Rabbi Vogel’s Blog

Forgiveness: The Path of a Repentant Life – 2018 Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Posted on October 4, 2018


            We live in an era in which people are being accused of crimes, indiscretions, harassment and even inappropriate social media posts that actually occurred years ago.  The MeToo movement is a reminder that there is no statute of limitations for accountability.  Sometimes it takes a seismic social shift for us to acknowledge and put a stop to inappropriate behavior.  But in the social angst of accountability that we are now feeling, the question of forgiveness has also been raised.  Namely, what does it take for someone to be forgiven?

Several months ago the writer and director of the hit Guardians of the Galaxy movies, James Gunn was fired from the third movie under production because of 10 year old tweets.  In a statement, Gunn said: 

 “My words of nearly a decade ago were, at the time, totally failed and unfortunate efforts to be provocative. I have regretted them for many years since — not just because they were stupid, not at all funny, wildly insensitive, and certainly not provocative like I had hoped, but also because they don’t reflect the person I am today or have been for some time.”

            Should Gunn be forgiven for his offensive tweets posted ten years ago?  Should the studio allow him to continue his involvement with the movies?

            The question surrounding Gunn, is a question relevant to many other people.  Whether it is actors, politicians, friends or family, in our deeply divided society, the question of how forgiving do we need to be and what is required to be forgiven are questions more relevant today than ever before. 



            When it comes to forgiveness it is important to know that in the Jewish tradition forgiveness is not granted, as much as it is earned. 

            We live in a time when people blame the wrongful acts they have committed on a physical, emotional or medical condition.  Without accepting any blame for their actions, they enroll in a rehabilitation program as a means of cleansing away their sin. 

            The inability to acknowledge fault and accept blame is nothing new.  It is no accident that the first story in the Torah about people is one in which humans are unable to acknowledge their wrongful acts.   Eve blames the serpent for the decision to eat the fruit of the tree and Adam blames Eve.   There is no accountability.  The Garden of Eden is a place of perfection and we as humans have no place there, because misdeeds are part of the human condition and therefore there must be a path for repentance.

In some cases, there is a real medical or psychological issue that is the motivation for a person’s behavior.  I have had a number of congregants share with me bad decisions they have made because of an addiction to drugs or alcohol.  I have lived through the chaos created when they go off necessary medication needed for diagnoses of mental illness.  These people need the necessary support to deal with their illnesses, but cannot do so until they acknowledge this reality.  This is the true path to rehabilitation.   But very often, we read in the newspapers about people responding to accusations of impropriety with plans of therapy and rehabilitation, that seem more about rehabilitating their reputations, than rehabilitating themselves.  Judaism knows that even if a wrongful act can be attributed to medical or psychological issues, the reparative journey of recovery and forgiveness must include repentance.

In order to understand the concept of forgiveness we need to distinguish it from repentance and the difference between these two different journeys. 

Repentance is such an interesting English word.  How many of you associate repentance with a religious context? 

Namely, that repentance is the religious response to sin?

As I looked for synonyms for the word repentance that might provide a secular feeling I could find none.  The words regret, remorse, penitence, contrition, shame, penance are no better.  Most significantly they don’t tell the story of what it means to honestly deal with a misdeed, apologize and seek to become a better person.  Perhaps this is because the secular world can’t conceive of such a process.  As a result, I believe repentance is the only possible word we can use to discuss the reparative process of responding to a misdeed.   As I speak today, I will be using the terms repentance and forgiveness in a non-religious context and solely as concepts in how we should be dealing with repairing the misdeeds of our lives.

Let us begin with my understanding of the difference between repentance and forgiveness.

Repentance is the process that the wrongdoer must go through.  It is the journey in which we embark upon, that begins with acknowledging that the act was wrong, next an apology to the person we have wronged, and finally working to undo the harm caused by our act and working to be a better person. 

Forgiveness, on the other hand, is the process we go through, on our journey to heal from the wrongful act committed against us.  As a victim of some act committed against us, we actually have some control.  Namely, do we choose to forgive in the face of true repentance?  

