GOD'S FOUR QUESTIONS

GOD'S FOUR QUESTIONS
Yom Kippur 1993
by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

Ma Nishtana Ha-Laila Ha-Zeh, Mikol Ha-Leilot?

Why is tonight so different from all other nights?

On all our other festivals we come in joy, and tonight, the climax of our Yamim Noraim, our Days of Awe, we come in fear and trepidation.

On all our other festivals we come together, as families, as a community. Tonight, we come singly, as individuals ... one and one and one and one ... to stand singly before the judge of all life.

On all our other festival we bring children to share with them the stories, the history and the experience of our people. Tonight, there are no children here ... this isn't for children. This is for adults who have lived and struggled and suffered, and know what it is like to fail. Tonight, there is no story, there is no history to this holiday, no moment commemorated and celebrate. Tonight is all here and now: Hayom T'amtzemu, Hayom T'varchinu.

The philosopher, Franz Rosensweig taught that on Yom Kippur, we rehearse death. We don't eat. We recite Vidui, the confession. We forswear all the pleasures of life. We wear a Kittel, a simple white burial shroud. And we stand, lonely and naked before the throne of judgement. Were, God forbid, your life over tomorrow, what would you suddenly realize about yourself tonight? What would you regret, and what would you be proud of? How many dreams have been accomplished, and how many are left unfulfilled? And what are you waiting for?

All of what we do on this holiday: the services, the music, the confessions, the fasting, all of it has just one purpose: To give us the strength and the courage to open up, to look inside, to find the truth about our lives.

On this day, Rosensweig, we look at our lives through the eyes of eternity. This is a chilling thought: From the perspective of eternity, what do our lives amount to? what's real? what's important? what matters? what lasts? what counts?

In the Talmud there is a marvelous discussion: When you arrive in heaven, they rabbis wondered, what questions does God ask you?
What will God want to know?

This is not really a question about heaven; about eschatology or resurrection. It is a question about this life and the sources of immortality planted within this life. About living in the light of eternity.

Sh'bechal halaylot, On all our other festivals, we ask the questions; about matza and marror, about candles and heroes. Tonight, God asks questions of us. Tonight, God has four questions.

I. Kavaata Itim Latorah? Do you set aside time for learning Torah?

Torah is not a book, a scroll held the ark. Torah is a process: Torah is an eternal conversation among hundreds of generations of Jewish men and women, sharing their perceptions of life's meaning and purpose, of God's presence in their lives, of the lessons and message of life, of what they learned from life. When we study Torah, we join the process, we join the conversation.

Open any page of Talmud, and you understand Jewish immortality: Here is the Mishna, edited in 200 CE by Yehuda HaNasi in Israel, and here is Gemara, published in 500 CE in Babylonia, and here is Rashi from 12th Century France and the Tosafists, his grandchildren, 12th & 13th Century France and Germany; and from the other side of the world, Alfasi in 9th Century Morocco, Rambam, 11th Century Egypt, Joseph Karo, 16th Century, Eretz Yisrael, the Vilna Gaon, 18th Century Lithuania ... and on and on, until you get to the last page of my Talmud, where you find the are the notes of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (no relation) who lived in the Bronx up until his death three years ago... All debating how the ethics and teachings of the Torah find their way into life, about the meaning and purpose of life. To read them is to join the conversation.

My teacher, David Hartman, told a story: When he was a boy in Yeshiva, they came around collecting money for a celebration of the 750th Yarhtzeit of the Rambam. He looked up from his text, "He's dead? How can he be dead, we were arguing just this morning!"

There is a way to understand this conversation: Here is your homework assignment for after Yom Tov. I want you to write a letter to your children. Find a quiet moment and write to your children or your grandchildren, and tell them what you've learned from your life. What has life taught you? What have you learned from your education, from marriage/divorce, from working, from building a home, raising children, from the joys and the suffering and the struggles of life?

Confine yourself to a few pages because that will force you to realize what is really important.

I ask you to do this because, with the pace of life as it is, so few of us take the time to ask these question. I ask you to do this because so many of us forget to articulate these things to our children. And God forbid, anything should happen to you in the next year, your children deserve to know you, to share your deepest thoughts and to know what you learned from your lifetime.

And I ask you to do this, because, only having written this letter will you understand what we mean by Torah, only then will you understand why a text is held sacred by the generations. Write the letter. Keep in your safe-deposit box, or in the drawer under your socks. And look at it each year, before Yom Kippur.

Torah is the accumulation, the collection of all the letters written by our ancestors, to us. Here is their wisdom, taught to them by life's joys and struggles, and shared with us out of their love. This is how God communicates with us: through the life-wisdom of sensitive souls, through their poetry, their stories, their letters. Louis Finkelstein used to say that when he pray, he felt as if he were talking to God. And when he studied, he felt as if God were talking to him.

