Where are you?

where-are-youIdeas by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. Words by me.

You, along with every human being, are engaged in a lifelong search. Perhaps you consciously formulate and explore existential questions; perhaps you never give them a thought. It doesn’t matter.

Trust me: your quest to answer three fundamental questions started in infancy and will never end.

  • Who am I?
  • Where did I come from?
  • Where am I going?

These questions drive all our learning, reappearing in guise after guise.

Sometimes they appear as curiosity about the world, driving scientific research. Sometimes they press us in practical forms, as career or marriage questions.

Less often, they appear as deep existential questions. Few of us let such threatening questions come to consciousness. As soon as you allow one question to come forward, an abyss opens in your psyche, and you are drowning in an endless well of questions.

When existential questions do appear, we often look for answers in philosophy, psychology, or neuroscience. But these fields cannot actually offer answers. They only provide a framework for seeking.

A conceptual framework can easily cover up the driving question.

So Torah teaches.

After Adam and Chava eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they hide in the tree.

God asks, “Where are you?”

Adam replies, “I am afraid. I am naked. I am hiding.”

This says it all. We are afraid. We are naked. We are hiding.

Hiding behind the tree of knowledge. Surrounded by so many answers; answers devoid of inner meaning; answers that simply block the question.

Afraid to confront our sins as well as our successes; afraid we have nothing to show for all our life’s work; afraid we will appear naked.

Sometimes a therapist, teacher, or frustrated family member asks us, “Where are you???”

And sometimes the question breaks through. We stop in our tracks and say, “Wow, where am I? I may be a bit lost.” And we experience the moment of pause as a huge revelation.

And then we forget the question, and continue as we have been.

But if you keep listening to the question, you might hear the voice of God speaking through the words of your companion.

You might let the old answers fall away.

Your perspective might shift. You might understand that, in every day consciousness, we live life inside out.

We approach everyday life as a series of challenges to be faced. We think, “Where am I?” and translate that into, “What shall I do next?” We set goals; we learn; we act. We develop practical, intellectual and emotional intelligence.

We believe: everything depends on us.

We worry that we ask the question, “Where am I?” only because we are failing at life. We keep the question hidden, like a shameful secret.

But our belief is wrong. We are not at the centre. And we could not answer the question alone if we tried.

Because the question is not only our question; it is God’s voice breaking through. God asks,”Where are you?” and we hear our own voice asking, “Where am I?”

We are a node in an arc that repeats infinitely. “Where do I come from?” “God.” “Where am I going?” “God.”

We may be afraid to see ourselves as circling within this arc. We don’t want instructions about the little niche we are to fill in support of the greater good; we don’t want to give up knowledge, independence, or uniqueness.

Our everyday perspective speaks through those fears. It’s as if surrendering to God’s presence means putting our lives in the hands of another, just slightly smarter person. If this is our view of God, no wonder fear and anxiety arise. We have no reason to trust any problem-solving person to be our guide.

So it’s easier to describe this perspective without reference to a personal God; to cultivate “awareness of our connection with all existence.” To know that our atoms, our thoughts, and our feelings are part of this universal energy. That’s where we come from; that’s where we are going.

But be careful: “impersonal” here means “without reference to a person”; it does not mean “without regard to your personhood.”

Don’t think you are simply connected with a mechanically flowing universal energy, a molecule left to tumble all alone.

It’s true that when you ask, “Where am I?” you are hearing a question larger than you.

At the same time, your personal version of the question reverberates through the universe, and it is heard, too.

You still have to find your own answer.

But at least you know which tools don’t work.

And you know you are not alone.

— Ideas drawn from The Thirteen Petalled Rose by Adin Steinsaltz, Chapter Nine

  1. At Chanukah, a time when we may rededicate ourselves and allow the lights of the chanukiah to enter the dark places, the wisdom you share of this chapter has been so useful. Thank you for refocussing in your voice these ideas. And we know, we are not alone in our quest.

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