There are many people who suggest that forgiveness is the act of giving up anger, resentment and need for revenge.  This idea is supported by a number of religious groups including Christianity, that forgiveness can be granted without the wrongdoer expressing remorse or apologizing. 

Can the unrepentant murderer be forgiven by the family of the person he murdered?

Can the rapist be granted forgiveness by the woman he violated without acknowledging the pain and trauma he caused her?

I want to argue against using the term forgiveness in this context, because I believe that forgiveness, when earned, represents that reparative process that allows the two parties to reconcile.   Rather than using the word forgiveness in this context, I prefer the term “letting go.”  Namely, we are willing to let go of the wrong committed against us, because we choose not to let the experience and the pain have control over our lives.  By letting go, we don’t forgive, but we also don’t allow the wrongdoer to have control over us; we take away their power.  Forgiveness, on the other hand, is a possible outcome that helps repair our relationship and can only be accomplished when the wrongdoer initiates the repentant process. 

            Although interconnected, repentance and forgiveness are two separate paths taken by the parties involved in the incident; each path has a life of its own.  Sometimes they are both achieved, but other times they are not.   What is clear, is that, the penitent’s process of repentance does influence the ability to achieve forgiveness from the person that has been wronged.



            What is repentance?

A major part of repentance seems obvious, it is present in the apology offered by the wrongdoer.  Apologies are at the heart of repentance because they ideally reflect the sincerity of the individual.  But sincerity is not always easy to determine because it is an inner emotion that we can only be judged by external symptoms.  We have seen some doozies of public apologies in the last year.  Was Kevin Spacey’s apology sincere?  What about Roseanne Barr? Matt Lauer?  Bill O’Reilly?  Notice that in our politically charged culture I had to give examples of people from the left and the right, otherwise many of you would have required repentance of me.

How do we know when an apology is acceptable?

Judaism provides a simple alliteration of what is called by some as the 5 R’s of Repentance- what we call teshuvah:

  1. Recognize you did something wrong
  2. Remorse– own up to what you did and feel remorse
  3. Repentance– Demonstrate repentance for what you have done with a sincere apology
  4. Restitution– provide compensation if necessary for the damage you have created.
  5. Resolve never to do it again



            I think we would all agree that true repentance requires sincerity.  For forgiveness even to be possible, the wrongdoer must be sincere in the acknowledgement and in the apology. 

From the perspective of the penitent, the five steps are all necessary.  First, of course, he or she must recognize that they committed the act.   This may sound simple, but just look at the many people who refuse to acknowledge the wrongs that they have committed.  In the minds of these people if you don’t acknowledge it, you are not guilty.  Acknowledging the wrong often takes an act of courage, because then you have to deal with the consequences.  Being able to own up to the possibility that we did something wrong requires an introspection and willingness to face up to the consequences that not everyone is willing to do. 

How can we tell if the person is truly remorseful?  How can we truly know if they are sincere?

Usually it is through the unequivocal acceptance of blame for what they did.  The difference between, “I’m sorry if you felt hurt when I….”, and, “What I did was wrong and I feel awful that it caused you pain” are worlds apart.  The first expresses regret only for the hurt caused and doesn’t acknowledge the wrongful act.  

A press release from an actor that acknowledges that he “is taking the time necessary to seek evaluation and treatment and no other information is available at this time” is not an apology. 

A statement that “I am entering a rehabilitation program and therefore request privacy” is not an apology.

The first three “R’s”- recognize, remorse and repentance- the apology, are essential to forgiveness, but unfortunately many people believe this is the end of the process rather than just the beginning. 

The process of getting to a sincere apology is often difficult.  It requires a spouse to be honest about the times in which he or she yells at or embarrasses a partner.  We often feel that our actions are warranted.  The other person made us act this way.  If he just wasn’t so obstinate and having to be right all the time.  If she just could be more understanding of when I’m in a bad mood, then I wouldn’t yell at her. 

