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Thought for the Day: ‘Existing only to receive is not an existence at all’

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On the Eve of Yom Kippur, the Chief Rabbi reflects on the importance of a meaningful existence, and how this links to the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

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You can read the full transcript below.


What is the greatest gift of all? An ancient Jewish teaching explores this question through contrasting Israel’s two landlocked seas: The Sea of Galilee, important to Christians and Jews alike, and the Dead Sea. The former is famous for being one of the largest sweet-water lakes, and the latter is famous for its high concentration of salt, which inhibits sea-life in its waters.

The River Jordan, sourced at the foot of Mount Herman, flows into the Sea of Galilee. At its’ southernmost point, the Jordan re-emerges, and its waters reach the Dead Sea, from which there is no outlet. The Sea of Galilee, which both receives and gives water, embodies kindness and generosity, leading to sweet consequences. The Dead Sea however, as its name suggests, reminds us that taking without giving will never lead to anything positive. Existing only to receive is not an existence at all.

In this spirit, the Hebrew for love – ahava – literally means giving. A truly enriching relationship provides life-enhancing opportunities to give and share through selfless love.

Today, on the Eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, there is a beautiful custom for parents to bless their children. It is a time when we are mindful of the book of Genesis, which reveals the details of Abraham’s last will and testament. We are told that Abraham gave everything he had to Isaac, yet he also gave gifts to his other children.

How can this be possible? If Abraham gave everything he had to Isaac, what did he have left for the others? The answer is that Isaac had proved his worth to Abraham, and so he was given all of the things that meant ‘everything’ to his father: his identity, his values and his faith. To the others however, Abraham gave material gifts. They received something to live with, while Isaac received something to live for.

The power of a meaningful existence was encapsulated by the renowned Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl, who said, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how’.” This is what we will be celebrating on Yom Kippur. Through fasting we will acknowledge the gift of a meaningful life, centred around our families, our friends, our communities, and the values and deep principles which govern our actions.

Blessings that don’t cost anything, and which mean everything to us.

The greatest gift we can give to our children is to empower them to have meaning, fulfilment and joy, through a life of values that transcends a hunger for materialistic gain. Empowerment, unlike an unwanted gift, will never end up on eBay.