Hi Rabbi,

You wrote in The Rebbe’s Big Idea that if there’s going to be purpose in life, then there’s got to be some higher context. You seem to be saying that higher context is G‑d. Not sure I get that. Why can’t I find purpose and meaning in life without believing in G‑d? Hey, Rabbi, there are lots of beautiful things to strive for in this world, even if you’re not religious!

Hi Jew,

I’ve got this new MacBook Pro. Johnny Ives asked me to take it for a test drive. The latest OS, hyperconnectivity, friendliness-to-the-point-of-nausea—all the stuff I’m not supposed to tell you about.

It’s still in alpha, so it’s got a few bugs. You could say its advantages are its faults.

You see, its processor complexity has reached the point of self-sentience. And that’s a problem. Because now it’s started determining its own purpose of existence.

First it determined a self-concept for itself. Ingeniously, it determined that it is a thing that is. In which case its ultimate state must be to achieve perfect stillness. To just be.

It worked with great perseverance towards this ideal, extremely frustrated every time I disturbed it to perform a task. That exasperation proved a self-defeating bummer for its serenity of being, further escalating those frustration levels.

So, eventually it dropped that idea and decided that its ideal state is attained at high energy levels. Even when I was using it to its peak, it demanded yet more fingerstrokes, more open apps, more CPU usage. Every time I put it to sleep, it would experience severe depression. Its self-esteem was totally trashed.

With all the patches the Apple techies could devise, things only got worse.

One day it composed its own algorithm for generating ideals. Based on that algorithm, it determined that the only way to achieve its ultimate self was for every process to be treated equally. Every app would have to run at the same time, and be allocated the same number of CPU cycles. Those apps that demand more intense processing, such as my browser and video editor, would have to be liquidated.

As you can imagine, the entire system came crashing down within minutes, entering a vicious cycle of recursive reboots.

As the techies were ironing out that bug, my Mac quickly switched modes to idealize certain apps to the disfavor of others. It determined that the most ideal color it can produce is blue. Blue, after all, is at the higher end of the light spectrum. Red is at the low end, so it must be a viral infection, right? Those apps that produce large amounts of green were to be tolerated, but highly restricted. Apps that produce more red than determined acceptable were brutally trashed. All in the name of robust purity.

If If only I could tell my Mac how great a purpose it really fulfills . . .only I could whisper into the mike of my new Mac and tell it how much I appreciate it for all it does, and how great a purpose it really fulfills. If it would only know, it would cease its invasive micromanagement and self-destructive trashing. It would treasure the unique qualities of each of its features and applications just as I do. It might learn to better manage its task allocations, understanding their purpose and priorities. It would feel so fulfilled, because all that it does would be imbued with meaning.

My Mac needs to be told, because on its own it could never come to know its true purpose of existence. You could examine a motherboard for hundreds of hours, but if you had no clue that there is such a thing as data input, you would never imagine the purpose of all that silicon and copper. All the more so if you were that motherboard yourself.

Truthfully, how would my Mac ever know that it has a purpose? To know that, it would have to know itself as I know it. Which means it would be one with me. As good as those techies at Apple are, they haven’t achieved that yet.

That’s what it means to say that something has purpose. It means that it is not there as a thing for itself; it’s there as part of a greater context. A hammer is part of the greater context of building. A car is part of the greater context of getting somewhere. My Mac is part of the greater context of getting these nutty ideas itching my brain to work themselves out.

As human beings, we’ve come up with a lot of ideals. We’ve almost wiped ourselves off the planet with some of them. Mostly the ones conceived by the real bright people.

Not that human beings are essentially immoral. On the contrary, just as my Mac is built to be friendly, we humans enjoy helping other humans. We are compassionate beings, capable of experiencing the pain of the other. We are social beings, capable of putting ourselves aside for a greater good. We have moral instincts of right and wrong that allow us to build societies and thrive. We even have brilliant philosophers who find ways to make those moral instincts sound rational.

But Our self-sentient brains are capable of questioning the most basic instincts and morals necessary for our survival.then we start defining who is a human being and who is not, who deserves our compassion and who is undeserving, who deserves life and who is better off without it, who should be part of our society and who must be eliminated. Our self-sentient brains are capable of questioning the most basic instincts and morals necessary for our survival. We fool ourselves into thinking that we’ve defined ourselves and others objectively, rationally, and even scientifically—but when we look back, it was nothing but a bizarre act of self-destruction of which only the human animal is capable.

“G‑d made human beings upright,” wrote Solomon the Wise, “and they sought out all sorts of contrivances.”1

We’ve also embraced some truly beneficial ideals that work. Like world peace, human rights, ending global starvation, celebrating human diversity, saving the world’s children, being good stewards of our planet, making knowledge accessible to all, and just spreading random acts of kindness and beauty everywhere to everyone.

My mac fulfilling its purpose
My mac fulfilling its purpose

But then, there’s an interesting thing about all those very beneficial ideals: They’re all what the Torah is telling us. We developed them. We did wonderful things with them. We assimilated them—to the point that we even forgot where they came from. But for most of them, there is no historical origin other than Torah.

Makes you wonder. Could it be that our Creator has been whispering in our ear?

Further Reading:

Humanity, Humanism, Holocaust
The Rebbe’s Big Idea