It is, of course, THE ultimate question: what is our purpose in life? Everyone naturally wishes to find the answer to this question, to make his or her life as meaningful as possible. The purpose of one’s life is a concept that may be understood on many different levels, from the deeply philosophical and abstract, to the very practical, which can guide one’s daily activity. This question is very difficult to answer from a Jewish perspective as well, since life can be looked at Jewishly from many different viewpoints, and there is a myriad of sources, each conveying different outlooks. Therefore, we will try to analyze the purpose of life in Judaism from various Jewish perspectives, all based on normative sources, and each reader can incorporate which of the ideas are most meaningful personally.
People who do not believe in G-d will often say that their purpose in life is to have as much pleasure as possible, and this goal guides all their activities. For these individuals, life means “having fun.” However, what is “fun?” Defining pleasure is difficult in and of itself. Some will claim that different types of pleasures other than physical are more satisfying, such as helping others and watching children develop. In Judaism, one may also claim that the purpose of life is to achieve pleasure. But there is an ultimate Jewish pleasure that is greater than all other pleasures. The Mishna  states that the non-physical pleasure that a person will experience in one minute of the World to Come will be greater than all the lifetime of pleasures that he or she experienced in this world (and even greater than the sum of all the pleasures that all human beings in history ever experienced in total!). Therefore, if trying to experience this highest pleasure is the purpose of the Jew, then entering the World to Come should be the goal.
How does one enter the World to Come (see Chapter “Life After Life” for greater detail)? The Talmud  says that for each mitzvah-commandment that a person performs in this world, that mitzvah is sent on ahead of him or her to the World to Come. Thus, it stands to reason that by doing all 613 mitzvot (or as many commandments as possible by one individual), it appears that one can maximize his or her share in the World to Come. But this goal seems too general and too difficult for most people to achieve – keep all of G-d’s commandments. Can one indeed enter the World to Come with all its pleasures by performing less than all 613 Mitzvot? Of course. The Talmud  says that a person can sometimes acquire (or lose) his or her World to Come even in one single act. However, man is not privileged to be informed which acts are key to this great reward. But are there specific types of commandments that will maximize a Jew’s reward? The Midrash  informs us that to get into the Gates of Heaven, we should perform those acts of kindness that benefit the needy, and it lists feeding the hungry, clothing those in need, helping orphans and other general acts of kindness. The Talmud  tells us that three specific mitzvot guarantee a person the World to Come: living in the Land of Israel, teaching and raising one’s children with Torah and making the Havdalah-Separation prayer at Shabbat’s conclusion with the same wine one used for Kiddush beginning the Shabbat on Friday night (there are many explanations of the symbolic meaning of this last act). The Talmud  records that there are some mitzvot which are so great that their reward is given both in this world and in the Next World. Perhaps these are the “most important” commandments that lead to the greatest pleasure. Among these are: honoring one’s mother and father, general acts of kindness, arriving early for Torah study, providing hospitality to needy guests, visiting the sick, providing funds for a poor bride to allow her to marry, escorting the dead at a funeral, delving into, and understanding prayer, bringing peace between two people, and learning Torah is equivalent to them all. The Mishna  further states that Torah learning achieves life both in this world and in the World to Come.
 Avot 4:17
 Sotah 3b
 Avodah Zarah 18a
 Midrash, Tehilim 118:17
 Pesachim 113a
 Shabbat 127a
 Avot 6:7
Rabbi Dr. Nachum Amsel currently works with Rabbi Berel Wein and the Destiny Foundation as the Director of Education, whose mission is “to bring Jewish history to life in an exciting, entertaining and interactive way.” Rabbi Amsel has also served as a teacher, a school principal, and an adjunct professor. He has also taught over 2000 educators how to teach more effectively. Rabbi Amsel has worked in all areas of formal and informal Jewish education and has developed numerous curricula including a methodology how to teach Jewish Values using mass media. Recently, he founded the STARS Program (Student Torah Alliance for Russian Speakers), where more than 3000 students in 12 Russian speaking countries learn about their Jewish heritage for five hours weekly. Rabbi Amsel previously served as the Educational Director of Hillel in the Former Soviet Union. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and has four children and four grandchildren.
This essay is from the forthcoming book, “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values: Man to G-d Issues and Rituals.” This essay is not intended as a source of practical halachic (legal) rulings. For matters of halachah, please consult a qualified posek (rabbi).