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Yom Kippur - 2006 / 5767 

09/01/2006 09:01:22 PM


Rabbi Howard Jaffe

You may recall that, for about seven years, from the late 70’s through the mid-80’s, that famous Jewish philosopher Woody Allen published a nationally syndicated comic strip. I recall one particular entry: it is set in a recurring venue, a college philosophy class in which Allen is one of the students. The professor declares, “In philosophy a good question is more important than a good answer.” One of the students asks, “What is a good question?” – to which the professor responds. “That is.” The student follows up by asking, “what is a good answer?”, to which the professor responds, “this is”.

Woody Allen may be Jewish, and his professor, for all we know, may have been Jewish, but her answer was anything but Jewish. Judaism teaches that good questions lead to better questions. You know the old joke: someone asks a Jewish friend “why do Jews always answer a question with a question?” – and the Jew responds, “Why not?”. There is an old Yiddish folk saying that captures the Jewish attitude towards questions: No one ever died from a question. Foon ah kasha ken mir nicht shtarben."

Judaism expects us to ask questions. God expects us to ask questions. And God expects us to come up with meaningful answers, no matter what the question. There is a famous story in the Midrash: A heathen once asked R. Joshua b. Karhah: Why did God choose a thorn-bush from which to speak to Moses? He replied: Were it a carob tree or a sycamore tree, you would have asked the same question; but to dismiss you without any reply is not right, so I will tell you why. To teach you that no place is devoid of God's presence, not even a thorn-bush., not even a thorn bush (Shemot Rabbah II:5).

No place is devoid of God’s presence, and so, Rabbi Joshua teaches us, no question is without the potential for revealing truth.

Perhaps that is why Judaism has elevated the art of questioning to the status of holiness, and enshrined questions in our holiest books and our holiest moments. We teach our children our children to ask from the youngest age. Next to the Shma, what is the piece of Jewish text we expect every Jewish child to learn? The Four Questions. The Talmud has thirty different words for “question”. In fact, I did a quick search of the Talmud the other day (it is good to live in the Digital Age). In the standard English translation, the word “question” appears 3,216 times, the word answer less than half as many. Perhaps this is to teach us that there are some questions to which there are no ready answers. And perhaps it is to teach us that there are two different kinds of questions: the kind that others can answer for us, and the kind that we must answer for ourselves.

As a rabbi, I get asked a lot of questions, especially the kind that I can answer for others. They are all questions about the right Jewish thing to do. And they all derive from the same underlying question: What is the right thing to do? What does God want me to do?”

And that makes these questions holy.

I can answer most of them without having to consult any sources:

“Is it alright to name my child after the same grandparent as his cousin?”

“Are string beans kosher for Passover? “

“If I cannot make it for my mother’s yahrzeit next week, can her name be read the following week instead?”

I like that people ask these questions, because they reflect an awareness that there is a right thing to do, that there is a Jewish way of doing certain things, there is a choice that we believe God wants us to make. Sometimes people express embarrassment about not knowing the answers, and needing to ask in the first place. I always tell them the same thing: there is no shame in not knowing the answer, or even in not knowing enough to know what question to ask. The only shame would be in not caring enough to ask.

As I said, those kinds of questions are easy ones for me to answer. But every now and then, I get asked harder ones. These, too, all derive from the question, “What does God want me to do?”, but the answers require a little more consideration:

”I research Alzheimer’s disease, which requires live tissue, available only by harvesting from aborted fetuses. Is this acceptable in Judaism?”

“Is produce picked by underpaid migrant workers kosher?”

“Do I have to say kaddish for my father who abused me?

These are all real questions posed to me over the years. The answers, by the way, are: yes, such research is acceptable, with some caveats; no, such produce is not kosher; and no - despite the Jewish emphasis on honoring one’s parents, an abusive parent releases their child from the obligation to say Kaddish.

But let me tell you that none of these questions compare to the one a friend of mine was asked.

Five years ago, in mid September of 2001, my friend, Rabbi Jeff Salkin, then of a congregation in the New York area, was on his way to visit someone in the hospital when a woman stopped him in the corridor of the synagogue. She said, "Rabbi, I have a question." He answered, "Yes, what is it? But please, make it quick if you can, I’m already late."

This is what she said: "Rabbi, I live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and my windows are covered with the grime that has drifted uptown since ‘you know what’ happened. I need to clean my windows, but I am afraid there may be remains of the dead in that dust. If there are, it doesn’t seem right to just have the windows cleaned. What should I do?"

The question stopped him in his tracks.

Knowing that this question was much too serious to quickly brush off, Rabbi Salkin stopped and thought, and then he gave her an answer. He didn’t have time to look the answer up in the books, so he gave her the answer off the top of his head. It was brilliant.

"You’re right, you shouldn’t just clean the windows as if it were any other time — this is what you have to do. Take some paper towels and warm water and carefully wipe the windows clean, as clean as you can. Then carefully put the towels into an envelope and take them to a Jewish funeral home. Tell them what they are and ask them to bury them the next time they have a funeral."

