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The Big Questions – 2018 Yom Kippur Sermon

Posted on October 4, 2018

INTRODUCTION

            Towards the end of every school year I am invited into our Pre-K classes to answer their questions about God.  These are the questions that teachers and parents shy away from when asked by a 5-year-old.  The typical questions are:

  • “Is God a boy or a girl?”,
  • “Does God live in heaven?”,
  • “Does God eat or sleep?”
  • “Is God Real?”  

My answers, always follow the basic same format, “God is different than anything else we know…God is not a boy or a girl…God doesn’t have a body…therefore, God doesn’t live in a house or sleep in a bed…therefore heaven is not a real place, but a word we use to describe that God is everywhere…and food is necessary as energy for bodies, so God doesn’t eat Cheerios or anything else.”  

The questions are generated by the students, through a discussion with the teachers in preparation for our meeting.  The teachers help the children formulate their questions, and sometimes even have to ask on their behalf when the children get too shy.  That doesn’t stop the children from chiming in about which one has a cat or a dog, when I say that “God is different from humans, animals and plants, because God is different from anything else we know.”  One of the most interesting follow-up questions from a child was “does God go to the bathroom?”  I guess that is better than asking if “God goes to the bathroom standing up or sitting down.”  Almost always, one of the young students has already dealt with death in the family and will ask the question, “where do people go when they die?” 

Isidor I. Rabi, the Jewish Nobel laureate in physics who passed away thirty years ago, was once asked, ”Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?

Dr. Rabi’s answer was profound: ”My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference – asking good questions -made me become a scientist!”

            Why am I talking about big questions this year and why is it a theme that will run throughout the year at Temple Aliyah?  Because of many of you.  In trying to reflect on our adult education program, Rabbi Goldstein and I began asking congregants many months ago, what would motivate you to come to the synagogue to study.  The most common answer we received was “I want to talk about the big questions.” 

As a result, I began to consider a sermon on the very topic of what are the big questions of life and what does it mean to ask questions in general.  The so-called big questions and what the answers mean to us, have motivated humans from the beginning of time.  I believe that the Torah itself, is the first Jewish book of why, trying to answer the big questions of life. 

Questions have always been at the center of Judaism and Jewish identity and today of all days we are supposed to be asking the big questions about our own lives.   So, before we embark upon the pursuit of the big questions, let’s explore the role of questions in general.

 

QUESTIONS PRECEED LEARNING

Every good educator knows that education is not about giving the answers, but rather it is about inspiring students to ask good questions.   More than 2,400 years ago Socrates knew this when he taught, “wonder is the beginning of learning.”  And in the words of Einstein “The important thing is not to stop questioning.  Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” 

During our lifetime we are presented with lots of facts.  We may even read many books.  You may even be one of those people who remarkably can memorize enormous amounts of data, but until that data is used to answer a question, it is essentially useless.  According to the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead we refer to such unused information as inert ideas.  It is the forming of a question and the search for an answer that turns inert ideas into meaningful data and allows us the ability to look at our lives and the world in a different way.

 

THE LOST ART OF QUESTIONS

            Unfortunately, from my personal experiences, it appears as if many people have lost the ability to ask the questions that help us turn our inert data into meaningful knowledge.  For some people the lack of question asking is related to their desire to not look ignorant about an issue.   Some people learned in school and even college that to ask truly probing questions that challenged teachers could result in a lower grade.  And others just adhere to the aphorism “curiosity killed the cat.”    

Not too long ago if we wanted the answer to a question, you would open up a World Book Encyclopedia.  But you would have to read a long article to try and figure out the answer and it wasn’t always the exact question you were trying to answer.  More recently you could do an internet search to find appropriate articles that were more specific to our question.

And today?  Today all you have to do is ask Siri or Alexa.  It is interesting how popular Siri and Alexa have become in answering our questions.  In part, it is so easy, but also people don’t feel stupid when asking a question of a machine.   Siri or Alexa will never respond to you, “how could you not know that!” 

            A month ago, I asked Alexa the following question, “what is the meaning of life?”  To which she responded with a very definitive “42.” I was amused that Alexa had read the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy in which the number 42 is offered as the meaning to life, but wanted to know what she really thought, so I asked again… she responded “the traditional answer is 42.”  When I pushed her a third time, she answered, “the answer is 42, but the question is much more complicated.” 

When I asked the same question a week ago, she responded “The meaning of life depends upon the life in question, but a good approximation is 42.”  When I asked again, she offered me a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt which focused on living a life of meaning. 

I believe that the programmers of Alexa and Siri are validating the fact that what we call the big questions of life have no empirically correct answers.   Therefore, when it comes to questions like this, Siri and Alexa are programmed to entertain us rather than search the internet as they do for other questions.  By the way, perhaps this response is no different than some adults who don’t wish to explore these answers because there truly is no “Answer” with a capital “A”. 

