A question for the new year

JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review / Sept. 8, 1999 / 30 Elul, 5759

A question for the new year

By Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THERE ARE QUESTIONS a rabbi cannot answer. Some theological problems are so shrouded in mystery, and so uncertain, that I cannot give a final, absolute explanation of them. Now I know that many people think rabbis are supposed to have all the answers. However, the reality is (as a colleague once put it): "a rabbi is supposed to have all of the questions, not all of the answers." Many times, the question is more important than the answer. My job is to have the right question for every occasion. The right question for this season, with Rosh Hashana rapidly approaching, is: Why Am I Alive?

I don't plan on answering this question. There are many answers proposed by philosophers and theologians, and as the Talmud says, "zil gemor" "go and study." What I would like to point out is contemplating "Why Am I Alive?" will change your life.


Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto at the beginning of his classic "The Path of the Just" writes that the root of perfection and piety lies in understanding the purpose of life. Once you understand your purpose in life, you will know what you have to accomplish. To Rabbi Luzzatto, to be a good person, you have to have a good answer to the question "Why Am I Alive?". This is not only a theoretical question, but one which changes every action you do. Without a philosophy of life, it is impossible to have the right priorities.

By asking ourselves "Why Am I Alive?" we get a different perspective on life. Unfortunately, we spend too much of our lives worrying about naarishkiet, trivial issues that have no lasting importance. We think a great deal about earth shattering problems like: What color should the napkins at my wedding be? What car should I drive? Where should I go on vacation? There is nothing wrong with these interests; what is wrong is when we get fixated on the little things, and lose perspective about what life is about. And we get fixated very easily; members of the wedding party will cry at a wedding because the wrong color napkin was delivered, and couples fight fiercely over which resort to go to on vacation.

Leiters Sukkah

This type of fixation is not new. TheTorah tells us that the generation of Jews who lived in the desert after the Exodus complained that they missed Egypt because they loved the food they got there: "we remember the fish..the cucumber, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic" (Numbers 10:5). Here we have a group of people who have just been freed from slavery, who would become slaves again if they could get a few more cucumbers!! If we lose sight of the big picture, it is easy to get entangled in the details. If we forget to ask ourselves "Why Am I Alive?," the difference between a forest green napkin and a lavender napkin becomes enormous. When we have an idea of what our purpose in life is, details become a lot smaller, and our spiritual lives become a lot bigger.

Some questions are important even if there is no easy answer. "Why Am I Alive?" is one of those questions.

JWR contributor Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is spiritual leader of Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem in Quebec. Send your comments by clicking here.


©1999, Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz