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.

A few weeks ago our son Micah couldn’t sleep. So after a fitful hour of tossing and turning, he finally came downstairs and lay down on the sofa. And of course he was asleep within seconds. Half an hour later I picked him up to carry him back upstairs to his bed. At 7 years old, Micah is reaching the point where I can no longer comfortably carry him. (Okay, I couldn’t really do it comfortably at 6 either.) But, perhaps sensing precisely that this was likely one of my last opportunities to carry the sleeping child who for the last seven years has been my youngest, I made an extra effort to carry him instead of asking him to walk up on his own. We made it to the top of the stairs, and I put him in his bed.

There is something about sleeping children: we look at them and see innocence, we pick them up and feel protective and intimate. I remember moments when my children were younger, holding them in a rocking chair, willing myself to remember the feeling of the moment, sensing just how ephemeral it was. To hold a child, to carry a sleeping toddler to bed, is one of the great tender moments of life, overflowing with a feeling of generosity. We sense the holy in such moments.

I find myself thinking about children, and about carrying, on this Yom Kippur.

When we think of children and holidays, we usually think of Pesach. Of course, Pesach is a child-centered holiday, with its games and questions, its special foods and many meals. The youngest child asks the Four Questions; the cleverest child negotiates the best deal for returning the afikomen. Many a Jewish parent has carried a sleeping child from the couch to the bedroom at the end of the seder.

Not so Yom Kippur. Unlike Pesach, Yom Kippur is a quintessentially non-child-centered holiday. Parents of young children are challenged to figure out what to do with their kids on Yom Kippur, because Yom Kippur is made for adults: there is no meal, there are no stories, no games, no question-and-answer. Even when the grownups aren’t in shul, fasting makes them low-energy and not particularly available to children. Likewise the substance of Yom Kippur is for grownups. The concept of teshuva is a hard one for children to engage. To think about teshuva requires a long view, an ability to be self-reflective, to take in the scope of one’s actions in the past year, and to judge oneself. While children can grasp the idea of being sorry and granting forgiveness, the fullness of the idea of teshuva isn’t something to expect of a 7-year old.

Yet on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur our metaphors are frequently parental: k’rachem av al banim, ken terachem aleinu: As a father has mercy on his children, so may You have mercy on us. Or the many times we say avinu malkeinu, our father, our king. Or consider Rabbi Akiva’s famous words at the end of the Mishnah in Yoma: “Who purifies you? Your father in heaven!” This is language unique to the High Holidays. At Pesach we refer to Hashem as God, and ourselves as God’s servants. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, alongside the image of God as king and ruler, we evoke a different relationship, that of parent and child.

The language of carrying is also central on these days. In our selichot we repeatedly refer to God the way God describes Godself: nosei avon, the one who carries sin. We draw this language from two accounts in the Torah: God’s forgiveness after the sin of the Golden Calf, and God’s second act of forgiveness after the sin of the spies. In both instances, God refers to Godself as the one who carries sin.

The language of carrying is also evoked in the verse from Micah that we read in our Haftarah Yom Kippur afternoon, and in the central sacrificial act of Yom Kippur, the confession of Israel’s sins on the head of the se’ir l’azazel, the scapegoat: “The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place.”

The midrash reminds us of the earliest episode when this language is used. It comes in the story of Cain. Just after Cain has killed his brother Hevel, God famously asks him, “Where is Hevel your brother?” And Cain responds, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God tells Cain that his brother’s blood is crying out from the earth, and condemns Cain to be a wander, na v’nad, in the midst of the earth.

But, says the midrash, Cain prays.

Rabbi Eliezer said: See how great is the power of prayer. If it cannot transform everything, it at least transforms half. Cain stood over Hevel his brother and killed him. The decree went out against him: “Na v’nad, a wanderer you will be in the earth.” Immediately Cain stood and confessed before the Holy Blessed One, saying, “My sin is too great to carry.” He said, Master of the Universe, you carry the entire world, but my sin you will not carry? Did you not write, “Who bears sin and passes over wrongdoing?”  Forgive my sin, for it is great! Immediately he found mercy before the Holy Blessed One, who took away the Na part of the decree, for it is written, “And he lived in the land of Nod.” From here you learn how great is prayer before the Holy Blessed One. (Deut. Rabba 8:1)

Cain’s plaintive words in this midrash are striking. Helpless, overcome, he cries out to God: My sin is too great to bear. The burden is too heavy. I can’t carry it. And then he reminds God that God is the ultimate carrier: the one who is sovel, who bears the burdens of the world; the one who is nosei avon, who carries sin away. Cain does not ask God to carry him: just the opposite, Cain will have to carry himself. But God agrees to carry his sin, to lessen the severity of the decree. Cain will not have to carry the burden of both his own life and the sin he has committed. God grants forgiveness, God carries away Cain’s sin, and his burden is eased.