For a number of the people I encounter, the lack of interest in exploring the big questions is related to the inability to come up with empirical answers.  To think about these issues, without the possibility of coming up with THE answer can give many people a headache.  Why waste time on the pursuit of answers that we can’t prove?  As a result, many people simply opt to avoid the headache all together.  We must therefore change our orientation of what it means to explore these questions, and why these answers are different from the other answers we pursue. 

In the Jewish tradition, questions, and hence learning, are always considered in relationship to other people, rather than simply searching for the answer.  When it comes to the study of Torah or Talmud, the preferred form of study is in hevrutah– with a haver, the Hebrew word for friend.  It is understood that true learning only occurs when you have someone else to bounce ideas off of and to challenge us on our own ideas.  It is written in the Talmud, “Two scholars sharpen one another.”   In fact, for many generations in the Talmudic period, there were two distinct schools of thought that argued against each other in each generation.  Each one had a different view of the world and hence how we should act accordingly.  And so, in a discussion about the great debates that took place between the rabbis Hillel and Shammai, trying to determine who was right, the Talmud tells us that finally a Heavenly voice proclaimed “elu v’elu divrei Elohim hayim”- “both of them are the words of the living God.”  This is the beauty of Judaism, you can have two conflicting views that are both recognized as possible ways to look at the world.

This is the nature of the big questions, there are multiple answers.  The big question really is, “which answer speaks to you?” and what can you learn from an answer that is not really THE answer.   For the big questions of life, we don’t turn to Alexa and Siri, we turn to our fellow travelers in life, to other people, to see what they have learned, to see what answers they have found.  The challenge is finding the right people and asking the right questions to have these discussions.

 

FIRST QUESTION ASKED BY GOD        

            The first big question of all time is asked by God.   According to the Torah the first time that God and people engage in a true interaction is when God asks a question of Adam and Eve.  It is after Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit and try to hide from God, that God calls out to them and asks, “Ayeka– where are you?”.   

            Why does God call out to them, “where are you?”.  Isn’t the very essence of the Biblical God knowing something as easy as where people are?  According to the 11th century commentator Rashi, of course God knew where they were, but poses a question in order to engage them in dialogue. 

But, why did they hide to begin with?

The assumption of most readers of the text is that they hid because they had violated God’s command to not eat of the Tree of Knowledge.  But is this really the reason?

Adam responds to God’s question by saying, “I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.”

Rather than condemn him for eating the forbidden fruit, God then asks Adam two more questions, “who told you that you were naked?  Did you eat of the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat?”

Adam doesn’t answer the questions.  Instead Eve blames the serpent and Adam blames Eve for their predicament.  Rather than learning from their experiences, Adam and Eve play the blame game; have humans really evolved that much?

In my opinion, this is really a case of Adam not understanding what to do with his first learning experience.  The questions frighten him because they are forcing him to reflect on his experience.  He has knowledge, but can he learn?

It is one thing to realize that you are naked, it is quite another thing to understand what that means.  It is in the second question that God is trying to help Adam learn, “who told you that you were naked?”  In my reading of the text, Adam really doesn’t know how to answer this.  How did he come to understand that he was naked if no one actually told him?

“Where are you?” seems like a simple question to Adam, but only because he doesn’t get the gist of it.  Let me phrase it in the colloquial language of the seventies, “where are you man?”  God’s question is not one of physical location, it has implications for where Adam is in his growth as a human being.  Where are you Adam in your process to learn and grow as a human being?  Just take a moment to think about the implications of what just happened.  God told Adam he would die if he ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.  Adam eats the fruit of the tree but doesn’t die.  Shouldn’t this have created theological questions in Adam? 

The first big question “where are you?” is part of the High Holy Days experience.  Where are you in your spiritual growth?  Where are you in your desire to be a better spouse, parent and sibling?  Where are you in your desire to make a difference in this world?  These are some of the big questions you should be asking.

 

PASSOVER AND QUESTIONS     

            One of the earliest examples of the role of questions in teaching is, of course, found in the Passover seder.  Dating back to at least the year 200 C.E. the Mishna states, “They pour a second cup of wine for him. And here the son questions his father.”  What is the son supposed to ask?  We want him to ask about the importance of the evening apparently. 

The Mishna continues, “And if the son has insufficient knowledge his father teaches him”… the Mishna then proceeds to enumerate The Four Questions.  “Mah Nishtana HaLaila ha’ze.”  The whole meal is designed to inspire wonder in children about the unusual items on the table.  “Why do we eat matza?” and “Why do we dip twice?” are not limited to the facts of the meal, but rather the meaning of the experience.  The questions from Dr. Rabi’s Jewish mother, that inspired him to become a scientist, were more than two thousand years in the making. 

If you ever wondered how tradition teaches values, you need look no further.  Judaism teaches each generation the importance of asking questions.  To tell the story of the Exodus in each generation is a mitzvah.  To do it through the Socratic method of provocative questions is genius.

 

WHY VS HOW

            We generally view a why or what question as one of the big questions of life.  “What is the meaning of life?”, “What happens after we die”, “Why is this happening to me?” are just some examples of people’s big questions.    

