I delivered this dvar Torah this past Shabbat at Kol Sasson congregation in Skokie, IL.

 

I. Stumbling On Big Questions

In 2005, four weeks after I received semikha, two weeks after our second son was born, my wife Natalie and I moved to Evanston. As the new rabbi at Northwestern Hillel, there were many things to do, many people to meet. But the biggest thing to do, programmatically anyway, was prepare for the High Holidays.

Like many campuses, Northwestern has an area where theater groups, political groups, fraternities and sororities hang big painted sheets to announce their upcoming events: “Party at Sig Ep Saturday night!” or “Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, Thursday to Sunday in Shanley.” So to publicize the High Holidays, I figured we could hang a painted sheet, something like, “Yom Kippur, Wednesday. Repent!”

But a funny thing happened on the way to Yom Kippur. We realized two things: First, we could afford to make something slightly nicer than a painted sheet. So we printed an 8-foot by 3-foot banner at Kinkos. Second, instead of making a statement, we could ask a question.

Statements and announcements, it seemed to me, could linger in the air and easily be ignored. A question, by contrast, enters into the mind. You can’t walk by a question, a good question, and ignore it with the same ease that you ignore a statement. The old TV ad is a perfect case in point. “It’s 10 pm: do you know where your children are?” is far more evocative than “It’s 10 pm. Make sure your kids are safe.”

So we made a banner that asked what we thought was the basic question of the High Holidays: What will you do better this year? Underneath we wrote, Experience the High Holidays, and we listed the website for Hillel.

It turned out that this banner, created in my first weeks as a rabbi on campus, would be the seed of a much larger project, one that has influenced my professional career and my approach to education, leadership, community, and spiritual life. A little over a year ago, I left Northwestern Hillel to lead the national development of Ask Big Questions, which this year will be active on over 20 campuses, training over 100 students in the skills of text-centered reflective community conversation, and reaching tens of thousands of people from various walks of life in-person, online, and in print.

As we journey through this Elul, I want to go back to that Elul seven years ago. Here we are again in Elul. Here we are again, preparing for the High Holidays. Here we are again, a full shemitta cycle later, with the chance to discover, or rediscover, some Big Questions.

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One of the striking features of the Book of Deuteronomy is the very fact of Moses’s speech: Eleh hadevarim asher diber Moshe, “These are the words that Moses spoke” (Deut. 1:1). What makes this striking is that Moses describes himself early on in Exodus as precisely not a man of words: lo ish devarim anochi, “I am not a man of words” (Ex. 4:10). Yet here we have an entire book of Moses’s words.

This leads us to ask: Are these really Moses’s words? What does the Torah mean by saying that they are his? The Sifrei, a midrashic collection on Deuteronomy, is sensitive to this. In virtually every instance where Moses introduces his remarks with the preface, “And I told you, saying,” the Sifrei comments, “I did not speak it of my own accord; rather it came from the mouth of God.” Perhaps the Sifrei means that God spoke through Moses. Or perhaps it means that the words Moses spoke were given to him by God. Or maybe it means that Moses thought of the words, and that God agreed with them. At the heart of the matter is the question: How do we know when God is speaking?

The midrash contains numerous reflections on the moment of revelation, many of which focus on the paradoxical nature of revelation: God speaks to the Israelites at once, and everyone hears the voice appropriate to them. “Here is how the Voice reached Israel: each according to his capacity to hear. The elderly heard according to their capacity, the young men according to theirs, the adolescents according to theirs, the children according to theirs, etc.” (Tanhuma 25). The Talmud interprets the verse, “Moses spoke and God answered him in a voice” to mean that God spoke to Moses in Moses’s own voice (Berachot 45a). All of which is helpful, but also confusing: How do we know when the voice we’re hearing is our own, and when it is the voice of God?

Since I landed in America from Israel on Wednesday morning, I have been helping to lead the training for our first cohort of AskBigQuestions fellows. In a few weeks, a total of 13 Hillel professionals will supervise 60 undergraduate fellows working on 13 campuses across North America as they convene diverse groups of people for conversations that matter. Later in the fall we will roll out a nationwide campaign to bring ABQ conversations to colleges and universities all over the continent.

The training has been exceptional. Our facilitators, Yarrow Durbin and Karen Ehrlichman of the Center for Courage and Renewal, have masterfully led this diverse group in developing our habits and skills of listening, creating space for diversity, and managing the reality and potential of paradox. The supervisors and fellows are learning how conversations about life’s big questions can build community, develop trust, and deepen connections among diverse groups of people.

At the heart of the work are some phenomenally difficult questions: How do we truly listen? How can a diverse group all share a sense of belonging? How do we speak our own personal truths while acknowledging that larger truths can exist?

Go back to the midrash: These are not new questions. As I told the fellows when we began, what we’re doing with AskBigQuestions is radically old. We are, to borrow a phrase, pouring old wine in new casks. We are doing what the Torah has invited and challenged us to do for 3,000 years: to create a home for one another, and to create a home for God in the world.

When Moses speaks, God talks through him. A question for us is: Can we listen to the voice of God in others and in ourselves?

Shabbat shalom.

AskBigQuestions, one of the creations of which I’m most proud, is talking about the question “What is the value of our education?” this week. An ironic image:

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