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What Is The Greatest Mystery?

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If you were asked to point to the place in the world that contains the greatest mystery, where would you point?

You might point down. There are sermons in stones, the poet Wordsworth tells us, and one could choose the marvels of the earth. The molten core, the shifting plates, the vast panoply of life on this spinning orb -- here is a worthy mystery. We need look no further than the ground under our feet.

We might look above us. Dimly catching the light from a distant star, we remind ourselves that the glimmers we gaze upon at night may have been extinguished thousands of years ago. Light takes so long to travel from star to earth that we may dote on a star that perished long before Moses raised his staff over the Nile. Who knows what wonders lurk in the unimaginable recesses of space? No impulse to exploration could resist this invitation, to peer out into the blackness and find what treasures, what life, what lessons the vast universe holds.

Yet for faith, the greatest mystery is not found in space, nor in the earth. It is found not in remote regions, nor under the seas.

The greatest mystery in our religious tradition is the nature of God. Following that unfathomable enigma, the greatest mystery is oneself. And in many ways, exploring God demands that we begin by examining ourselves.

The mystical work Zohar Chadash teaches that the two sources of wisdom one needs in this life are to know God and to know oneself. Yet, knowing oneself is no simple task. As the poet Novalis wrote: "Inward goes the way full of mystery." The more we explore ourselves and our souls, the more complicated, multilayered, profound and baffling we become.

Despite the proliferation of disciplines that seek to explain human beings to ourselves -- psychology, psychobiology, anthropology, history, evolutionary psychology, to name but a few -- we are still mysterious creatures.

Jewish history begins with a call to self-knowledge. God's first words to Abraham, "Lech l'cha" (Genesis 12:1), which are usually translated "Go forth," can also mean "Go to you" -- that is, go inside yourself. For like all great explorations, Abraham's journey is also an interior voyage. Stories of travel and adventure do not only take us to a new place in the world, but to a new place inside the human soul. We study biblical characters and great spiritual personalities for the insight they can grant us into the human soul.

Ritual too is not rote; it enables us to begin to understand ourselves and others through sacred actions.

As we grow we discover that all the experiences of life are also partly internal. Each attempt to grasp the truths of the world reflects back upon us. We begin with ourselves, and all our traveling returns us home. So goes the story of the Rabbi Hayyim Halberstam, who started out to change the world. Over time he realized the task was too big, and decided to concentrate on his congregants. Even they proved resistant, and so he began to seek to change his family. But his children were grown, and his wife knew his opinions and faults quite well enough, and so he decided in the end he should begin on himself -- and even that was difficult. Our explorations lead us back to the beginning, to the mystery of our own souls. As the poet T.S. Eliot wrote in "Little Gidding":

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.


If we are lucky, we arrive at the beginning and know the place -- our own souls -- for the first time. We are in the image of God, which means that we are infinitely complex and infinitely important. All the reductive views -- "human beings are just _____" (Fill in the blank: chemicals, impulses, animals, accidents) -- are as sad as they are mistaken. Humanity is the great, unsolved mystery of the cosmos, glorious and sometimes horrifying, elevated and often debased, but ever the paradoxical creation whose fate lies in its own hands.

Where is the great mystery? In the human heart. With its grandeur and absurdity, if we turn to each other and to God, it becomes not only the greatest mystery, but also the most compelling adventure.

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