            Think of a big question that you have.  What word did it begin with?  Why?  What? When?

            I want to suggest that the real big questions of life don’t begin with why, what or when, but rather with how.  How do I live a meaningful life?  How do I find appreciation in my everyday experience?  How will I make a difference in this world?  How do we recapture civility in our society?  So many big questions.  The use of the word “how” to formulate the question transforms the answer from a theoretical one into a practical, relevant one.  An answer for the sake of an answer is meaningless.  In the Jewish tradition, it is about a life dedicated to the practicality of action and so we want our big questions to translate into action. 

Rabbi Naomi Levy and I were discussing this issue lately, when she shared with me her approach about questions.   She said, “People always ask why, the question I try to ask back of those who come to me with their questions is how.  How can I live the most meaningful and fulfilling life in the face of all the whys that will never be answered?”

 

THE ANSWERS CHANGE

            The other very important fact to know about the big questions of life is that at different stages of life, we will ask different question and even if the question is the same, the answer will be different.

            From Shakespeare to psychologist Erik Erikson, to the writer Gaily Sheehy, the author of the classic book Passages, it is clear that we ask different questions at different stages of our lives.  “What does success look like?”  is going to be answered very differently by a 25-year-old than a 70-year-old.  “What is the meaning of life” when asked by a 30-year-old, is a different question when asked by an octogenarian who is trying to come to terms with the question, “was my life a well lived one?”. 

            All this means that we must continue to ask questions throughout our lives.  Sometimes it will mean coming up with new questions and other times it will mean reflecting on the same questions and finding a new answer for your current stage of life.

 

DO YOU SHARE THE BIG QUESTIONS WITH OTHERS?

            I imagine that some of your ask these big questions to yourself, but do you have a hevruta– a study partner or group in which you can explore these questions?   Whether with a spouse, relative or friend, are you able to dialogue about the meaningful and ultimate issues of life?  If not, you need to figure out how to do so.  So often, at a family dinner or getting together with friends, we speak about the most mundane of issues.  We, of course, catch up on family and even the events of our lives, but what else do we talk about?  For many people it is not about politics, unless they have chosen to sequester themselves from people of the opposite political persuasion- which itself is another problem.  Discussions about the big questions are not designed to be shared with all groups, but you need at least one person that you can explore these issues with.

            Jewish tradition knew the importance of exploring these questions in hevruta– do you have a hevruta partner? 

           

RECOMMENDATIONS

            If you don’t yet have a hevruta partner, what else can you do explore the big questions?

            Rabbi Goldstein and I will be running a monthly program on the Big Questions.  Our hope is that is that you will come to these sessions to explore these important issues.  I encourage you to attend as we attempt to guide people through an exploration of the big questions. 

            At Rosh Hashana many of you received a booklet created by our Communications Director Ben Vorspan that can become a journal for exploring the big questions.   You should be able to find some on a table in the Frank Galleria.   You can either bring this booklet with you to the monthly programs or you can just reflect on these issues in discussions with other people and write down your own thoughts.  Remember, this is not an exercise to be done alone, but rather in dialogue with someone else.  If you look at the booklet you will also notice that there are pages without pre-written questions.  These pages are for you to write your own questions and to discuss them with people.

 

CONCLUSION

            More than twenty years ago I received a voice message from a random caller.  When I listened to it, I heard the following message, “My name is John. I’m a Catholic, but someone said Judaism might be a better fit for me. What can you tell me about it?”  When I called John back, I asked him to tell me his story.  After listening to his quest for answers to his struggles with his upbringing in Catholicism and the answers that he was in search of, I responded, “I have bad news for you. We don’t have the answer.” After I laughed a little, I added, “Don’t get me wrong – we have answers. More than you can count. But we don’t have The Answer. On the other hand,” I continued, “if you’re looking for a place where you can ask life’s most profound, difficult and meaningful questions- be willing to accept whatever responses you get to them – then do a bit of studying, thinking and talking about them with others to formulate new questions – and have that be a way of living– maybe you’ll find a home with us.” 

            Shortly thereafter John started his studies for conversion and eventually converted.  But the story doesn’t end there, because John went on to rabbinical school and eventually was ordained as a Conservative rabbi.  John Crites Borak loves to tell this story about how his Jewish journey began.  When he tells the story, he will often emphasize the importance of returning phone calls, since I was the only rabbi of the five he called, who returned his phone call, but also, he loves this story, as I do, because it reflects the truth.  We are people of questions.  It is the questions that keep us going rather than the answers.  When we stop asking questions, when we think we have all the answers that is when we die as individuals and as a people. 

            Today, on Yom Kippur, we focus on death.  We ask the big questions like, “did I live a good life this past year?”  Today is the day of the biggest questions of all.

            May this be a year of big questions and great discussions.  May one question lead to ten more and thereby provide a quest of questions- a journey of meaning. 

G’mar hatimah tovah- may you be inscribed for a year of questions and meaning. 

 

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