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Rabbi Marc E. Berkson - Rosh Hashanah Eve - 2012/5773


Everything a Question with Us.  Why?
Rosh Hashanah Eve–5773

Remember the exchange I shared with you last year at this time?  Based on that immortal quote by American Revolutionary War General Artemus Ward: “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble.  It’s the things we know that just ain’t so,” I proceeded to talk about wrongology, the study of being wrong.  Taken from Kathryn Schultz, who has recently specialized in the field, this is what she overheard four years ago at Grand Central Station:

Man:  You said pound cake.
Woman:  I didn’t say pound cake.  I said crumb cake.
Man:  You said pound cake.
Woman:  Don’t tell me what I said.
Man:  You said pound cake.
Woman:  I said crumb cake.
Man:  I actually saw the crumb cake but I didn’t get it because you said pound cake.
Woman:  I said crumb cake.
Man:  Well, I heard pound cake.
Woman:  Then you obviously weren’t listening.  Crumb cake doesn’t even sound like pound cake.
Man:  Well, maybe you actually said pound cake.
Woman:  I said crumb cake.

Now, I would suggest to you that this is not a Jewish story—although, trust me, I have heard similar exchanges between Jews time and again, particularly this year in the political realm.  This is not a Jewish story because something is missing!  Any suggestions?  Think about it—each and every sentence is a declarative statement; not one of the sentences is a question.  So what is missing?  Question marks!

So let me share with you a Jewish story, this one a classic Jewish story told with a variety of names and with a changing menu of foods.  This version I will ascribe to Moshe Waldoks:

Two Jews are sitting silently over a glass of tea.
“You know,” says the first man, “life is like a glass of tea with sugar.”
“A glass of tea with sugar?” asks his friend.  “Why do you say that?”
“How should I know?” replies the first man.  “What am I, a philosopher?”

Or take another classic Jewish story.  “Rochel, it’s cold outside.  Could you please close the window?”  “So, if I close the window, will it be warm outside?”

Or the classic Jewish story in one word—Nu?

And, finally, two classic Jewish stories in American form.  “Dear Abby, Why do Jews always answer a question with a question?  Abby’s response:  “How should they answer?”  Or perhaps, best of all, let’s take it from Smith Magazine.  Many of you know that their editors took Hemingway’s famous short story of just six words written on a bet:  For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn and used it to encourage six-word memoirs.  Taking someone else’s for a six word sermon (which this clearly is not):  Everything a question with us.  Why?

The immediate response might be that we ask questions to get direct and concise answers.  I mean, why else would you ask a question?  We ask as we would ask Siri today or Jeeves yesterday or once explored the card catalogue or even tried to eke out an answer from the 8-ball. We want to know the answer.  Yet one look at a daf or page of Talmud leads in another direction.  The Mishnaic text sits close to the middle of the page and is followed by an extensive Gemara that begins to answer a question.  And the Gemara uses the question as a springboard to a conversation across generations, a conversation moving from question to question and, in the process, preserving both majority and minority opinions.  Yet more—for then the margins all around the Mishna and the Gemara are filled with the questions and thoughts of later commentators.  Is the Talmud trying to teach us that a direct and concise answer is nothing more than an invitation to stop thinking? 

Everything a question with us.  Why?  To make us think?  Maybe by asking questions we encourage our intellectual development.  Why else would we urge our children to start asking questions at the youngest ages?  Mah nishtanah ha-lilah ha-zeh?  Why is this night different?  Questions are required.  And the one unable to ask?   We teach that child how to ask.  At our festival of freedom, it is a clear sign to question authority. 

Or take this challenge presented to me years ago when I took my first class in Talmud at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati: 

 Two men were hired to clean a chimney.  Both of them were dressed totally in white.  In the process of cleaning, they both fell down the chimney.  One of them emerged totally black, covered with soot, while the other was spotless.  Which one went to wash and why?  The spotless one looked at the one covered with soot and so he assumed he, too, was covered with soot.  Thus he went to wash.  The other assumed himself clean.

The same two men, again dressed totally in white, were hired to clean a chimney.  Again, they fell down the chimney with one emerging covered in soot and the other spotless.  Which one went to wash himself this time and why?  Obviously, the one covered with soot; he already knew he had made a mistake once before.

A third time, the same two men, hired to clean a chimney.  The same mishap befell them again.  Which one went to wash and why?  Neither.  It is impossible for both to fall down a chimney with one coming out covered in soot and the other spotless…and, if such an occurrence were impossible once, how much the more so it would be impossible twice or thrice?!

Perhaps this is why one translation of bet midrash, a bes medresh, the traditional term for a Jewish house of study, would be a house of questions.  If you don’t ask a question, you don’t expose what you don’t know.  You may avoid embarrassment.  Yet a story is told of the great Rav Joseph Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University who began each of his classes in Talmud by inviting questions on the assigned text.    One morning, when no questions were forthcoming, he said, “No questions?  No class,” and walked out.  One of my teachers back in Chicago who was a law professor once told me that his best students were those who came from traditional Jewish backgrounds and had studied Talmud.  They had developed their intellects and knew how to ask questions.

Everything a question with us.  Why?  To develop our intellects?  Were questions asked before Talmudic discussions?  So who asked the first question?  Rabbi Schaalman taught us several times over the years on this day, the first question ever asked was, “Ayeka?”  Adam, having eaten from the tree and in hiding, hears the voice of God cry out, “Ayeka, Where are you?”  As if God did not already know the answer?  And then God asks question after question after question—“Who told you you were naked?  Did you eat of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?”  If God already knows and if God does not have to develop and train His or her own intellect, why does God ask?  Still, if an all-knowing God asks questions, how much the more so should we limited human beings?  This is what is called in Latin Imitatio Dei.  We ask questions because God asks questions—as we and God yearn for us to be like God!