This is an adult moment. Cain’s forgiveness does not mean he recovers his childlike innocence. The very next verse of the story tells us as much: “And Cain knew his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Hanoch.” Immediately after his forgiveness, Cain finds a place to live, the land of Nod, and engages in the most basic definition of biological maturity, reproduction. He then has a son whose name signifies education. Cain does not become a child again. He becomes an adult, doing adult things, taking adult responsibilities. He finds a place to live. He has a child. He teaches his child. In just a few verses, Cain transforms from the teenager who kills his brother and shirks responsibility into a responsible adult who has children and educates them.

Yet the touchstone for this assumption of adulthood is an ironic twist. In order to become a fully responsible adult, Cain has to first surrender himself to God. He has to let go of the power he thinks he has–the power he has just proven, the power to kill–and acknowledge that in the presence of God, in the presence of ultimate conscience, ultimate judgment, he is powerless. In surrendering his power, Cain in effect becomes a small child again: the small child who is powerless, who is utterly dependent. The small child who cannot fight off sleep. The small child who needs us to carry him. This powerless small child is precisely the being that evokes our sympathy, our rachmanus, our tender love.

Cain is not a child, and his moment of returning to a child’s state is not permanent, but temporary. Through this moment of throwing himself on God’s mercy, of acknowledging his powerlessness, Cain is transformed. He is forgiven. He is redeemed. He grows up. By allowing God to carry his sin, and by begging God to carry it, Cain becomes capable of carrying himself.

There’s a famous Christian poem about a person having a dream of walking on the beach, looking back on the footprints of the journey. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, those of God and the person walking. Sometimes there were only one. As the poem famously puts it, “During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

I think we too easily resist this kind of language in Judaism. We’re more fond of intellectual arguments and text-heavy formulations of symbolism and signification. In the Modern Orthodox community, in particular, we tend to over-intellectualize the experience of the High Holidays. In doing so, we too often miss the core experience, the basic move that this time is about. It is about allowing ourselves to be carried.

Yom Kippur is about enabling God to forgive us of our sins, those accretions that build up in our adult lives of power. To be an adult is to be a bar da’at, one who knows. The old maxim goes that knowledge is power, but it is not simply an aphorism. To know is to be powerful. That’s what it means to be an adult, to have agency and to exercise it. But as the story of Cain poignantly illustrates, our knowledge, our power, the very thing that makes us tzelem elokim, can be used to dominate, to control, even to kill. That is the inherent dilemma of power. The corruptions that knowledge and power engender, those are our sins.

The great possibility of teshuva on Yom Kippur is to acknowledge those corruptions, and then to allow God to carry them away. It is about returning, for a moment, to being a child–not with a child’s innocence, but with a child’s capacity for surrendering. It is about giving up our da’at for a moment, liberating ourselves from the false trappings of our knowledge and power, and allowing ourselves to be ultimately powerless–on this day, this Shabbat shabbaton.

The other night, I took Micah and Jonah to their first night baseball game. Jonah caught a foul ball. The Tigers held off the White Sox. We stayed until the end. When we got home after 11 p.m., Micah threw himself on the couch and began to fall asleep. This time I looked at him and knew that I couldn’t carry him. He’s too big now, and I’m no weightlifter. I had to rouse him and help him walk up the stairs on his own two feet.

As we experience this Yom Kippur, I pray that we can all find the emotional and spiritual place where we can let ourselves be carried. Where we can stop being adults so fearful of losing power, and remember what it is to be a child who trusts in her parents to carry her.
Gemar chatima tova.

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.


