Are you one of those people who can't pick up a new novel without skipping to the back and reading the end first?
If you are, you probably find that others consider this practice contemptible. And with good reason: the rest of us appreciate that the art of story telling is incomplete without the tense progression into the unknown, the gradual revelation of information, the systematic arrangement of data until the twilight of uncertainty finally gives way before the dawn of comprehension all of which is lost when you know the ending before you begin.
If you are the type who reads the end of the novel first, you're probably also the type who hates jigsaw puzzles. For many of us, the laborious process of sifting through a thousand tiny pieces quickly becomes a passion bordering on obsession. To arrange chaos into order, to witness the slow emergence of sense out of senselessness, these produce within us a thrill of mastery and power to which we otherwise have rare access. But if you can't stand mystery, puzzles are a source of tedious frustration.
Of course, those of us who do enjoy the challenge of solving puzzles are not limited to jigsaws. Crosswords, Sudoku, anagrams, riddles, and brainteasers of every kind offer endless ways to pit our intellect and imagination against contrived disorder. Some of us like to chip away slowly at the boundaries of concealment, like a prisoner chiseling his way toward freedom through his dungeon wall. Others attack each new problem with frenetic zeal, seeking to best their previous records of time and difficulty. But if you belong to the read-the-back-of-the-book-first crowd, no doubt you skim through puzzles hastily and, just as quickly, flip to the back pages for every answer.
An engaging story is itself a kind of puzzle, depending heavily on mystery and obfuscation. From antiquity to the present, storytellers have exploited our love affair with the unknown to produce some of the great epics and adventures. Will Odysseus return to his wife and homeland? Will Prince Hamlet avenge his father? Will Frodo Baggins destroy the Ring of Power? Will Harry Potter defeat Lord Voldemort? The unfolding of the narrative hinges upon the unknown, without which the story would lose its magic.
Ironically, the most successful sagas, like the modern classics Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, leave their audiences with a sense of melancholy at the end. Having invested so much in the adventure, the resolution produces not contentment but disappointment. And so the best stories are those we can read again and again, losing ourselves in the struggle against time, against fate, against evil, against all odds. Discovery happens all along the way, even when we know the ending … but never with the same excitement and tension of our first reading through.
THE MYSTIQUE OF MYSTERY
Why is the human psyche designed this way? Why do we revel in mystery? Why do we love problem-solving so intensely that we create problems just so we can solve them?
Mystery appeals not only to our imagination, but also to our inner conviction that worldly existence extends beyond the apparent randomness of personal and global events. Puzzles appeal to that same part of us, the part that seeks to unravel the threads of confusion that surround us and weave them into sense and order.
For all that, there is one mystery that many of us find intolerable. "It is not in our power to explain the tranquility of the wicked of the suffering of the righteous," declares the Talmud. The greatest puzzle of all the mystery of Divine Justice remains not only unsolved but unsolvable. And it is precisely this insolubility that makes the mystery intolerable. We can accept a puzzle that is beyond our ability, but we abhor a problem that has no solution.
But let us reread the words of the Talmud more carefully: the sages have not asserted that the eternal question of why bad things happen to good people, and vice versa, has no answer. Rather, they have stated that the answer is not in our power to explain. And the reason why this is so is eminently understandable.
The Almighty has placed human beings into a world wherein the veil of physical nature conceals spiritual reality. The mission of mankind is to recognize the Creator through the ordered system that governs the workings of our universe. Paradoxically, that recognition depends upon our awareness that the human mind, no matter how extraordinarily complex in its arrangement of neurons and synapses, is fundamentally incapable of fully grasping the infinite mind of G-d.
THE RATIONAL LIMITS OF REASON
This is not to say that the Almighty demands, or even wishes, blind faith. The workings of the world testify to G-d's design, while the necessity of His hiddenness as a prerequisite for free will makes perfect logical sense: if the inevitability of divine justice were clear to all, how could any of us rationalize any choice contrary to the divine will?
But even further, if we were able to explain every aspect of G-d's creation, if we could identify the plan and the justice behind every single divine act, then we would effectively negate the infinite nature of the Creator by reducing Him to the level of our own understanding. Once we accept that G-d is truly infinite, truly eternal, and truly divine, only one realistic course remains before us: we must strive to understand the principles of ultimate justice even as we concede that its particulars may always elude us until all is revealed in the End of Days.
To make this contradiction easier for us to bear, the Almighty created us with a love of mystery, with an insatiable thirst for problem solving. Throughout the year we rejoice in the search for divine truth and justice that defines the purpose of our existence. We embrace the darkness as the means through which we struggle toward the light.
But on one day each year, on the anniversary of his greatest tragedy, the Jew gives full expression to the pain of darkness and confusion. On the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, we mourn not only the destruction of our Temple and the exile from our land, but all the tragedies that have befallen us in our long history of seeking spiritual clarity.
On Tisha B'Av we fast, we sit on the floor, and we mourn our bitter separation from the One who provides true illumination and understanding. But then we arise, shake off the trappings of despair, and return with renewed eagerness and enthusiasm to engage the mysteries of creation that we know will one day be made clear for us and all the world to behold.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Yonason Goldson teaches at Block Yeshiva High School in St. Louis, MO, where he also writes and lectures. Visit him at http://torahideals.wordpress.com .
© 2009, Rabbi Yonason Goldson