The Vital Question
The Quotable Heschel
Abraham Joshua Heschel
“The essence of living as a human being is being challenged, being tempted, being called,” writes Abraham Joshua Heschel. Prayer, he continues, is a necessary response.
Choose life!” is the great legacy of the Hebrew Bible, and the cult of life is affirmed in contemporary theology. However, life is not a thing, static and final. Life means living, and in living you have to choose a road, direction, goals. Pragmatists who believe that life itself can provide us with the criteria for truth overlook the fact that forces of suicide and destruction are also inherent in life.
The essence of living as a human being is being challenged, being tempted, being called. We pray for wisdom, for laws of knowing how to respond to our being challenged. Living is not enough by itself. Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy. And yet, being alive is no answer to the problems of living. To be or not to be is not the question. The vital question is: how to be and how not to be? The tendency to forget this vital question is the tragic disease of contemporary man, a disease that may prove fatal, that may end in disaster. To pray is to reflect passionately the perpetual urgency of this vital question.
Quoted from “On Prayer” in Understanding Jewish Prayer by Jakob J. Petuchowski
New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1972, p. 78.
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