Summer is a time for travel. While I welcome relaxation offered by a change of scenery, less responsibility, and rest, when given a canvas of time I am driven by curiosity. I am eager to see how other people live in order to understand their lives. This requires background reading of history, demography, and politics and seeking out good tour guides. And when meeting locals, I ask questions to glean what gives their lives shape, meaning, and joy. I do so in part to understand my own assumptions and to thereby gain wisdom. When exploring, I do so for its own sake: a love of learning. In such travels, I know that my exploration is always incomplete: more layers to people’s lives and culture, more details to absorb, more places to visit, more beauty to savor, more experiences to take in. And yet, to travel with a desire to understand for its own sake and to enjoy natural beauty is to appreciate the distinctiveness of each place and the goodness of the world.
When we seek to get away, our own inner makeup abides and impacts. Wherever we go, we are there. Curiosity also guides the desire to know my inner life. I do so with the tools of meditation, conversation, reflection, Shabbat repose, and prayer. Inside is a landscape of memories, propensities, and influences that warrant observation and articulation. Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet declares,“To thine own self be true.” His guidance assumes a knowledge of our interior, offering a moral compass and personal goals. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (Poland, 1787-1859) put this need for self-direction in a pithy way: “If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you!” Or in the words of 19th century Oscar Wilde, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.”
Inner exploration is first and foremost driven by a desire to understand for its own sake. Some thinkers have expressed skepticism that self-evaluation will lead to wisdom. Goethe wrote, “Know myself? If I knew myself I would run away.” There are parts of ourselves that are not easy to know, or, once known, are very hard to admire or to like. And yet, our tradition encourages self-reflection, heshbon hanefesh, accounting of our soul. To do so is to identify assets and liabilities and to know that at our core we are “created in the image of G-d.” To penetrate beneath the outer layers of personality is to reveal our essential goodness.
Curiosity is the engine of learning and growing. Travel in the world at large and inner exploration provide lessons for our journey through life: whom we travel with is of paramount importance for memory-making and contentment; setting a destination enables leaving our comfort zone; spontaneity requires much preparation; what we most remember are the people we meet along the way; there is always incompleteness. And yet, in taking in the world around us or going deep within our selves, we encounter beauty and even holiness that uplifts us. Our travels are finite. Savoring goodness and adventure propel us forward despite immediate challenges and makes our journeys joyful and whole.
RABBI ELIE SPITZ IS the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Israel of Tustin.