For the week ending 6 September 2003 / 9 Elul 5763

In Pursuit of the Truth

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: E.M.

Dear Rabbi,

I am a young woman who has been religious all my life. When I was a teenager I had several burning questions about Judaism such as the age of the earth, free will, etc. Although I sought and received answers to some of these questions, as I got older and became occupied and generally satisfied with my life, I did not feel the same urgent need to pursue every question that remained.

Lately, I've been thinking that although I do not feel that burning need to pursue all my questions, perhaps I should strive to pursue them anyway? Maybe it is just laziness that keeps me from pursuing the truth? But then, there may be no limit to all the questions I would have to ask since there is always more to understand and deeper levels to reveal!

So my question is, can one "relax" if he doesn't feel the need to understand everything, even though there are things that remain unanswered? Or must one pursue every case of intellectual lack of understanding, regardless of interest and drive involved? I know it's a strange question, but it's really been bothering me to no end and I'd really appreciate your answer. Thank you so much!

Dear E.M.,

Your question is not strange at all, but rather quite commendable. It shows that the burning inquisitiveness of your youth is still aflame. As you know, Judaism encourages one to question and challenge in pursuit of the truth. The Torah thus commands, "Ask your father and he will tell you, your wise men and they will say to you" (Deuteronomy 32:7). In Judaism, one does not pursue knowledge for ulterior motives, but rather in quest of answers. This is why the "four questions" are such an integral part of the Passover Seder. From our most formative years we are inculcated to analyze, compare, perceive differences and ask, "Why"? In fact, the vast teachings of the Talmud are not presented as encyclopedic information, but rather in the dynamic form of statement, challenge, and resolution.

Not only are we encouraged to ask questions, but we are required to seek answers. According to the Torah commentator Sforno (Italy 1470-1550), this is the meaning of the verse, "Know today and respond to your heart that Hashem is G-d" (Deuteronomy 4:39). Sforno explains, "It is urgent that one contemplate and know all that is unknown to him and then integrate in his heart the truth he has found".

Indeed, pursuing spiritual questions is an aspect of Torah study about which it is written, "The Torah shall not depart your mouth, and you shall contemplate upon it day and night" (Joshua 1:8). Our Sages commented on this verse, "If you find a time which is neither day or night, then you may refrain from learning Torah". This doesnt necessarily mean that one must learn Torah all day and night, since one must do what is necessary to earn a living and maintain ones health. Nevertheless it demonstrates that one must pursue Torah knowledge as much as possible.

The fact that you felt a more burning desire to pursue your questions when you were younger is not surprising. During youth one is naturally inquisitive and concerned about knowing oneself and the world about him, and usually has the time to do so. Part of maturity, though, is to continue the intellectual inquisitiveness of youth into adulthood, and not rely as an adult on the understanding of ones youth. Naturally, this becomes more difficult as we become preoccupied with a career or raising a family. Nevertheless, the intensity with which we pursue these goals should exemplify to us the extent to which we should be able to apply ourselves to spiritual pursuits. This is the meaning of the verse, "If you seek wisdom like silver, and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you shall attain awe of Hashem, and find knowledge of G-d" (Proverbs 2:3-4). Just as one doesnt relax in search of wealth, so too one mustnt be lazy in ones spiritual quest. It is absolutely wonderful that you realize theres no limit, as in fact our Sages instructed, "You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it" (Avot 2:21).

So, to answer your question, every person according to his ability and opportunity is required to seek spirituality by asking and seeking answers. This is a life-long endeavor in which a Jew must engage himself, even if he doesnt find it the most thrilling adventure. Nevertheless, there are several things you can do to make it more interesting. First, often we lack the drive because were spiritually out of shape. Exercise your spiritual muscles by forcing yourself to pursue a topic. Soon youll start feeling "younger" again. Second, set aside specific times during your weekly schedule to contemplate spiritual issues. Or better yet, arrange a chavruta (learning partner) in which you ask, challenge, and explore issues together. You can even introduce friendly competition as to who comes up with quicker or better answers, asking others to "officiate", which may evolve into a study group. It is also essential to seek a rabbi or rebbetzin who you can converse with or whose classes you can attend. Such a connection can be very inspiring, rekindling the flame and ensuring that the fire keeps burning.

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