Camus, Sisyphus and Jewish Destiny

 Nobel-Prize winning French thinker and writer Albert Camus opens his classic work The Myth of Sisyphus with these words: “There is only one really serious philosophical question and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.”

As a Jew who believes in a God of History, a God whose chose a slave nation to be his treasured people, I cannot simply dismiss the these words of Camus. At some point in our lives, those of us who did not lead charmed lives must ask the questions—why go on? We must ask ourselves—does life have any meaning? Is our suffering in any way meaningful—the death of a spouse or child, the onset of an unexpected serious illness, a bitter divorce, the loss of livelihood, the chaos and danger that permeate this world. In the post-Holocaust epoch we confront the eclipse of God in the face of genocide, suffering and human misery. How do we answer Camus? Sometimes life seems so futile it is a struggle to go on. We feel like ending it all. One thinks of Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, a brilliant writer, throwing himself down a staircase after years of literary success and meaningful testimony, ending his life. His existence must have been permeated with intense loneliness and despair.

Judaism, in all its manifestations, provides an approach to the lonely individualism of Camus’ world. From ancient times till this day, Jews have always believed that our people have a communal destiny that opposes the despair of a lonely, meaningless world. Jews of all kinds, of all different religious denominations, of all different Zionist factions, believers and atheists, recognize that we are not individual atoms struggling alone in a merciless world. Rather, faith and history, imprint within us a sense of communal destiny, of an historic project that is more than 3,000 years old, that imbues our life with meaning and purpose.

While religion should never shackle individual expression and freedom of thought, the idea of the sanctity of life that is supreme in Judaism is expressed in the Hebrew Bible’s mandate that every human being is created in the image of God. Martyrdom has always been a leitmotif of Jewish history but the Torah is clear: Choose life. We sanctify the divine within us by embracing a meaning that is all around us. If the only reason for survival is to help a person in need, this combats the loneliness of a cult of individuality and invests our every action with cosmic meaning. This was the theology of the great Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria in Safed 500 years ago. No action is meaningless. Living a good and Godly life can speed the coming of Redemption.

As for the Jew who does not embrace traditional faith, he is not standing alone in a cold world. He is a link in the chain of history. We live in incredible times. The Sons of the Maccabees and Bar Kokhba have returned to a sovereign Israel. We live not simply to survive but to fight evil, promote good and represent a people and a nation that has accomplished great things in such a short span of historical time. I respect the individualism of those who, living in democracies, want to possess freedom of expression and speak the truth. But the communal nature of Jewish history has been a constant. The meaning of our lives transcends the years that we live. Our death is never the end. We leave a legacy to the living.

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is alone, forever rolling a boulder up and down the mountain. But here, Jerusalem departs from Athens. Our mountain is Sinai. God’s revelation was a communal revelation. We depart the mountain and head to our Promised Land. We are not doomed to the despair of loneliness as individuals struggling to forge our own destiny. Our faith and our history fortify and sustain us. We live life, embrace it, and reach out to other people and to our God and to our history. We are not alone and adrift, living lives without hope. We are a people of destiny.