We reached the summit of Crane Mountain before noon, before the bright, summer sun arced above the puffy clouds drifting through the sapphire sky. In the northwest, the Adirondacks spread like a rolling, green sea wave; at our feet, a gust of wind swept small pebbles across the rocky peak and over the cliff edge. It was the perfect morning of a perfect week of a perfect life. It was the sweet taste of organic happiness, the satisfaction of a deep, wholesome, and healthy existence.
For the past ten days, I had participated in a Jewish educational program in Warrensburg, New York. Immersing myself in the traditional, religious lifestyle, I grappled with Talmudic logic, reconciled my skepticism with my intuition, and opened my mind to new perspectives. Throughout the program, I also asked and explored many fundamental questions that had always bothered me.
What is my purpose? What is the purpose of life? Does God exist? What does it mean to be a human? What does it mean to be a Jew? How can we make the world better? How can we find happiness?
Returning to my roots was a critical checkpoint in my search for wisdom that sparked in childhood, and burned from adolescence into college. At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, I enrolled in introductory classes in English literature, psychology, economics, statistics, linguistics, informatics, and film; I raided local bookstores, combing the sections marked philosophy, self-improvement, and spirituality; I wound through the dusty maze of bookshelves in the Hatcher Graduate Library, tracking down obscure titles on eastern religion, meditation, lucid dreaming, and the supernatural; I experimented with drugs, music, and lifestyle habits. I questioned everything – I even considered working a stable, respectable job in a normal, clean New York office building.
Despite my intellectual and spiritual growth, I still felt lacking. I had discovered pearls of wisdom and shards of truth, but I had not reached the core. I had penetrated farther into my inner awareness, but still I barely knew myself. I questioned my basic beliefs. What was the source of wisdom and truth? What was the root of my existence?
As I entered the world of observant Judaism, I was struck by the intricate beauty and infinite depth of the Torah. The more I knew, the more there was to know. The more I knew, the more I longed to know. Often, my questions were the same questions of the great Jewish thinkers of past centuries; to find my answers, I only needed to tap into the 2000+ year old tradition of Jewish scholarship.
On the top of Crane Mountain, I experienced a bright, fresh awakening. For the first time in my life I sensed true freedom. I reflected on my academic and personal progress, on the many mountains I had already scaled. I contemplated my future. What was next? Where would I go?
As a faint golden glow hovered on the horizon, a current of inspiration flowed into my mind. I understood that my search for wisdom must continue; I had to climb higher up the ladder into the infinite unknown. In the distance, the homeland of my heritage called out to me. I inched towards the cliff edge and closed my eyes. If not now, when? I took a breath, flexed my legs, and lunged forward. I took the leap of faith. I boarded a plane to Jerusalem to learn in yeshiva.
After two years of learning, I gained even more than I had expected. I forged bonds of brotherhood with many other motivated and passionate young men, and I reevaluated my ethical principles. Through my experiences both inside and outside of the classroom, I learned three important lessons. I share them here in hopes to help others.*
Lesson 1: Control It. Don’t Let It Control You.
Upon awakening, the floodgates of our perception open, and thousands of objects seize our attention. We see our pillow, toothbrush, coffee mug, smart phone, car, desk chair, and notepad. Within hours, a spectrum of emotion has flowed through our heart. We feel happiness, anger, gratitude, boredom, excitement, and regret. What is our relationship to these objects and emotions? Do we control them or do they control us?
Could I survive a week without coffee? Could I survive a day without a smartphone? Could I stop feeling angry? Could I start feeling grateful? Does my happiness depend on external factors or can I create my own happiness whenever and wherever I want?
Unfortunately, our internal world is too often controlled by our external world; our satisfaction and happiness depend on impermanent and inconsistent variables. At worst, we enslave ourselves to momentary pleasures; at best, we define happiness as a passing phenomenon, a mysterious mood that is captured, but never cultivated.
When we acknowledge and understand our relationships to the objects and emotions that populate our personal universe, we transform our thought patterns and redirect our decision-making process.
