Rabbi Shneuer Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chasidic sect known as Chabad, was once thrown in jail by the Russian government because of the slander of an informer. While awaiting trial, he was visited by the chief jailer. Impressed by the appearance of the rabbi, the jailer began to question him about biblical passages he had not understood. ‘How can it be,’ he asked, ‘that Adam could hide himself in the garden of Eden so that the all-knowing God has to ask [in Gen. 3:9), Eyekah? ‘Where are you?’ The Chassidic master replied, ‘In every era, God calls to each human being, ‘Where are you in your life? So many years and days of those allotted to you have passed: How far have you come?’ God says something like this: ’You have lived 46 years. What have you achieved?’ Upon hearing his exact age, the jailer embraced the prisoner and trembled.
Martin Buber, one of the most influential theologians of the 20thcentury, expanded this story in an essay. In the biblical narrative, he wrote, ‘Adam hid himself to avoid rendering account, to escape responsibility for what he has done. And so, everyone hides for this purpose, turning their lives into a system of hideouts or defence mechanisms, for every human being is Adam, finding themselves in Adam’s situation. God asks, ayekah, ‘’Where are you?”, not expecting to learn something that God does not know, but to produce an effect in us that can be produced only by such a question, provided that we allow it to reach our heart.’
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, comes to ask each of us this question: ayekah, ‘Where are you? What have you done with your lives?’ It can be a shattering question, stirring to the deepest recesses of the soul, summoning us to confront the ultimate direction of our lives. If we could be truly honest with ourselves, how many of us might answer that we have been on a detour, moving away from the path we really want to be traveling, so that all our effort just brings us further from our noblest vision? Many are simply not sure. Here is how they might reply:
I am in my mid-twenties. I was brought up on the slogan, ‘To get a job, get an education’, and so I spent my entire youth acquiring an education and preparing myself for a good profession. Now I have discovered that there are no jobs available in the profession I wanted, that I need to look for some other kind of work. I am discouraged and disgusted.
I am in my forties. For the first time, I have reached a degree of financial independence and security. But I am beginning to wonder if the pressures of work are worth it. Money and the ability to buy things do not seem to have given me much peace of mind.
I am in my fifties. I have devoted all the working hours of my adult life to a small business which has run into more and more serious problems. I now face the possibility of going into bankruptcy, losing everything I have built, being left without a source of income. I feel shattered and frightened.
I have been married almost twenty years, and I am beginning to question the validity of my marriage. Sometimes I’m not sure if I really share anything important with the person who has been my partner for so much of my life. I feel so uncertain about myself.
I am 78 years old. I have fairly good general health, but for the past three and a half years I have had Alzheimer’s disease, as both of my parents had. I can remember and sing songs I that learned when I was 6 years old, I remember friends I went to school with; but I cannot remember the names of people whom I know and recognise; I can take a complicated walk, but I cannot come up with the names of the streets I am walking on; I usually cannot remember what I did, or what I saw on TV, 2-3 days ago, without writing a note every morning.
Ayekah: ‘Where are you’? I am lost, I am confused, I am groping for something – I don’t really know what – that will give me a sense of meaning and purpose. I am running fast, but I’m not sure it is in the right direction. I seem to be standing still while everyone else passes me by. I am afraid of the road that lies ahead. Where to I go from here?
Judaism teaches us that there may be wrong turns in life, but there are no dead ends, no blind impasses, no inescapable traps. If we are dissatisfied with ourselves, it is still possible to start anew, to wipe clean the slate of the past and begin again on a new path leading in a better direction. A Hassidic story tells us the way. Rabbi Eisik of Cracow, an impoverished Jew, dreamed that someone asked him to look for a treasure hidden under the bridge leading to the king’s palace in Prague. After the dream had recurred several times, he set off on a journey to the capital city.
When he arrived, he found the bridge so heavily guarded that he did not dare to dig, but he came back and watched the bridge every day. Eventually, the captain of the guards noticed him, and asked what he was doing. Reb Eizik told him about the dream. The captain laughed and said, ‘What a foolish man, to have such faith in dreams. Why I once had a dream that told me to go to Cracow and dig for treasure under the stove in the house of a Jew called Reb Eizik. Can you imagine me going and doing that?; Reb Eizek turned, and traveled home; he dug under his stove, and he found the treasure. With the money, he built the House of Prayer called ‘Reb Eizik’s Shul.’
