Thursday, November 24, 2016

On 'The pursuit of Truth'


Truth, Truth shall you pursue’
Targum Onkeles on Deuteronomy 18:20 

People commonly speak about the ‘pursuit of Truth’, a phrase that, to many, suggests that Truth is a limited quality or amount of information somewhere out there, waiting to be discoved through a combination of time and effort. Although this may be the case with ‘minor truths’ such as finding out who spilled juice on the kitchen floor, what 6x6 equals, or what causes the heart to beat, here I’m talking about Truth with a capital ‘T’ – the Holy Grail.    Indeed, many philosophers have naively ventured to discover the Truth: the hidden universalities that make life intelligible and clear, reconciling all contradictions and solving all mysteries. And, though some misguided scholars have professed to have found it, the vast majority find that the further they pursue it, the more it eludes them. Like chasing one’s shadow, the faster one runs after it, the faster it runs away.            

On the verse, “If you will listen, listen to the voice of the L-rd your G-d,”[1] the Midrash comments, “Happy is the one whose ‘listenings’ are to Me, hovering always at My doorways; door within door...”[2] Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger, the author of ‘Sefat Emet’, in commenting on this Midrash explains how one must never feel he has conclusively grasped a Torah teaching, for its depth is limitless. This, he adds, is implied by the repetition of the word listen in the original verse cited above. That is, even if you have already listened and understood, listen again... and again - for a higher grasp forever awaits you.[3] The Midrash’s metaphor of a door within a door is apt. The Hebrew word for doorway is delet, denoting emptiness, for a doorway is merely an empty space.[4] Yet, it is precisely this emptiness that allows movement from one room to the next. In respect to Torah study, this implies that one who feels ignorant and empty of a teaching’s true meaning is open to advance to a new level of understanding, but one who feels he has already grasped the truth, closes the passage before him.[5] Herein lays one explanation for the mitzvah (commandment) of fixing Mezuzot on our doorposts. The Mezuzah, a piece of parchment with Torah written on it, represents Torah study in general, while the doorpost on which it is affixed signifies the openess prerequisite for proper and penetrating Torah study.[6]  
Rabbi Yehuda Leib’s commentary on the Midrash above suggests that even when one has grasped truth, one must forever remain open to further or deeper truth. In contrast, the Ben Ish Chai, a 19th Century Sephardic mystic from Bagdad, takes the elusive nature of truth a step further, defining it as G-d’s perspective of reality which categorically transcends human grasp. Here the Ben Ish Chai draws our attention to the blessing recited after the Haftarah reading, which concludes, “And all His words are true and righteous”. He points out that the first and last letters of the Hebrew word for righteous, צדק, are neighbours in the Hebrew alphabet, the Aleph-bet, while the first and last letters of truth, אמת, are at the Aleph-Bet’s opposite ends.[7] This, he explains, signifies two different ways that G-d governs our lives. Sometimes G-d reveals to us how the puzzle pieces of our lives fit neatly together, when things make sense to us and Divine providence is evident. At these times we refer to G-d’s as ‘righteous’. At other times, however, G-d distances the puzzle pieces from each other, rendering us incapable of connecting them together. Events then appear to make little sense and leave us asking ‘Why, G-d, is this happening?’ In such instances we refer to G-d’s conduct as ‘true. Meaning that even though we cannot connect the puzzle pieces of reality together as they are spaced too far apart, we still affirm that from G-d’s perspective everything is cohesive, precise, and orderly. G-d can connect the furthest pieces of life together - the Aleph, א, with the Tav, ת. Truth, אמת, rests with G-d alone.[8]

The above two images of Truth (that there are eternally higher levels of Truth to strive towards and that Truth is, by definition, reality beyond human grasp) may dampen our enthusiasm to purse Truth, as it appears to be a futile quest. In reality, the opposite is correct. The fact that Truth is forever beyond our grasp is highly motivational: Truth charms us into an endless adventure.[9]

The closest one comes to finding Truth is realizing its endlessness. Before Truth one stands empty and humble and from within these feelings a childlike curiosity springs forth to explore and discover reality.[10] And the stronger the curiosity, the more openly does Truth glow within. Put in other words, the extent to which one is drawn to pursue the infinite Truth, and the more deeply one feels the infinite journey of discovery that lies ahead, is the extent to which one has found Truth. Perhaps the Kotzker Rebbe put it most elegantly: “the pursuing is itself the finding!”[11]

[1] Devarim, 28:1
[2] Midrash Rabbah, Devarim 7:2
[3] Sefat Emet, Sefer Devarim, Parshat Tavo, 5632
[4] Wisdom of the Hebrew Alphabet, p.78, citing the Maharal
[5] For a similar concept see Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Likutei Sichot, Vol.1, p.129 
[6] Sefat Emet, ibid
[7] Ben Ish chai, ‘Od Yoseph Chai’, Parshat Nosso
[9] Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, Basic Books, 1980, p.133  
[10]  Hence man’s Good Inclination is referred to as a child, Kohelet 4:13
[11] Rabbi Abraham J.Twerski, Rebbes and Chassidim, p.91

No comments:

Post a Comment