April 24, 2024
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The Purpose of Life: Helping Others

In his introduction to Rabbi Chaim Volozhin’s Nefesh Hachaim, Rabbi Chaim’s son, Rabbi Yitzchok, wrote that “He would regularly rebuke me when he saw that I did not involve myself with the troubles of others and he would constantly say to me that this is all of what man is, that he wasn’t created for himself but just to facilitate others to all that he finds himself able to do.” Rabbi Chaim Volozhin did not teach his son that he was only created to help other Jews, but rather that he was only created to help other human beings.

In the introduction to his book, “Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America,” the late Congressman John Lewis defined Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “beloved community,” as “a society based upon simple justice that values the dignity and worth of every human being.” The late Congressman John Lewis worked to treat every human being with respect and dignity in action and in word, and his guiding principle of doing the work of building a “beloved community” is fully in line with Rabbi Chaim Volohzin’s directive to his son.

Surely, when it comes to life and death matters, we should follow what Rabbi Akiva says in Masechet Bava Metzia 62a, “chayecha kodmin,” or “your life comes first.” After all, if you cannot save yourself, how will you be able to help others?

When it comes to engaging with the secular world, not on religious matters but on everyday life matters and on social justice issues, Rabbi Chaim’s principle that we were “only created to help others” does not require another ethnic group to do something for the Jewish community in order for us to fight for justice for them. Helping others may include fighting for police reform, for example, even when the Jewish community has a fine relationship with law enforcement and can rightfully praise law enforcement for keeping our synagogues, schools and Jewish community centers safe.

Working together with ethnic groups outside of the Jewish community provides opportunities to promote better understanding of each other, learn what needs to be done for there to be equity and justice in our society, and engage in activities that may serve as building blocks to achieving a “beloved community.”

By doing good for others, Jews and non-Jews alike, we may achieve our purpose in life for which we were created. As Rabbi Shimon Shkop, in his introduction to his sefer Shaarei Yosher, states, “Blessed shall be the Creator, and exalted shall be the Maker, Who created us in His image and in the likeness of His structure, and planted eternal life within us [i.e., gave us the Torah] so that our greatest desire should be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator (as it were)… As it says, ‘and you shall walk in His Ways’ (Parshat Ki Tavo 28:9)—that we, the select of what He made—should constantly hold as our purpose to sanctify our physical and spiritual powers for the good of the many, according to our abilities.”


Josh Fine served as a member of the Borough Council of Highland Park from 2015 to 2020 and is a member of the Middlesex Black-Jewish Coalition.

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