Needless to say, this probably never happened. But the meaning of the story is clear: we must look for the treasure of life where we are, within ourselves, for that is where we will find it. The story is not preaching the kind of self-fulfilment that is so much in vogue today. It is not about the cult of me-ism, which says that the norms of society, the restraints of tradition, the conventions of conduct, the imperatives of responsibility: all must give way before the desires of individuals to express and fulfil themselves. And what is this self-fulfilment? To act on every impulse, to do whatever we feel like doing; as William Blake wrote in his Proverbs of Hell, ‘Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.’ That is the gospel of popular culture, proclaimed by movies, magazines, cheap paperbacks, even television: if it can be experienced, experience it; if you want to do it, do it. Discipline, self-denials, rules, restraints, all cramp and stifle the individuals, and are all unhealthy and passe.’
The story of Reb Eizik’s treasure is about something quite different. The treasure comes not through the gratification of every immediate impulse, but through the realisation of our highest potential as individuals, through the discovery of true meaning in our lives where we never expected to find it. And the story tells us that this can be done not by traveling far away in search of new experiences, not by plugging into every new spiritual cult or intellectual fad that peeks above the horizon for a few years before fading into oblivion, not by becoming someone different from who and what we are. The treasure can be found on the place where we stand, if we will only search for it.
Our job seems boring and unimportant and unrewarding; we are laid off and need to have work in a position beneath our dignity; our business begins to fail and to crumble around us? Reb Eisek ‘s treasure can be found in any kind of work. It is not so much the essence of the job as the way it is done that gives it dignity and meaning. Each occupation can be important, an act of serving God and our fellow human beings, if we perform it honestly and fully, with an undivided heart, pouring ourselves into what we do, while we are doing it. We can begin again to find new fulfilment in our work, new treasure in our calling.
Our family life sometimes seems to be only a succession of headaches, with little of the excitement and beauty it once had? There are those who would look for Reb Eizek’s treasure somewhere else, giving up on their marriage and family, pulling out to assert their independence in a new life. Our magazines are filled with stories about people who speak glowingly about their self-liberation and freedom. But the newness quickly palls, and these people often discover that the same things that were making them miserable in their old setting have tracked them down and followed them into the new setting. True self-fulfilment rarely comes by fleeing from responsibility. No, the treasure is to be found right there, in our own homes.
And as for our children, there is hardly a child who cannot respond to love, who cannot more than reward their parents for the responsibilities and burdens they may cause. It is up to us to take our children and grand-children seriously – to give them our time, our full attention, ourselves. They will do the rest. There is immense treasure in the relationships with those closest to us; we just need to dig for it. We can begin again and dig.
We are dissatisfied with ourselves because we know how far we fall short of the persons we could be? Again some seek Reb Eizek’s treasure afar off – in a new life style or a new appearance or image; they seek it through one of the exotic eastern religious sects with their enigmatic gurus, or by submerging their intellects in the mysteries of the occult.
The treasure is here, within us and around us, and it does not require elaborate techniques to exhume it. What it requires is a conscious and continuous effort to begin again, to do better than we have done, to live by the vision of what we know we can be. When we stop to say a kind word instead of passing someone we know in silence, when we ask forgiveness of someone we have hurt rather than stand our ground and intensify the feud, when we go out of our way to show someone close to us that we really care – we discover the treasure that lies within ourselves.
And when we take the few seconds to begin a meal with a berakhaof praise and gratitude to God, when we make the Shabbat a special day especially devoted to the synagogue and to other higher and ultimately more important pursuits; when we visit the sick, comfort the bereaved, honour our parents, study a Jewish book, or perform any one of those actions that the Jewish tradition calls a mitzvah, we discover the treasure within us, day after day.
A Chassidic rebbe once saw a man rushing down the street. ‘Why are you in such a hurry,’ he asked. ‘I am pursuing happiness’, was his reply. The rebbe looked at him and said, ‘How do you now that happiness is out ahead of you, so that you need to rush after it? Perhaps it is behind, and all you need to do is stand still. Stand still, my friend’. Every aspect of our lives – the work we do, the way we live with the people in our home, they way we talk to our neighbours, the way we use our leisure time – all contain the potential for holiness that we can either actualise or ignore. Everything we do and say can help add a dimension of meaning and purpose to our lives.
It is never too late to begin again with new sensitivity and commitment. If we do, the question Ayekah, ‘where are you’, will no longer make us tremble with anxiety and remorse. For we will be able to respond, not by hiding, not by running away: we will be able to respond, Hineni, here I am, fully accepting myself, striving daily to bring dignity and sanctity to what I do, discovering life; treasures here, where I live.