The first 3 “R’s” are supposed to get us to a sincere apology, but there are many people, who believe that just by uttering the words, “I’m sorry” that the situation has been corrected and forgiveness should be forthcoming.  In truth, the words “I’m sorry” are only words unless they are backed by action.  Repentance can only be completed through acting upon the next two “R’s.” 



            The fourth stage of restitution is often thought of as having to do with compensating someone financially for any damages you caused them.  If you stole from them you must repay them.  If you hit someone’s car and didn’t tell them, repentance must include paying them for the damage. 

            But I want you to think about restitution in a larger category.  Namely, that restitution refers to repairing the damage done.  How about that, another ‘R’, repairing.  If you have damaged someone’s reputation you have to figure out how to try and repair it.  If you have damaged a relationship between two people, you have to work to repair it.  The journey for repentance must include actions, whenever possible, that help to repair the situation in ways that words cannot. 



The fifth ‘R’- resolving not to do it again, is something that many people do, but don’t live up to.  They promise not to yell again.  They promise not to cheat again.  They promise to be patient next time…but they just can’t change.  Resolving not to do something again, must be backed up with actions that help the individual change.  In fact, according to Maimonides, repentance is actually not complete until the wrongdoer is in the same position of doing the same thing wrong and this time gets it right.  For Maimonides repentance is only possible when we have truly changed.   For many of our wrong doings, we might be able to demonstrate rather quickly that we have changed, but for more egregious acts, it will take longer.  This final stage of repentance is not demonstrating to others that we have changed, but rather demonstrating to ourselves.  It is about living a repentant life.  A life dedicated to making right the wrong we have committed. 



            If a person follows the steps of repentance, do we have to forgive the individual?

            Some of you might know that the rabbis mandated that we grant forgiveness after someone makes a sincere request of us 3 times.  The rabbis established a very clear ritual of the penitent taking 3 witnesses with him or her to ask forgiveness of the person wronged. If after the first and second rejections, the penitent comes back a third time with a sincere apology, according to Jewish tradition if forgiveness is not granted, then the penitent is considered to have been forgiven anyway.  Some rabbis even suggested that the person who has been wronged has committed a sin in not forgiving the wrongdoer. 

On a lighter note, according to Maimonides, if the person you wronged was your rabbi you must ask for forgiveness forever, not just 3 times.

            I have studied this obligation of requesting forgiveness three times and always assumed that it was to test the sincerity of the penitent.  If it is difficult to ask for forgiveness once, how much courage and humility does it take to ask three times?  But I have come to accept another element to this process.  Namely, that forgiveness takes time.  Getting past the anger and pain of being wronged takes time and perhaps the thrice-repeated request for forgiveness, is simply a way for the person was wronged to have the time to process and get through the anger and pain.  Perhaps, in between the apologies, the person who was wronged sees the wrongdoer acting differently.  I love this idea, that the rabbis are allowing us time to go throw the process of forgiveness.  Sincere forgiveness requires time, just as sincere repentance does. 

By the way, sometimes forgiveness just isn’t possible.  I have had many people in my office who have been hurt so badly that they were not able to forgive the other person.  Sometimes it is the abuse suffered at the hands of a parent.  Sometimes it is the dishonesty of a spouse.  The closer the relationship, the greater the hurt; the greater the hurt, the harder to forgive.

More than letting the wrongdoer off the hook, forgiveness sets us free.  We acknowledge the world can’t go back to the way it was, but it can continue on.  The energy we once used to hold on to the resentment and anger can now be applied to positive directions in our lives.  We all have a finite amount of energy, how much of yours is spent holding on to a grudge?  Forgiveness takes courage, but it is also so liberating.



            So, back to my original question, “how long does forgiveness take?”. 

            It is clear that forgiveness is influenced by the sincerity and penitential path of the wrongdoer.  It also clear that forgiveness can only be given by the person wronged.  Therefore, the question really is, “how long do we hold the offender accountable?”. 