Everything a question with us.  Why?  Just so we can ask questions?  So, to be like God, all I have to do is appear on Jeopardy?  So why am I here?  In Pirke Avot, that Mishnaic tractate of ethical maxims, we find these words:  “asei l’cha rav—get for yourself a teacher; k’nai l’cha chaver—acquire for yourself a friend.”  At least that is how I translated the words in my message for this month’s Ha-Kol—as I noted how blessed we have been to have Rabbi Schaalman as our teacher as he also became our friend.  Yet the Hebrew could also be understood as “Make of yourself a teacher.   How?  By learning with a friend.”  True Jewish learning is never done in solitude.  It is done with a study partner, in hevruta, with one who sits across from you.  You read the text aloud—and the questions begin.  Translation adds yet another level.  What does that word really mean?  Then, one might have to check to see what Rashi, the medieval Biblical commentator, has to say.  In time, other commentators like Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides and Maimonides will join the conversation.  For there is one more part to the Mishna—Make of yourself a teacher.  How?  By learning with a friend.  V’hevei dan et kol ha-adam l’chaf zechut—and judge everyone/everything in the pan of justice.  Learning with another sensitizes oneself.  You find yourself in his or her shoes and you learn to not only judge fairly but to understand and to love.  Learning by oneself is theory; learning with another transforms that theory into life. 

Questions are not asked just for quick answers.  A quick answer ends any conversation.  Posing questions to students is not just a method of teaching to equip us to go to Harvard Law and become editors of the law review.  And I have yet to see God appear with Alex Trebeck (let alone with Art Fleming, to show my age).  Everything a question with us.  Why?  As an invitation for engagement, for companionship, for relationship.  As an opportunity to change and, maybe, to heal the world.  The answers, you see, are in the questions.

My guess is that the argument between the man and the woman back at Grand Central four years ago continues today.  He still insists that she said pound cake and she still insists that she said crumb cake.  Such a lonely argument.  Not any engagement, surely limited companionship, probably a problematic relationship.  No questions—and no change.  Not a Jewish story.

In his fascinating book God Is Not One, Stephen Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University, provides guidance about the most powerful influence in the world, religion.  Examining eight of the world’s great religions (along with a passing glance at atheism), Prothero attempts to disabuse us Americans of our notion that most religions are simply different paths up to the same mountain top.   Each religion, he insists, attempts to resolve different human problems.  Three of the religions he examines are of the Western world—Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.  For Islam, he writes, the human problem is pride; the solution, then, is submission.  Submission, in fact, is the meaning of Islam.  And questions?  Surely not as we understand them.  As for Christianity, Prothero writes that the human problem is sin; the solution is clearly salvation.  God’s will will be done.  Question God?  I still remember the first time I taught a class at Wheaton College, the Harvard of the Evangelical world, and, using my Jewish language, said that God made mistakes—and learning very quickly how differently we understand the world.  Finally, in Judaism, the problem, Prothero writes, is exile; the solution is to return to God.

Our Biblical name, of course, is Yisrael.  That became Jacob’s new name after two decades in exile.  Jacob had grown, changed, and we enter the story as he returns home with his wives, his children, and his possessions, preparing to meet his brother Esau once again.  They come to a river and Jacob moves his family across ahead of him.  His is then alone—it seems—until he struggles.  The struggle can be seen at a simple level–Jacob wrestles with a man, perhaps someone who has come along to steal his property.  On a deeper lever, Jacob could perhaps be struggling with no one but himself, grappling with his past and emerging purified.  But our text, our story, our understanding indicate that Jacob wrestles with a divine being; an angel, maybe even with God.  In so doing both Jacob and God are changed.  Jacob (and we) become Yisrael, “one who struggles with or wrestles with God.”  We wrestle with God; God wrestles with us.  Wrestling.  As Rabbi Harold Kushner pointed out, “it is a unique combination of hugging and fighting.  Isn’t that what we do with all the truly important relationships in our lives?”

A year has passed; a new year begins.  We have all grown distant—from our spouses, from our children, from our parents, from our friends, from all those with whom we share this congregation.  Pound cake, crumb cake.  It can kill the relationship.  And, yes, we have grown distant from God.  Perhaps, in fact, such is the definition of sin–that which distances oneself from others and, thus, from God.  And the more we sin, the lonelier it gets.  And then God, who loves us, is lonely also.  It is not that God loves us less as we sin and grow more distant; it is, rather, that God misses us more.  That is why God asks questions.  And that is why, over these next days, we should all be asking questions.  Think of those you have harmed or wronged or hurt in some way.  Go to these people, your brothers and your sisters, ask questions. How did I hurt you?  How can I help you?  Can you forgive me?  Can I forgive you? Everything a question with us.  Why?  Lots of Jewish stories to tell.  To come closer to each other and to return to God.  In so doing, heal the world. 

Ken Yehi Ratzon

Oh, one more thing.  The shofar.  We will hear its sounds tomorrow.  Tonight, I just want you to look at it in its simplest form.  Take a look at it.  Nu, what does it looks like?  A question mark!  Let it remind you, as you hear its sounds, to open your mouths and ask questions.


Tue, June 18 2024 12 Sivan 5784