Please Ask Why
To our hardcore, anti-theistic Belarussian relatives, we were crazy. “Why,” they asked, “would you choose this?” Our offense was that of any baal teshuva; my family and I were abandoning our comfortable, secular lifestyle for the Torah way. When I entered the sixth grade at a yeshiva day school, my classmates were mystified by the fact that my family and I willingly decided to follow a Modern Orthodox lifestyle. “Why would you choose this?” they asked in astonished whispers.
Though others have stopped asking, the question of why still pulses through the undercurrent of my relationship with Judaism and informs my approach to Jewish thought and tradition. There is immeasurable value in seeking to understand why you live the way you do, but I fear that this imperative often gets overlooked amidst the complexity of our Orthodox lives. As we approach Pesach, I believe it is essential to pause, take a step back from the minutiae of our practice, and search for a reason as to why we are practicing in the first place.
I had the privilege of studying at Aish HaTorah, as part of Aish Gesher for Women, during my first semester of freshman year. I watched as my teachers and mentors led authentic, Torah-focused lives. I met people from all walks of life, each of whom had followed a unique path leading them to Judaism. What they all had in common, however, was that each of these individuals had relentlessly and honestly searched for an answer as to why they should live Orthodox lives. To be in the presence of such truth-seekers was an honor; to learn from them, a life-changing experience.
During a discussion with a teacher of mine, I mentioned my fear that my Judaism would at one point turn stale like a loaf of bread, as if there was an expiration date looming ahead, and the impetus that had pushed me to observe mitzvot was threatening to expire. I was worried about becoming robotic, just another mindless automaton acting in accordance with a set of rules that didn’t understand or feel passionate about its wonders. My teacher assured me that my fears were unfounded; I already possessed a solution to these nonexistent problems. Our Judaism is only as impassioned as we are, she explained. If we approach our lives with complacency and docility, then we will eventually reach an impasse, and mitzvot will become mere regulations. But, if we devote ourselves to the lifelong pursuit of answering why, each person for themselves, then no such plateau will occur.
There is a moment that has stayed with me for years, when a best friend of mine turned to me and said, defeated, “I wish I had been able to choose Judaism just as you did.” Looking back, I struggle to remember what I responded with. I hope it was something meaningful. I hope I told her that each day is an opportunity to choose Judaism, to reexamine our values and search for the truth in why we do what we do. I hope I told her that each one of us has a choice, whether we were born into Orthodox families or not, and that nobody can dictate our relationships with Judaism except for ourselves. Answers begin with questions, and Jewish tradition believes in questions, even the ones that are difficult to ask, or the ones that are composed of three simple letters: Why?
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Photo Caption: We must seek to understand why we live the values and lives we do
Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/photos/question-question-mark-board-school-2709670/