In truth, there is no objective timeline.   It is a complex formula related to the severity of the wrong committed, the sincerity of repentance and the ability of the person wronged to get over the pain. What is clear is that an apology followed by a stint in rehab should not be considered as a formula for immediate forgiveness.  The penitent and the person wronged must both travel their own journey and sometimes those paths don’t intersect when we would expect. Sometimes a penitent deserves to be forgiven before the aggrieved party is able to do so.  Sometimes the pain is just too great.  The closer the relationship and the greater the violation, the greater the pain.

I have had many people in my office who just can’t forgive the wrong committed by another person.  They are often able to let go of the anger.  They can even get past the pain that they suffered.  They just can’t interact with the other person, because their repentance does not seem sincere.  Forgiveness for me, means that the relationship is reset with new possibilities for growth.  It can never be the same, but with honesty and rebuilding the relationship can become strong again.  Never the same- we can’t undo the harm we have caused.  But it can be different, and sometimes different is what we have to accept.

            Today, in a world of text messaging, Amazon same day delivery and instant everything, people often expect instant forgiveness.  But as I have discussed, forgiveness requires a sincere process of repentance and that takes time.  We want to see that the person has taken the time to change his ways.  That, in fact, she is a changed person.  We want the wrong that he or she has committed to result in some good of a changed life.  That is often the price of our forgiveness; that our pain has resulted in another’s change.

            But what about our society?  Have we become too harsh in our judgement?  Too unforgiving of people being able to change?  Too punitive to allow for repentance?



A rabbinic midrash teaches that before God created our present world, God was about to create a world based only on absolute righteousness and judgement – a world without compassion.  But then God realized that this kind of world couldn’t exist very long. God then considered a world consisting only of compassion, with no judgement, but realized that that too would not be a viable world.  God then decided to create a world with both judgement and compassion and gave priority to the attribute of compassion.             

            Our world, our society can only exist when we allow for compassion.  This means believing that people have the capacity to change.  If we don’t believe that people can change, then these High Holy Days are a farce.  If we don’t believe that repentance is possible then why should we even try changing.  These Ten Days of Repentance are predicated on the idea that teshuvah, repentance is a possibility. 



Rabbi  Charles Klein explains in his book on Forgiveness, “We forgive, not because we believe that what was done was unimportant, but because we are prepared to put aside our anger long enough to hear words which reflect remorse, long enough to begin to believe that people have the potential to grow.”

Another rabbinic midrash states that even before God created the world, God created teshuvah.  Teshuvah has many meanings: on a most basic level, it means to “return”; on a more practical level, it means to regret our mistakes and to turn toward goodness. People make mistakes. Sometimes we even do things we know are not good for us.  Without the possibility of teshuvah our world would not be a worthy one; a society that does not allow for repentance and forgiveness is not a world that God imagined.

I believe that James Gunn should be forgiven.  Ten years is a long time to walk the repentant life.  We must hold people accountable and yet we must also provide a place to recognize that repentance is possible.  By giving forgiveness, when it is deserved, we demonstrate the very hope of humanity; that we have the ability to change, and in doing so, make the world a better place.

Is there somebody you need to ask forgive of?  Do you have the humility to ask that person for forgiveness?  And if there is work necessary to achieve that forgiveness are you ready to change and live a repentant life?  Initiating the process of forgiveness requires us to overcome our fear of beginning the process. 

These are the questions and the reality we confront on Rosh Hashannah.  The symbolic Book of Life is opened, our deeds and our misdeeds tell our story.  How do we deal with our misdeeds?  It is so easy to put them behind us, but only by confronting them can we become free of their shackles.  It takes a great act of courage to approach someone you have wronged to begin a personal journey of rehabilitation.  The paths of repentance and forgiveness can sometimes feel equally daunting.  They are not for the faint of heart.

            Let today, the first day of the Ten Days of Repentance be the beginning of your journey.  Do you need to begin a path of repentance for something you did?  Do you need to work on forgiveness of someone else?  May you have the courage to embark upon your necessary path and may this be a year of repentance and forgiveness for us all. 

The Big Questions – 2018 Yom Kippur Sermon

Posted on October 4, 2018


            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.



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.



            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.



            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.



            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.



            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 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.



            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? 



            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.



            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.