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Focusing on the What and not the Why
by Rabbi Zvi Homnick



In the world that I grew up in, study about G-d or any of the basic tenets of Jewish faith was not part of the curriculum vitae for a young budding Torah scholar.  Anybody with questions was told (if they even bothered to ask someone in a position of authority) to focus on their learning and forget about any questions they may have.  All the more so if those questions presented themselves as sources of doubt or as symptoms of weakening faith.  


It's hard for me to recall exactly when and how it began, but as far back as my early elementary school years, people would turn to me with their questions and their problems.  As I got into high school and beyond, many of those questions would be about matters of faith, especially from guys who were struggling with their Jewish/religious identity in the face of great temptation.  I don't know why anybody thought I had any answers, but they kept coming, and they were often guys much older than myself.  It got to the point that in a number of cases, staff members approached me to consult me or enlist my involvement regarding a fellow student.


Now, personally, I could totally relate to those who were struggling with anger and resentment towards G-d, or with their baser drives and desires, but I had less than zero conception of or tolerance towards those who claimed that they had serious questions about the existence of G-d and/or the truth of Torah.  In fact, long before I had heard the Chassidic expressions, “just because you have taavos (sinful cravings), does that mean that G-d is no longer G-d?” I used to try to convey that same idea to all comers.  Since most questioners tended to formulate their queries in terms of why, I often found myself saying, “who cares why,” since in almost all cases the person had a problem with the “what” and not so much with the “why.”


I remember once being approached by a fellow who was somewhat older than me and asking him why he was coming to me.  His reply was that there were very few people he knew that actually thought about deep matters in an intelligent fashion.  When I asked as to why he didn't approach the rosh yeshiva, he made it very clear that he thought he would only get a standard prepackaged answer as opposed to a thoughtful response tailored to him and his issues. 


Over the years, I heard similar things from others who turned to me with serious issues, questions, and even important personal decisions.  Although for some reason, (that Chassidic soul business again?), I never experienced doubts or struggles when it came to the basic faith and beliefs that are the bedrock of the Jewish belief system, I still felt that it was necessary to formulate cogent and coherent responses to those of a more intellectual bent that would not be sufficiently served by my simply pooh-poohing their questions or doubts.


Without the benefit of Chabad Chassidus and its relatively clearly structured approach, primarily rooted in revelation, I had to rely on a combination of my gut instincts, my eclectic research and my own thought processes.  What I came up with was the idea that since we have no sensory access to metaphysical realities, the only way we know “what” is real is through being told by G-d Himself by way of the Torah.  It is only after we know the “what” that we can attempt to know the “why,” and even that is only insofar as He chooses to reveal His motives.  Even when He does choose to reveal a reason “why” He did, does, demands any given thing, it is only a partial explanation on our level, since one can always ask “why” a given reason or motive is “legitimate.”  At that point the original “why” becomes a “what” and what we are trying to discern is a whole new layer of reason “why,” which may turn out to be beyond our understanding.  Thus, it is only appropriate to ask “why” as a means to achieving a better understanding of the “what,” but not to decide the veracity and/or acceptability of the “what.”  The only time that we can use a “why” to determine a “what” is in those areas of Jewish law that were given over to the Torah scholars of each generation to decide, and even in those cases, the “why” has to have a very strong basis in the “what” of Torah as given by G-d Himself.


So even though from G-d's perspective the “why” comes before the “what,” we have to start with the “what” and only then try to figure out the “why,” and even then we can only try to find the “why” within Torah itself, as it is not our place to attribute motives to G-d or judge for ourselves whether those motives meet our approval.  As the Torah teaches us, there are certain commandments that fall under the category of “rational commandments,” and there are some that are defined as being beyond the realm of the rational.  And as the Rambam writes in his Moreh Nevochim, even the rational commandments have details and parameters that defy the limitations of reason and must ultimately be accepted on faith, and even the parts that we do understand have countless layers of depth that we can never hope to divine. 


This rule of thumb helped me clarify and resolve a lot of questions for myself (even though they didn't “bother” me – clarity is good) and others, since a lot of “questions” result from a lack of clarity as to the “whats” and the “whys.”  The only problem was that it left me feeling a little out of joint with the Lithuanian/Misnagdic self-perception of being a rationality-based approach to Jewish belief and practice, and from time to time, I would encounter certain ideas that appeared in the writings of those from that school of thought who did attempt to address matters and questions of faith, and find them quite disturbing.




Later, I discovered that my personal process (along with the simple faith that I simply took for granted) was very helpful in understanding and relating to the ideas and teachings of Chassidus.  Time and again, I found myself saying “aha” as I read and learned things that I knew instinctively to be true long before I encountered them in Chassidus.  For example, there is the basic Chassidic concept that appears in the name of the Baal Shem Tov and is elaborated upon extensively in Chabad Chassidus, namely, the idea that the service of Hashem is based on submission to His will and not on our limited understanding.  In fact, if He didn't command us to try to understand the “why” of things as explicated in the Torah, we would have no right to do so, as “who are you to try to understand G-d?”  (Chabad Chassidus takes it a step further, as “who are you to act as if you have your own mind, independent of G-d, thus denying His absolute Oneness?)


