We don’t normally think of teshuva when we think of Pesach. We associate teshuva with Elul, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Pesach, by contrast, we associate with she’elot, questions. As the Mishnah says, v’kan ha-ben shoel et aviv, here the child asks his father. My Pesach preparation in the last few years has focused a lot on those questions—the kinds of questions we ask and the way we ask them. And I think many people take this opportunity to focus on the power of questioning: the way questions break down assumptions, open up possibilities, and thus reflect some basic ideas we have about freedom. To be free is to be able to question.

Answers: Reducing Anxiety

But this year I find myself thinking about answers, teshuvot. Answers are as complicated as questions. On one level, we think of answers as stopping that which questions start, as when a student solves the answer to a problem on her math homework. Answers like this can feel tremendously satisfying, because they reduce our anxiety. The moment of answering is a moment of stabilizing something that was previously unstable, closing a hole that was previously open.

On another level, just as answers can create islands in the waterways opened by questions, they are only oases—they demand further questions. Think of a chess match. White moves, and in so doing asks a question of black: What will you do now? Then black moves, and asks the same question of white. The players repeat this question-and-answer back and forth, and each answer becomes a question, each question an answer, until checkmate: the unanswerable question.

Both these models are evoked in Rabbi Elazar’s instruction in Pirkei Avot: Da mah lehashiv l’apikoros, Know how to answer a heretic (Avot  2:14). The heretic and the believer are not engaged in a dialogue in which they are both searching for something in common. The answer here is weapon, a sword to parry the thrust of the questioner—and the hole he could open by using it. It carries the satisfying sense of argumentation, where questions and answers score points on the way to a victory or defeat.

Question-and-answer as game is one kind of dialogue, most familiar to us as debate, or perhaps witty banter. Humor is also in this family. All of these variants of question-and-answer depend on the parties maintaining a certain distance, from which they can launch their arrows and raise their shields. If they draw too close, the questions-and-answer dialogue would take on a different form: not that of repartee or verbal duel, but of a more intimate conversation.

Question-and-Answer as Intimate Conversation

The goal of this more intimate variety is not to score points or keep the conversation going for the sake of the game, but to commune, to understand and be understood. This is a very different kind of question-and-answer. Here questions may not demand answers, but might simply linger. And answers may not stabilize an unstable situation, but rather seek to be heard and appreciated.

“If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it but hashev tashiv lo, be sure to take it back to its owner. If they do not live near you or if you do not know who owns it, take it home with you and keep it ad drosh achikha oto, until they come looking for it, v’hashevoto lo, then give it back. Do the same if you find their donkey or cloak or l’chol avedat achicha asher tovad mimenu,  anything else they have lost. Do not ignore it.” (Deuteronomy 22:1-3)

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov reads this passage to refer to the process of teshuva: We lose parts of our souls as we go through life, and the work of the righteous is to help restore, l’hashiv, those lost pieces of us to ourselves (or, our selves). The language of soul repair fits well with the spirit of the High Holidays. But it also informs our understanding of the she’ela u-teshuva of Pesach: in asking and answering, we are restoring parts of ourselves, and restoring parts of our interlocutors to themselves.

This is further reflected in the language of avedah, that which is lost. Arami oved avi, begins the central Torah text of the Haggadah (Deuteronomy 26). The Mishnah instructs us to expound, doresh, on this short history of the Jewish people’s journey to Egypt, their enslavement there, and their liberation by God. These first words are Rabbinically interpreted as either “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean,” in which case it refers to Jacob, or “An Aramean sought to destroy my ancestor,” in which case it refers to Laban. The language of oved is derived from the same root, ABD, as the word avedah, a lost object—or a lost part of the soul, in Rebbe Nachman’s expansive understanding. And according to the verse in Deuteronomy, the teshuva can only happen ad drosh achikha, when we demand it.

What Kind of Answers Do We Seek?

If a teshuva is not simply a move in a game, but rather the process of restoring the lost part of ourselves, that which makes us oved, wandering, then the questions and answers in which we engage on Seder night are not simply about satisfying curiosity about this or that rule, or the historical reason for this or that custom. Our process of she’ela u-teshuva is about something far deeper, something that emerges from our own derisha, what we demand of ourselves, our interlocutors, and the Torah. Through our question-and-answer, we recognize that each of us is also an oved, there is something out there for which we must search. And each of us is able to offer teshuva, to help recover the part of us that is missing. This happens through a process of derisha and midrash.

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. v’heshiv lev avot al banaim, v’lev banim al avotam: He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” These closing verses of the book of Malachi are the culmination of the haftarah for Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat immediately before Pesach. The teshuva of our seder conversation is this teshuva: not merely questions and answers about facts (as in the most common question: Is this kosher for Passover?), or questions and answers to score points (“Do you know how many times the Torah instructs us to remember we were slaves in Egypt? Let me show you what I know.”), but questions and answers that reflect and propel the relationship of parents and children, and of the ultimate Parent with all children. This is teshuva not merely as answer, but more as return, reply, response—evoking the sense of responsibility we have toward one another as members of the covenant. This the teshuva that Pesach demands of us.

Chag kasher v’sameach, and may we all be blessed with genuine she’elot u-teshuvot this Pesach.

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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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My business these days is questions. Big Questions, to be precise. At Ask Big Questions, we define a Big Question by two criteria: a) Everyone can answer it; b) It matters to everyone. We also say that because of these two criteria, Big Questions usually lead to sharing stories, rather than making statements.

