Journeys vs. Quests: Finding Meaning in Purpose

During the first lesson of the current Panim el Panim class, “Ecclesiastes and the Good Life,” our instructor Rabbi Carl Kinbar described Qohelet as a man on a quest to discover what is good in this life. So naturally, the question arose: Are we all on our own quest? While our first impression might be to answer yes, Rabbi Carl surprised us with the opposite conclusion. This caused me and the others to pause and consider his reasoning, and the more I thought about it, the more his answer made sense.

According to the Cambridge Online Dictionary, “quest” may be defined as “a long search for something that is difficult to find, or an attempt to achieve something difficult.” A journey, often used as a synonym, is the act of traveling from one place to another, though not exclusively so. Therefore, it might be said that the difference between a journey and a quest is a matter (1) of focus and (2) of intensity. A journey is a set amount of traveling from point A to point B, while a quest is an exerted effort in pursuit of a goal, one which is often lengthy or ambitious.

With this understanding in mind, we are all on a journey, one that began with our birth and will continue to the time of our death and then beyond to the Olam Ha-Ba, the World to Come. This journey is inevitable, and each of us must travel it. Along the way, however, we may participate in specific quests – the successful competition of educational goals, the finding of life mates, and (just like Qohelet) discovering the meaning of life and the Source of that meaning.

When thinking about the Qohelet’s quest, two Scripture passages immediately come to mind. The first verse is from the prophet Micah. “He has told you, humanity, what is good, and what Adonai is seeking from you: only to practice justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). As a background, Micah prophesied in Judea during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, around the same time as Hosea and Isaiah. Micah’s main themes were that of Hashem’s judgment and discipline upon errant Judah, as well as His assured forgiveness. While Hashem would scatter His people for their sins, in covenantal faithfulness He would regather and forgive them. Micah’s words suggest what is required is to be properly related to one’s fellow people and to be in proper relationship with Hashem.

The second verse is similar to the first, from the Besorah of Matthew. “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33, TLV). A cursory glance at the preceding verses informs us that “all things” includes what we need for our daily lives. If we make our primary quest to seek His kingdom and His righteousness—that is, the things of the spirit—then the physical needs will be taken care of, just like how Hashem cares for the birds of the air or the lilies of the field (Matthew 6: 26 & 28).

Once again, life’s journey is inevitable. However, to successfully complete life’s journey, there are various quests that we should make every effort to accomplish. Two of the quests are (1) walking humbly with God or seeking Him, and (2) striving to live in harmony with one another by practicing justice and mercy. Qohelet ends the chronicle of his quest with these words,

Here is the final conclusion, now that you have heard everything: fear God, and keep his mitzvot; this is what being human is all about. (Ecclesiastes 12:13, CJB)

Again, we all have a common journey: life. We also share a common quest, which is to be in proper fellowship with God our Creator as well as our fellow human beings. May our journey and our quests be successful both here and in the Olam Ha-Ba.

This post was written by MJTI Registrar Rabbi Michael Hillel. For more by Rabbi Hillel, read his articles about counting the Omer, Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron, and Yom Ha’atzmuat and his guide for living in community.

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