“The human creature… has come on the scene endowed with two new qualities, a mind which can know, and the ability to experience which is another way of knowing. If man is going to survive, it will be because he will learn and experience the truth. What he does not know will hurt him, and finally destroy him.”
In this sermon delivered on December 15, 1968, Rabbi Olan uses the story of Jacob’s dream of the angel and the ladder to heaven to ask, what do we need to live a truly meaningful life?
Rabbi Olan warns that if we are not open to uplifting experiences such as Jacob’s, our lives will be impoverished and we will be harmed (and possibly do harm). His examples include moral values such as tolerance, and experiences of beauty such as art and music. He is also critical of training that may be excellent but that is narrow: scientists who know nothing of the humanities, and humanists who are ignorant of science.
At the climax of his sermon, Rabbi Olan returns to Jacob’s dream: by being open to the presence of God in the wilderness, Jacob became worthy of being the ancestor of all of the Jewish people. Without similar openness, Rabbi Olan says, we will be vulnerable to the ultimate harm of existential despair and moral indifference: “Without God all things are of equal significance”, so nothing has ultimate value.
As you read this sermon, ask yourself what virtues and experiences you believe are essential to living a meaningful life.
*Written by Lionel S. Joseph and Frances M. Olan*