The woman nodded, thanked him, and that is precisely what she did.

She knew, somehow she knew, there was a Jewish answer out there. She knew that even in this incomparable and unprecedented situation, there was a choice to make, a blessing to choose, a way to sanctify life, to choose life. And whether it was serendipity or providence, she encountered someone who had an answer.

Rabbis also get the other kinds of questions, the kinds that no one can answer for anyone else, the kinds for which there is not only no easy answer, but no definitive one. We get these, for the same reason we get the other kind – the sense that there is a right answer, a Jewish answer out there, an answer to the question, “what does God want me to do?”. How do I choose blessing – how do I choose life? How can I find holiness in this situation?”

Here are a few examples:

My son’s father left us when he was seven. He’s had minimal contact with either of us until about a year ago, when he announced that he wanted to re-establish a connection. He has seen my son about once a month since then, for few hours at a time. What role should he have in my son’s bar-mitzvah next month?

My mother has to make a decision about a surgery that will relieve some ongoing pain and possibly extend her life if it is successful, but she may not survive it. She wants me to help her make the decision. What should she do?

Rabbi, should I terminate this unplanned pregnancy? I have two healthy children, finances are tight, and my marriage is on thin ice.

I can tell them what Judaism would permit, but not what it would prescribe.

Once a decision is made, one the die is cast, there is no way of knowing which decision would have turned out for the better. Even after the fact, we can look back and judge only the outcome that we saw, and speculate about the outcome that might have been. The process- the struggle – asking the question, “what is the right thing to do?” – “what does God want?” -- that is THE Jewish question.

In case you are wondering:

The man who showed up in his son’s life months before the Bar-Mitzvah sat in the second row of the congregation and did not participate in the service, according to his son’s wishes. He did not attend the reception after the service, but had a small luncheon with his son and some of the extended family the next day. A few months later, the father all but disappeared from his son’s life again.

The elderly mother had the surgery. It was deemed a success, but she died a few months later from apparently unrelated causes.

The pregnant woman decided to have the child. Her marriage lasted another six or seven years, as they struggled to make it work. Neither of the parents and none of the kids came out unscathed.

We are always left with the question that cannot be answered: What if …......? And you know what? It’s a good question to ask. We can never know for sure what the best answer would have been, or if there was such a thing. The answer, then, cannot be where holiness lies. It is in asking the question in the first place that determines holiness. When we know that the search holiness was our standard, we can be resolved even if we are not certain, secure without being smug, and be comfortable without being complacent.

That is what it means when the Torah says, “choose life”: make the best decision you can make – a decision that affirms life – no matter how challenging it is.

Today is called Yom Ha-din, judgment day – but it’s really more of a moot court than an actual one. For all of the imagery we use, the purpose of today’s court is to teach us how to do it better. Today is the day we judge ourselves as God would judge us. So take a moment, and think about the hard questions of your life.

Now, here is what it says in the Talmud about the actual judgment day. Try applying it to the big questions you have had to answer:

“Raba said: When a person is led in for Judgment that person is asked, “Did you deal faithfully, with integrity? Did you fix times for learning? Did you engage in procreation? Did you anticipate salvation? Did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom, did you distinguish one thing from another?” (Shabbat 31a)

Did you deal faithfully, with integrity -- or were you more concerned with the burden and the cost than you were with doing the right thing?

Did you fix times for learning -- Were you sufficiently versed in what Judaism teaches to be guided by our tradition? If not, did you make an effort to consult with someone who could help, or learn more about the matter?

Did you engage in procreation – would your decision make the world richer or poorer?

Did you anticipate salvation – did you believe that your decision would move the world forward? Did you believe that God would be pleased by your choice?

Did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom --- Did you examine every angle? Did you really think through the consequences?

Did you distinguish one thing from the other -- Did you avoid rationalizing?

By telling us that these are the questions we will be asked at the time of judgment, Raba is asking us, across the generations: are you prepared to ask yourself these questions every day, and not just when you are facing your own crisis? Will you seek out the holiness that is everywhere?

Or will you just wipe your windows clean?

Even our Torah portion for this day asks us the question, though to be honest, it was not until a few days ago that I even realized it was there.

We usually read it this way:

“ I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day that I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse; choose life, that you and your descendants may live – by loving your God, listening to God’s voice, and holding fast to the One who is the length of your days.”

But Hebrew being the language it is, and there being no punctuation in the Torah, we can just as well read the phrase, “u’vacharta ba-chayim” – “choose life” – as an interrogative, just by inflecting differently:

“U’va-charta ba-chayim? Did you choose life?

Cast that way, our passage reads: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day that I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse; did you choose life, that you and your descendants may live - by loving your God, listening to God’s voice, and holding fast to the One who is the length of your days?”

Hashiveinu, Adonai, eilecha v’nashuva – Turn us, O God, and we will return to you.

Sat, January 16 2021 3 Sh'vat 5781