Do not see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep straying and ignore it; rather, be sure to return it to its owner. If he does not live near you or if you do not know who owns it, take it home with you and keep it until he comes looking for it. Then give it back. Do the same if you find his donkey or his cloak or anything else he has lost. Do not ignore it. (Deut. 22:1-3)

The Talmud offers several important comments on this passage from Parshat Ki Tetzei, which elaborate the ethical issues involved in returning lost objects. While it seems simple on the surface, complexity lies just beneath. What happens, for instance, if the person who comes looking for the lost object is actually lying–he doesn’t really own it? Thus the Talmud understands the phrase ad drosh akhicha, until he comes looking for it, to mean: do not return it until you examine him to ascertain whether he really is the owner of the object, or whether he is pretending.

And what happens if the process of returning the object will create serious problems: Does a kohein, who is prohibited from entering a cemetery, need to enter the cemetery so for the sake of returning a lost object? Does a dignified elder have to get sweaty and dirty and stoop below his station in order to return an object to its owner? (The Talmud answers no in both cases, based on the repetition of “Do not see” and “do not ignore” in the first clause.) And what if the owner keeps losing the object, and you keep returning it to him? How long does this pattern need to continue? The repetition of hashev tishivem, you shall surely return it, is understood to mean that if you return it, and he loses it, and you return it again and he loses it again, you are obligated to continue returning “even a hundred times.” (All of this discussion takes place in Bava Metzia 30a-b.)

Returning lost objects happens on the level of gashmiut, the practical and physical realities of life. But it can also be understood on the level of ruchniyut, the  psychological and spiritual realm, as well. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) offers a rich reading of this passage in this direction:

Know that one must travel to the tzaddik to seek that which one has lost.

For before a person comes into the world, they are taught and shown everything that they need to create and labor and achieve in this world. And once they are out in this world, it is all forgotten from them, as our Rabbis teach (Babylonian Talmud Niddah 30b). And this forgetting is the lost object, just as our Rabbis called the person who forgets “someone who has lost,” as they say, “Quick to hear—quick to lose” (Pirkei Avot 5).

One must return and seek his or her lost object. The lost object is with the tzaddik, because the tzaddik searches for his own lost object until he finds it, and after he finds it, he returns and searches for the lost objects of others until he finds their losses, until he finds the lost objects of the entire world. Therefore, one must come to the wise person to seek, and to recognize, one’s lost object, and to receive it again from him.

But the tzaddik does not return the lost object to its owner until he examines whether or not they are a liar or deceiver, as it is written in the Talmud about the verse “until they come looking for it, then give it back” – “until you examine your brother to know that he is not cheating.” (Likkutei Moharan I:188–My thanks to friend and colleague Rabbi Mishael Zion for introducing me to this text.)

Rebbe Nachman uncovers another layer of meaning in these verses. When the Torah speaks of lost objects, it does not only mean the physical lost object–it can also mean things that are missing from our souls. In this reading, the mitzvah of returning a lost object to a person is to be understood not only as returning their garment or their animal, but returning part of them to themselves–a part they lost when they were born. This is the function of the tzaddik for Rebbe Nachman: to help the person recover the part of themselves that they have lost. Like the custodian of the lost object in the plain sense of the verses, the tzaddik must inquire, investigate, and uncover whether the person is really the owner of the lost object–that is, he must help the one who has lost to know what it is he has lost, and whether what he seeks is really what he needs. He has to determine–and help the seeker to determine–what it is he truly seeks.

In reading the ethically-focused Talmud and the spiritually-focused Rebbe Nachman, we might be tempted to see them as separate teachings: one focuses on the physical, the other on the spiritual; one seems to be the plain meaning of the text, the other a creative reading. But the two are really deeply linked. Our relationship with things is a function of how we relate to the world–to ourselves, to others, to creation, to the Creator. Ownership, of course, is not real: it is a fiction we weave and enforce by the consensus of law. What we do when we return a lost object is really the same as when we help a friend find a lost part of their soul: repairing a tear in the fabric of the world.

As we move through Elul and approach Rosh Hashanah, this teaching reminds us that teshuva, returning, happens on all levels. As we return the parts of ourselves we have lost, we must also help one another find our lost objects and become whole again.

Shabbat shalom.

The Talmud presents three stories about Hillel the Elder (Hillel Hazaken) and his counterpart, Shammai, and their interactions with converts. In each of the stories, Hillel is generous and welcoming, where Shammai shoos them away.