When I began learning the Rebbe's Chassidus, talks and letters, I was absolutely amazed at how much and how often the Rebbe makes the distinction between the “what” and the “why,” as well as the “why” that comes before the “what” and the “why” that comes after the “what.”  Learning about the order of things in the higher spiritual realms (Will comes before, is higher than, and is the source of, Wisdom, but within the internal order of Will there is the “hidden” Wisdom that is a manifestation of the Delight and contains the “hidden reason” for Will...) just helped make it that much more real and obvious.  This sense of “I knew that, but never quite in those words or in that application,” (consciously and/or instinctively) when studying the works of the Rebbe, even as I found myself being blown away by a novel insight or interpretation, helped solidify for me the idea of the Rebbe as the “general, all-inclusive soul.”  Because how else could I have “known” those things unless it somehow trickled down to me through the spiritual channel that is the Rebbe?  It also gave me a tremendous sense of “how good is our portion, how sweet is our lot...,” since I knew and had known so many others that didn't get or relate to these truths and realities.


There was one particular teaching of the Rebbe on the subject of when it is or is not appropriate to ask “why” that was totally new and breathtaking to me.  The Rebbe presented and promoted the idea that when a believing Jew sees or hears about the suffering of another Jew, and in particular the suffering of Jews that results directly from being in exile, which has the added element of “My Name is desecrated amongst the nations,” then he has no choice other than to scream out, “but why?”  It is precisely because he believes the “what,” i.e. that this situation can only exist if it is directly willed by G-d Himself, and he believes that we can never hope to understand the “why” of G-d's reasons and motives even as we believe and accept that those motives are pure and infinite goodness incarnate, that he cries out to see that goodness revealed.  The cry of “but why” is not questioning G-d and His goodness, it is pleading that G-d reveal Himself and His goodness in a way that even we can comprehend. 


Additionally, the Rebbe points out that this question and cry of pain is only appropriate when it serves as an impetus to do everything in one's power to correct the situation and bring about that final resolution.  Only Moshe Rabbeinu who is prepared to do everything and anything to save and protect the Jews, to give up his life and his place in the Torah, to smash the stone tablets given into his hands by G-d Himself, only he can rightly ask, “Why have You made things worse for this nation, and why have You sent me?”  If you just ask “why” and are not prepared to work to change the “what” to whatever degree that G-d has empowered you to do so, and especially if asking the question leads to a sense of helplessness and futility, that is a sign of weakness of faith and that the question originates with the Evil Inclination whose primary objective is to paralyze you into inaction or misdirect you into taking the wrong actions.




On Gimmel (the 3rd day of) Tammuz 1927, the Rebbe Rayatz was granted a reprieve to the already decided upon death sentence and ordered to go into exile.  He was later granted a full pardon and allowed to go free on 12-13 Tammuz.  In the talks and writings of the Rebbe, he focuses on how Gimmel Tammuz is the “beginning of the redemption.” This, despite the fact that at the time it was thought that exile might be worse because the authorities could take advantage of the fact that he was out of the public eye to carry out their nefarious plans by staging an “accident” or the like. 


This is an illustration of the fact that when it comes to matters affecting the life of the Tzaddik, we not only are not privy to the “why” by means of our limited intellects, we are often not even privy to the “what” unless it is revealed to us.  The only way that we know “what” the arrest and incarceration signify, and “what” each of the days of significance that follow mean and represent is based on what was revealed to us.


Another point that the Rebbe emphasizes regarding Gimmel Tammuz is that although the Rebbe Rayatz established the 12th and 13th of Tammuz as days of redemption and celebration, to us, Gimmel Tammuz is a greater cause for celebration, because even though the Rebbe cares more about the freedom to be able to carry out his life's mission, we as Chassidim, care more about the Rebbe's life and personal safety.  The Rebbe relates this to the idea that for those wicked people to be able to have any power over the Rebbe, the Rebbe had to voluntarily agree to the Divine Plan and undertake the real and painful suffering for the purpose of accomplishing his purpose.  However, to Chassidim there can be no answer “why” the Rebbe must suffer that would satisfy on any level, and yet, since the Rebbe determined that he must go through what he went through in order to do his work, the Chassidim throw themselves wholeheartedly into that work in order to accomplish “what” the Rebbe set out to accomplish.


These same lessons apply to Gimmel Tammuz in the year 1994 and the years that follow.  The only idea we have regarding “what” happened that day and “what” is happening since, can be found in Torah, and especially the Torah that the Rebbe taught and revealed to us.  Similarly, the only insights we can glean as to “why” must be sourced in those same teachings, even though they cannot and should not provide the satisfaction of understanding and acceptance of the situation.  Yes, we need to scream and cry “but why?” and we need to completely reject any attempt to justify the current situation.  However, all that has to serve as the impetus to focus on the “what,” and not be distracted by the pain and confusion expressed in the “why.”  We need to focus on “What” G-d is telling us that He wants from us, and “what” we need to do to fulfill the mission that the Rebbe gave us, as explained in the most recent talks of the Rebbe.  The only acceptable answer to “why Gimmel Tammuz” can be the “completion of the redemption” when we will be reunited with the Rebbe, “the king in his glory,” immediately, NOW!



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