Behar: The Real Meaning of YOLO

You Only Live Once. This cool acronym was popularized about ten years ago when Drake, the Jewish rapper, dropped his single called “The Motto” and has been the catch phrase for risk-takers ever since. Want to go on that spur of the moment vacation? YOLO. Thought of jumping out of an airplane? YOLO. Try that move across the country? YOLO. YOLO means living life to the fullest by going big, taking chances. Drake’s catch phrase is an awesome remix of the Roman apologist Horace, who coined the phrase, “carpe diem quam minimum credula postero,” or, “seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the next one (Horace Odes I.11) Both Drake and Horace say don’t worry about the future, let’s just have a glass and have fun. 

Seize the Day.  Because YOLO. 

After more than a year of feeling locked in our houses and locked out of our social lives, there’s a huge desire in us to grab YOLO moments. YOLO is the response to what Adam Grant, the psychologist and writer, describes as the sour, apathetic emotion many feel about life right now. Grant calls the general blah feeling ‘languishing,’ where the future is so uncertain it’s just not worth getting into. In a forceful opposite response, some ask, “Why worry about the future if the future is so dark. Why not party and have fun?” YOLO.  

Both languishing and YOLO show up now in many conversations I’ve had. Both feel the future is too hard to think about so why not flee from it either by staying home or going out.  They are different answers to the same question: The question of the future. 

YOLO’s answer to the question of the future has another side. All epicureans like Drake, Horace (hello, Ecclesiastes?) would have us forget the future and concentrate on pleasure, but “live only for the moment,” causes mood swings and can even form addictions. YOLO moments are amazing and fun. What does one do, exactly, with the rest of your life outside of YOLO moments? Like the high of drugs or the stupor of alcohol, a life that is only lived for peak experiences feels “less than” when YOLO is all there is for you. Worse still, the adrenaline/serotonin mix of YOLO can leave friends and family behind. I’ve known too many marriages that have ended because a partner felt the unceasing need to live in the moment for themselves instead of living a lifetime for their loved ones. When the future no longer matters you risk turning all of life into an endless cycle of depressive moments and addictive ones. 

YOLO isn’t a bad attitude, and there’s a better way of thinking about YOLO that comes from the Bible. It’s the backbeat of Leviticus and comes to fruition in its last Torah portion of the book, Behar-Bekhutoai. In the Bible, YOLO means taking the moments of pleasure and adding to them a life of deep meaning. Because you only live once, your life matters unfathomably. What the Torah teaches us is that as God’s partner, every moment is an opportunity to shift the world towards goodness. Every choice you make can change the world for the better. It’s not a burden, but a gift and a privilege to shape the future instead of giving up on it. Leviticus gives you a path by naming YOLO moments and sanctifying them through the understanding that your choices have consequences in this life. In fact, that’s what the word “Torah” means in Leviticus. 

In this week’s reading it says, “These are the laws, statutes, and teachings (lit. torot) that YHVH established between God and the Children of Israel by the hand of Moses on Mt. Sinai.” (Lev. 26:46) Basically, there are the laws, called chukim in Hebrew, most associated with rituals whose essence are artistic and aesthetic rather than strictly logical. The second, statutes, called mishpatim in Hebrew, are the laws pertaining to social interaction, justice, and ethics. The third part, however, is radical. When summarizing the book, the author writes that there’s a third category in the Bible that’s neither law nor ritual, but something else – a torah.  

The rabbis point out that the word torah means teaching, but what are the multiple torot of Leviticus? Some in the Jewish tradition have said that this is a reference to the Written Torah (The Five Books of Moses) and to what is called the Oral Torah (the entirety of the rabbinic tradition.) Yet others show that in Leviticus the word, torah, refers to the times in Leviticus where God responds to the specific happenings in someone’s life. Rabbi Akiva said, “God gave the children many Torahs. The Torah of Elevation. Torah of the Sinner. Torah of Grain. Torah of Wellbeing. Torah of the Guilty. The Torah of Sick. The Torah of the New Mother. (Sifra Behkutotai 8:10 and Lekach Tov)  

Each mentioning of the word “torah” in Leviticus refers to a moment in time when something has happened. Each instance has a ritual and a set of proscriptions which can easily fall under the category mentioned above called chukim. And so, the Torah is teaching us that the future matters to the present. Just ask someone who broke the law, paid his time to society and is trying to get back on his feet, or the mother of a child who will live the rest of her life fearing for the child’s future. Or someone who has survived a terrible disease and wants to live his life more fully again.Or the person who had a wonderful year financially and wants to give back to those less fortunate so they can have a better future. Rather than shirking off the future, in each case, it’s the future that matters the most. Your life matters so much, how could you only live for a single moment?

This is the Torah of the Guilty. The Torah of the New Mother. The Torah of the Sick. The Torah of Well Being. Because YOLO. 

As God’s partner, you only have one life to live, so don’t waste it. The Torah gives you the path to overcome your illness and make public your pain. It shows you that your joy and pleasure are important but they also can’t be kept to yourself. These are the laws and statues and this is the Torah of Leviticus, that God gave to the people at Mt. Sinai. Share your pain.  Share your joy. Treat yourself well. Treat your neighbors well. Love them as you love yourself, and seize a future filled with love and goodness. 

Because YOLO. 

Shabbat Shalom

Leave a Reply