I grew up in the United States and at around age 20 became disillusioned with society. I just felt that the materialism and commercialism was breeding too much greed and corruption. So I have been traveling the world, looking for an alternative lifestyle that fits my more utopian view. Since I'm Jewish, I figured I'd run this all by a rabbi and see what you have to say.
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
Thank you for writing and sharing your thoughts. I'd like to share with you an episode that occurs in the Bible (Genesis 12:1):
God appears to Abraham and commands him: "Go to yourself" ("Lech Lecha") - away from your country, your relatives, and your father's house." God is telling Abraham that in order to become truly great, he must "cut the umbilical cord," and embark on a journey of growth and self-discovery - away from the familiar routine.
It's all too easy to get caught up in a rut of peer pressure - old friends, old habits, overbearing parents. When I was growing up, a friend of mine always wanted to be a lawyer. But his parents wanted him to be a doctor, so they could say, "My son the doctor." He insisted on becoming a lawyer, they insisted he become a doctor. The pressure became so great that he went through 10 years of medical school just to satisfy his parents. (Upon completion, he went to law school, then combined the two fields and became a malpractice attorney.) But the point is that he didn't have the strength to break away and live his own life.
The first question each of us must ask is: Where does my "life philosophy" stem from? Is it essentially a Greek approach to life? Roman? Eastern? Jewish? Imagine if you had been born into a family of Muslim fundamentalists in Iran - what would you be doing with your life today?" (Because if you don't ask this question, chances are quite good you'd be a Muslim fundamentalist!)
As God told Abraham: "Go to yourself - away from your country, your relatives, and your father's house."
Everyone has to go through this process. There are no exceptions. I once spoke with a famous rabbi who revealed to me the secret of his greatness. He said: "My grandfather founded one of the biggest yeshivas of modern time. My father succeeded him as head of this yeshiva. Growing up, I was surrounded by the very best that Judaism could offer. I studied with the top scholars, I had access to immense libraries of Torah books, and I grew up in a home that was in effect the center of Jewish communal life. I had it all. But at the same time, I felt like it wasn't mine. I had been given it, but I hadn't acquired it."
He continued: "So when I was 18, I made a decision to undergo a thorough process of self-examination. I took all of Jewish thought and practice, and emptied myself of it. Metaphorically, I put it on the table so I could look at it. I looked at Shabbos, for example, and asked myself: "What is this? How do I relate to it? What do I, and what do I not, like about it? What aspects don't I understand?"
He continued: "During this process I did not stop observing the mitzvahs. But I needed to grow up and become my own person. I repeated this process with all realms of Torah. It took years. But now I know who I am, and more importantly, why."
We all sense the need to go through such a process. Perhaps this is how the tradition began in America of going away for four years to university. It gives us the flexibility to experiment with different ideas and lifestyles, without having to be under the constant scrutiny of family and friends. It is an opportunity to discover who we really are. (Tragically, however, those four years are often spent more on partying than on serious self-examination.)
In the Bible, God suggested to Abraham where he as a Jew could experience this best: Israel. There is a certain history, spirituality and weightiness about the land that puts things into perspective and makes life real.
So as you travel around the world, looking for that special spark that speaks to your soul, I suggest that you visit Israel. While you're here, stop into Aish in Jerusalem to hear a few lectures (http://israel.aish.com/essentials/). I also highly recommend attending a Discovery seminar. This provides an excellent framework and overview of the entire gamut of Jewish history and philosophy, and answers the questions, "Why Be Jewish," "Does God Exist," and "Is Torah True?" The seminar is given every Sunday in the Old City of Jerusalem. (www.aish.com/dis/)