Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Thirst Unquenched

Have you ever had it happen to you that you just wished you knew more? That you felt it was futile to express opinions about something because you were so acutely aware of how little you knew and you just weren't in the mood to be shot down by those who knew more than you?

I've always had this insurmountable desire to know everything. I would walk into a library and be overcome by all the books I still haven't read. How could I possibly read anything twice? How was there time when there were so many things I hadn't yet read once? And what about Torah? There is so much I never formally learned in school. There is so much more to know. How can I ever learn it all? How can I ever prioritize what I want to know? I can step inside the Beit Midrash at Stern and feel the weight of all that I don't yet know and ought to know pressing down - so much so that I just don't learn any of it. And Torah, more than literature, is something I feel I must know, and I am so self-conscious of all that I don't.

There was a point in time during my early semesters at Stern where I thought I was going to minor in History. I've always found History fascinating and I immensely enjoy listening to a professor teach it. The problem is that I also never did well in history. I was bad at memorizing all the names and dates, especially so many at once. I'm quite good at remembering history in the context of literature, when you get to really learn and understand a time period, its politics, and the people involved through the telling of a story.* I'm not good at memorizing lists of facts, or events, or people who I don't really get a sense of more than just their names and a resume of their accomplishments.

So after sitting through (and loving but not doing particularly well in) APUS History in 12th grade, and then Western Civ., French Revolution, and some others (I think) at Stern, I ended up smack against a brick wall. I was taking a class on the Middle East. Though I've never felt the same sort of romanticism in Arabic history that I've felt in American or European, I was drawn to the class because of its rather timely subject. I wanted to truly understand the issues in the Middle East. I wanted to be one of those people who could defend Israel properly and intelligently, being well-versed in everything going on in connection with the Arab-Israeli conflict. The same way that I always wanted to be able to participate in a discussion about American politics and actually sound like I know what I'm talking about. But that semester I was taking a bunch of English classes and another History and the work became too much. I couldn't handle two classed that I both loved but couldn't do well in at once, so on the day of our first test, when I'd had way too much other work to properly study, I dropped the class, and along with it, my History minor.

So I did not end up spending a semester studying the history behind the issues in the Middle East. And I do not know enough about American politics to speak in the presence of anyone who knows more than just a little about it. And I have not read some of the major classic works of literature that are out there. And I have not learned many practical halachos inside in order to really understand what I'm doing and why, or to even know what I really should be doing in certain circumstances. And I do not know many random obscure bekius in Tanach. And I do not know about a lot of major Rabbis that people talk about - even ones at YU.

And...there is so much that I don't know. How can I ever learn it all? And when? How can I consider myself an intelligent person when there is so much I feel I don't know? When I am ashamed of what I don't know? When I don't feel comfortable asking sometimes because that means admitting to someone that I just don't know? And, more overarchingly, how can I ever quench this thirst for knowledge? I want to know and understand so much. I just can't imagine how I'll ever be able to.

*I've read a little bit of Historical Fiction, but not a lot of it, but I'm pretty sure I'd love it, so if anyone would like to recommend anything good, please do!

3 comments:

Josh M. said...

Eizehu chacham? Ha-lomeid mikol adam. The mefarshim make clear that this statement of Ben Zoma in Avos 4:1 is not merely a feel-good platitude, but rather contains in it deep truths. In one's twenties, at any rate, one should be focused more on the journey than on any specific destination where one is at a given point in time.

Anonymous said...

why don't you focus on all the things you do know insted of the things you don't yet know?

Anonymous said...

That is EXACTLY how I always feel. Are you sure you're not me. One thing that helps me is realizing that there is still time - I have until 120 G-d willing. Also in Pirkei Avos, it says "lo alecha hamalacha ligmor." You have to do your best but you are not expected to finish it..