Some folks like to claim that Ask Big Questions is inherently Jewish because “asking questions is Jewish.” And to this I usually respond, yes and no. Yes, Jewish intellectual tradition, and particularly the Talmud, is notorious for asking questions. But also no: after all, Socrates is probably the most famous question-asker in history.

There’s nothing inherently Jewish about asking questions. Human beings ask questions. But Jews have built a religious community out of asking questions. And in Parshat Bo, we find the seeds of perhaps the greatest institution in our religious tradition, the Passover seder.

When you enter the land which the LORD will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe this rite. And when your children say to you, ‘What does this rite mean to you?’ you shall say, ‘It is a Passover sacrifice to the LORD who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes.’” (Ex. 12:25-27)

The Passover seder is built on questions, questions that lead to stories. The mitzvah of the night is sipur yetziat mitzrayim, to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. And yet the story is not prescribed. Rather, in the words of Rabban Gamaliel, “in every generation each person is obligated to see him/herself as if s/he had personally left Egypt.” The story of Passover is to be told and retold, recreated anew every time by every person. The role of the question in this story-oriented view of the seder is to open up space, to usher the individual into an imaginative world in which their own story meets up with, partakes of, and contributes to the story of the Jewish people. Questioning here leads to identification, identity, continuity.

Yet this is a different understanding of what questions can do than we often think of. In much traditional modern discourse, the power of questions lies not in their potential for continuity, but in the fact that they cause discontinuity. In this line of thinking, to question is to not accept things as they are. It is the beginning of doubt. This is the kind of questioning we associate with the phrase, “Question authority.”

Interestingly, both of these forms of questioning are associated with the idea of freedom. In the latter, questioning leads to freedom from, or negative liberty. In the former, questioning leads to freedom for, or positive liberty. Not all questions are equal, just as not all types of freedom are the same. The power of question to unite or divide depends on its content and context.

The midrash Mechilta reads the verse we quoted above as follows: “At that moment, bad news was brought to the Israelites: that the Torah would be forgotten. Some say that good news was brought to them: that they would have children and children’s children!” (Mechilta Bo 12) As Avivah Zornberg writes on this passage, “The bittersweet nature of questions has to do with forgetting and the desire to know. Without forgetting, there would be no questions. Is this – the inevitability of forgetting – bad news? Or is it good news, implying the constant rebirth of narratives, responses to the questions of those in whom distance and forgetting create desire? The issue is not decided, as so many true questions are not decided” (The Particulars of Rapture, 181).

What does it mean to be free? Is it freedom to control our own destiny? Is it freedom to be able to wholly commit ourselves to something larger? How do we answer these questions for ourselves, and how do we answer them for our children while also allowing them to find their own answers? These are the Big Questions of education, of the seder, and of life.

Shabbat shalom.

 

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.

We’ve had a house guest with us the last few days, a fellow named Josh Stanton. Josh is a rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College, and is the editor and founder of the Journal of Interreligious Dialogue. He and I are both attending the Interfaith Youth Core’s conference, which is being held this week at Northwestern.

Josh contacted me a couple of months ago about staying with us, and I immediately said yes. We didn’t know each other, but I feel a sense of openness and responsibility towards rabbinic students, so there was no question in my mind about hosting him.

IMG_0066This isn’t a post about Josh, though (he’s a very nice and intelligent guy doing important work to improve the world). It’s actually a post about my kids.

This morning, Jonah and Micah were having breakfast, when Josh came upstairs from the guest room into the kitchen. Josh and the kids hadn’t met yet, so immediately Josh introduced himself. And what was amazing was that the kids engaged him–not just in the momentary, “My name is Jonah, My name is Micah” part, but for ten or fifteen minutes (which enabled me to get upstairs and get myself ready to take them to school). They had a long conversation. By the time we were ready to go, Jonah asked me, “Abba, can Josh come to school with us?”

Josh commented to me that we have very engaging kids. “When I was four,” he said, “if a stranger said hello, I’d probably run away.” I replied that our kids have grown up with a very open sense of home. Every week they ask if we’re having company for Shabbat, because they expect it. We frequently have guests in our home. And they also have a second home at Hillel. All of this leads them to be very comfortable meeting new people and engaging them. I suppose I’ve taken a lot of this for granted, but this encounter with Josh reminded me of this very special aspect of the work that I do–which spills over into our personal lives in a very significant way.

I frequently write and teach about my favorite of the Big Questions that are so central to my philosophy, namely, “Where do you feel at home?” And I often teach a piece of Jonathan Sacks’s The Dignity of Difference in relation to it:

What would faith be like? It would be like being secure in one’s home, yet moved by the beauty of foreign places, knowing that they are someone else’s home, not mine, but still part of the glory of the world that is ours. It would be like being fluent in English, yet thrilled by the rhythms and resonances of an Italian sonnet one only partially understands. It would be to know that I am a sentence in the story of my people and its faith, but that there are other stories, each written in the letters of lives bound together in community, each part of the story of stories that is the narrative of man’s search for God and God’s call to mankind. Those who are confident in their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faith of others. In the midst of our multiple insecurities, we need that confidence now. (p. 65)

I think this sums up the kind of people we’re trying to raise our kids–and our students–to be. I say this humbly, but if my kids are any indication, it looks like we’re doing something right.