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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  ( has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.

There are questions a rabbi cannot answer. Some theological problems are so complicated and so uncertain, that I cannot give a final, absolute explanation of them. Now, I know that many people think rabbis are supposed to have all the answers. However, the reality is - rabbis have more questions than answers. As a matter of fact, many times the question is more important than the answer. Sometimes my job is to have the right question, and with Rosh Hashana rapidly approaching, the right question for this season is- why am I alive?

I don't plan on answering this question. There are many answers proposed by philosophers and theologians. What I would like to point out is that contemplating "why am I alive" can change your life.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746), at the beginning of his classic "The Path of the Just," writes that the root of perfection and piety lies in understanding the purpose of life. Once you understand your purpose in life, you will know what you have to accomplish. To Rabbi Luzzatto, to be a successful Jew, you have to have a good answer to the question "why am I alive?" This is not only a theoretical question, but one that changes every action you do. Without a philosophy of life, it is impossible to have the right priorities.

By asking ourselves "why am I alive," we get a different perspective on life. Unfortunately, many people spend too much of their lives worrying about narishkeit, trivial issues that have no lasting importance. People think a great deal about earth shattering problems like: what color should the napkins at my wedding be, what car should I drive, where should I go on vacation? There is nothing wrong with these interests, what is wrong is when we get fixated on the little things and lose perspective about what life is about. People tend to get fixated very easily; members of the wedding party will cry if the wrong color napkin was delivered and couples fight fiercely over which resort to go to on vacation.

This type of fixation is not new. The Torah tells us that the generation of Jews who lived in the desert after the Exodus complained that they missed Egypt because they loved the food they got there: "we remember the fish, the cucumber, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic," (Numbers 10:5). Here we have a group of people who have just been freed from slavery, who would become slaves again if they could get a few more cucumbers! If we lose sight of the big picture, it is easy to get entangled in the details. If we forget to ask ourselves "why am I alive?," the difference between a forest green napkin and a lavender napkin becomes enormous. When we have an idea of what our purpose in life is, details become a lot smaller, and our spiritual lives become a lot bigger.

Some questions are important even if there is no easy answer. "Why am I alive?" is one of those questions.