In the first of these stories, the would-be convert comes to Shammai and asks him “How many Torahs do you have?” Shammai tells him there are two: the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The convert tells Shammai he will convert to Judaism if he only needs to accept the Written Torah. Shammai “became furious with him and ejected him with a rebuke.” He then went to Hillel, who accepted him under the same conditions. Hillel began to teach him the Hebrew alphabet–aleph, bet, gimel, dalet, etc. The next day Hillel reversed the order, teaching the convert that dalet was first, gimel second, etc. The convert said to Hillel, “But yesterday you taught me the opposite!” Hillel responded: “Evidently you put your trust in me to teach you the alphabet. So trust me about the Oral Law as well.” (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31a)

We studied this story in our weekly staff Torah learning this morning. What stuck us as we read it was that Hillel is willing to establish a relationship, to build trust–faith–with the convert, and then to up the ante once trust is established. He is presented here as the consummate educator, the teacher who meets his student where the student is, and on the basis of a trusting relationship brings the student to greater knowledge and commitment.

Another story we studied this morning demonstrates a second aspect of trust: “One day Hillel the Elder was returning from a journey. As he approached his neighborhood he heard cries. He said, ‘I am confident that the cries do not come from my house.’ This is an illustration of the verse (Psalms 112:7), ‘He is not afraid of evil tidings, his heart is firm, he trusts in the Lord.'” (Avot d’Rebbe Natan 15:3)

Here Hillel is presented as someone with ultimate trust, or faith, in God. This can easily be mis-read as a kind of naive faith. I don’t think that’s what the text is trying to say. Hillel’s attitude towards life is calm and resilient; his first instinct is not to worry, but rather to firmly trust in the strength of his heart and the support of God.

Trust and faith thus figure prominently in both of these stories, as they do generally in the stories of Hillel. What makes Hillel such a compelling figure is his emunah, his faith. Not, as I stated earlier, a naive or blind faith, but rather a faith that leads him to act generously and graciously, to never lose his temper, to focus on the possibilities of human encounters rather than on their risks.

As we enter Shabbat Shuva and Yom Kippur, Hillel reminds us of the kind of person we aspire to be–patient, giving, and secure in his faith.

Shabbat shalom – Gemar chatima tova.

With Rosh Hashanah only a few days away, the Torah annually brings us the poetic words of Parshat Nitzavim on the Shabbat prior to the New Year. Central to this Torah portion is the idea of teshuva, return, which is also at the heart of the High Holiday season. “You will return your hearts to God,” says Moses. “You will return to the Lord your God and you will listen to His voice… you and your children, with all your heart and all your soul. Then the Lord will restore your fortunes and take you back in love.” (Deut. 30:1-3)

What, though, does this return really entail? What does it mean to return to God?

Returning implies that we have been here before. One cannot return to someplace one has never been. So when we say we are returning to God, we really imply that we have been with God before, and that we are restoring a relationship that once existed. This is an important Jewish idea, one which I learned from my teacher Rabbi Avi Weiss: While on Rosh Hashanah we commemorate the creation of the world, it is not a day of newness, it is not a day of firsts. Instead Rosh Hashanah is a day of seconds, a day of repeating, a day of returning.

In the story of Noah, the Torah relates (Gen. 8:13) that Noah left the ark on the first of the month. But it doesn’t specify which month. The commentators on the Talmud interpreted the Torah to mean that Noah left the ark on the first of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah. Why? Because Noah was engaging in the re-creation, the second creation, of the world. And the major difference between Noah’s experience and that of Adam and Eve is that Noah carried with him a memory of what had come before. Unlike Adam and Eve, who were placed on the earth, Noah and his family returned to the earth after a period of separation.

In our society, and especially in the university environment, we give honor and prestige to innovators, people who think of that which has never been thought, who “boldly go where no man has gone before.” And while this is important, it is precisely the opposite of the ethos of Rosh Hashanah and the value of teshuva. Returning means going back over our memories, reviewing our actions and our relationships, and reliving them so that we may repair them. It is not about leaving the past behind, but instead about repairing the past. That is the miraculous power and possibility of teshuva–that the past is not frozen, but is always in dialogue with the present and the future.

So when we say that between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are returning to God, what we mean is that we are opening ourselves up to another dimension. It is a dimension beyond time and space, in which past and future are an open book. In this divine dimension we can set right that which has gone wrong, and can re-experience the sense of wholeness and unconditional embrace that lies deep in our souls. As Moses says, “For it is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.” (Deut. 30:14) May we all find that place to return to this year.