others. If we are so inclined, and we have the luxury of time, energy, and resources, we could in fact fill our day with meaningful activities of our choice. This is a very praiseworthy pursuit which should be encouraged to the best of one’s abilities. Most of us would label meaningful activities as being purposeful as well. If they are meaningful, they are probably serving some purpose.
On the other hand, purposeful activities are not necessarily all meaningful. Going to work is purposeful, but not always meaningful. Raising our children is very purposeful, but I don’t know anyone who does it because it is meaningful. Taking care of an elderly parent is very purposeful, but rarely meaningful. Often we have duties or responsibilities in our life which fulfill an important purpose, but are usually not meaningful. We can try to infuse meaning into them but, by definition, they don’t necessarily bring great meaning to our lives. As human beings we are meant to live both meaningful and purposeful lives. We are here in this world to add meaning to whatever we do, but we are also here to accomplish many tasks that bring no glamour but have to get done. It is a special combination when we can engage in activities which are both meaningful and purposeful.
Since Mt. Sinai, Jews were given a special mandate to emphasize living a purposeful life. Our Mitzvos have a purpose and bind us to a higher purpose. We as Jews are given the honored position of being Hashem’s Am Segula, with all the responsibilities that come with that title. It does not always feel meaningful to fulfill our obligations as Jews, but it is certainly purposeful.
Our Sages and Chazal extract tremendous meaning and depth concerning the mitzvas and customs we fulfill. These messages raise our motivation and our love for the performance of our Torah responsibilities. But we don’t fulfill these mandates because they are meaningful. We do them because that is our purpose in life, to fulfill the Torah and be a “light amongst the nations”. When we understand why we do mitzvos we make it more meaningful. However, when we don’t understand them we make it more purposeful. In my just published book Eight Paths of Purpose I take this discussion a step further. A purposeful life is focused on fulfilling our unique purpose in life. We all have a general purpose as a human being and as a Jew, and then we have a unique purpose for which G-d created us and gave us life. This purpose is what makes our life unique and unlike anyone else in the universe. We know that each of us has a unique purpose, as our Sages emphasized over and over again the importance of the individual (i.e. creation of Adam as one person, the Ten Commandments addressing each individual etc.) This explains why each of our journeys in life is so different because each of our purposes are so different. In fulfilling this purpose, we can also choose to do many meaningful acts, but the bottom line is that we need to be focused on fulfilling our unique purpose.
Indeed, sometimes it is possible for meaningful activities to be an obstacle to fulfilling our unique purpose. If I choose to go to the museum when my friend/spouse/child really needs me, am I choosing properly? If I have a choice between visiting a frail parent or staying home to read a very stimulating book, should I choose meaningful or purposeful? Of course, we all need a break once in a while but sometimes we need to ask ourselves what our motivation is in deciding which path to take. Meaningful actions are usually very enjoyable and fulfilling, sometimes much more than purposeful activities, but which is more important when it comes to better fulfilling our unique purpose in life? So, it seems that there is a very important difference between the words ‘purposeful,’ and ‘meaningful’, one which we should all ponder when deciding our day to day priorities. I think ‘meaningful’ is a word we can all be the judge of in our lives. But ‘purposeful’ is a word we may need some brushing up on.