"If you CAN say no – say YES. If you CAN’T say no – say NO"
A few years ago, I was walking home from the library on a cool, March evening. My head was clear and quiet as a long list of worries bubbled up into my awareness. I stopped, took a breath, and let go of all the troubling thoughts. An unfamiliar question popped into my mind. “What do I want to think about?” At that moment, I realized I had two options. I could control my thoughts or let me thoughts control me. I could intentionally think about the future or unintentionally think about the future. In other words, I could plan or worry. I could be active or passive.
Every moment is ripe and pregnant with potential. We can choose what we think about or we can pass weeks and months without analyzing and questioning the basic assumptions that strengthen our preconceptions and solidify our habits.
Lesson 2: Who is wise? One Who Learns From Everyone.
I have to admit. I’m not the smartest or strongest person in the world. I’m not the most honest, hard working, or sensitive. I’m not the best friend, student, or writer; despite what my mother thinks I’m not the best son in the world. I’m not the best at anything and I never will be.
Nonetheless, I am the best Me. I have a unique perspective and original information to share with others; from my understanding and experiences, I have wisdom to teach. We all have wisdom to teach. Every person has some exclusive knowledge, both practical and profound, that nobody else has; every person is an expert educator, elucidating his or her own life journey.
Perceiving others as teachers is the gateway to wisdom. Often, we encounter new people at business meetings, parties, classes, and meals. Moments after they introduce themselves, we forget their names. Why? Do we have bad memory? Do we lack interpersonal skills?
We tend to forget names at first meetings because we focus all attention on presenting ourselves. What will we say? How will we say it? How do we look? Automatically, our minds fixate on the details and subtleties of our personal expression.
To shift the focus from ourselves to others, we can ask the other person questions. Where are you from? Where are you going? What do you do? Why are you here? What can you teach me? Everyone has a story to tell.
The same principle holds for our family, friends, and peers. What do my parents teach me? What do my siblings teach me? What do my friends teach me? Our intricate network of personal relationships is not the result of chance. Many times, the strengths and flaws we perceive in others are the same strengths and flaws we discover in ourselves.
Lesson 3: My Life Is Not About Me.
We live in the age of iLife. The media, technology, and philosophy of Western culture prioritize independence, individuality, and freedom. In courts, classrooms, and newspaper columns, we demand our unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
First, we must check the foundations of our moral structure. Independence must be balanced with interdependence, individuality balanced with equality, and freedom balanced with obligation. We must question our language. Is life a right? Or is life a privilege? Is life an object I possess? Or is life a process I participate in?
Is my life about maximizing my own enjoyment or maximizing my positive impact on the world? Am I willing to sacrifice my desires and ambitions to satisfy others?
Understanding that I am not the center of the universe changes my intentions. No longer do I make money to purchase material possessions for myself. Now, I make money to support my family and community. No longer do I learn a new subject to gain status over my friends and peers. Now, I learn a new subject to share valuable insight and help others.
Understanding that life is a gift changes my attitude. No longer do I deserve air, money, or respect. Now, I’m grateful for the basic fact of my existence. No longer am I paralyzed by fear of failure or worthlessness. Now, I am propelled by positivity and purpose.
When life is all about me, I am small and restricted within the boundaries of my flesh and mind. When life is about more than me, my self extends to the edges of the cosmos.
I’ve reached a new summit. As the sun blazes high in the sky, Jerusalem sprouts from the earth in the east; the Sataf Forest rises and falls, circling Mount Eitan. Hiking on the trail, I reflect on my progress. In two years, I’ve learned much about life and myself. Through my commitment to growth and hard work, I’ve reached new heights in my spiritual climb.
The path straightens for a half-kilometer before curving south. By living day by day, step by step, I ground myself in the present moment, and pull the past and future into focus. Questions fuel my progress. Who am I? What is God? How will I help the world? I strive to clarify this uncertainty through my learning and contemplation.
Before I go to sleep, I'm grateful for the initial spark to learn in yeshiva and uncover my spiritual DNA. I’m grateful for my parents, brother, family, friends, teachers, and rabbis, as well my health, intellect, and awareness. I close my eyes. Tomorrow I will start fresh, and put into practice my new understanding. Tomorrow, I will share with the world the depth and detail of my inner experiences.
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* With great humility, I have attempt to explain some Torah wisdom brought down by my teachers. I take no credit for these insightful ideas, and I take full responsibility for any error or misrepresentation of the truth.