The biologist, Lewis Thomas writes about organisms -- from the tiniest microscopic life forms , through insects, and larger animals -- that form communities. We make an error, he argues, when we look at the individual as the basic life form. There is really no such things as "a bee" or "an ant". The social organization of these organisms is so vital to their survival, that we must consider the primary unit of life to be the community -- the hive, or the nest is the organism, not the individual. With Jews it is the same story. There is no such thing as "a Jew". Jews come with ancestors and descendants, and with community. We are, as the fundraisers remind us, we are one: across generations, across oceans, we are one; and what binds us together is our shared wisdom, our Torah.

To learn Torah, to have Torah, to share Torah is to find immortality. So God asks, Kavata Itim L'Torah, did you find time for Torah?

II. Second question: Asakta B'priya U'reviah? Do you devote yourself to family?

We leave ourselves in our children. But not just genetically. This holiday we talk about a Book of Life; a book in which all our deeds and thoughts, in public and in secret, are recorded and described. The Book is not in Heaven. And the Book is not a metaphor. The Book exists in the hearts and minds and memories of our children. They watch us. They know us. They remember: Every act of charity, of kindness, of love. Every moment of cruelty, indifference, of selfishness. They watch, they know, they remember.

"I can't be home, I have a meeting...
"I won't be able to make it, I have an appointment...
"This is really important, I hope you understand..."

Know for certain that we pay. For every missed bedtime story, for every missed ball game, for every missed opportunity to say I love you...we pay.

The Talmud is shrewd. It doesn't ask, Did you learn Torah? Did you study Torah? It asks, did you establish a time for study? Do you have control over your time, over your life? And if you don't, who does? Where does your time go?

The Talmud doesn't ask, Did you love your family? Did you provide for your children? It asks: Asakta, Is family your preoccupation (or your occupation)? Do you invest yourself in family?

It's a question of setting priorities, of making choices. Rabbi Harold Kushner once quipped that no one ever lay on his death bed wishing he had spent more time on his business.

I remember a beer commercial some years back that peaked into the life of the model family:

He's up a 4, checking the London Gold quote, then spends 16-hour days as a hard-driving executive, followed by a stimulating game of racquetball at the gym, a few beers with the fellows at the local pub, then home to a beautiful wife and above-average children, standing ready on an immaculately trimmed lawn.

She rises before dawn to fix a nutritious hot breakfast for her adoring family, does all the housework, then carpools the children to school, spends her days performing intricate brain surgery, picks up the kids from school, feeds them, bathes them, packs them off to bed, then changes her clothes and reapplies her make-up to be fresh and ready for a night of dining and dancing with her beaming husband ... and home in time to get 2 hours sleep before doing it all again. And over this exemplary family portrait booms the zippy soundtrack asking "Who says you can't have it all?"

Who says? Reality says!

This ad isn't just selling beer. It is selling a myth; the myth that we can have it all, without making choices: we can pursue our careers, and have all our dreams, our personal development, our professional fulfillment, our happiness, and at the same time, raise happy, well-adjusted children. Without ever facing a conflict, or bumping against the limits on our time, or our energy.

For a long time, the myth was called "Quality Time" -- as long as the time you spent together was really good time, it didn't matter how much time you spent. But it's a myth: What if you fed a child 100 calories a day...but really quality calories...what would happen? Your child will starve. And that's what happens when parents impose a strict diet of quality time on children. Children starve -- for love, for attention, for limits, for guidance, they starve.

Of course, you can have a career and have wonderful children. Of course, you can pursue personal goals, professional goals, and have a lovely family. We all do. But there are always choices, difficult, painful choices to be made, every single day.

You can, I believe, be good a what you do professionally, and be a good parent. But you cannot be great. You can be a good doctor, a good lawyer, a good executive, a good rabbi...and be a good parent. But if we choose to be great -- a great lawyer, doctor ... then there is a price to pay...and our children pay the price. That's reality talking. That's the choice we must make.

You'll hear me this year arguing for the observance of Shabbat. I don't observe Shabbat because God cast this down from on high. I observe Shabbat because, this way, my kids know that there is one day a week -- or just one meal, when they can count on my being there --body and soul. The volume of Talmud devoted to the laws of Shabbat is the longest in the entire Talmud, but they all come down to this: One time a week my kids know that I'm there for them and nothing -- no business deal, no social obligation, no phone calls, not even Vanna White -- gets in their way. And I observe Shabbat, because it means that I know there is one day, one hour, when I don't belong to the telephone or the fax machine or the computer. One day, one hour for me, for that which makes me human. A Hasidic Rebbe once wrote that a person who cannot take an hour for himself is not a human being. That's why Shabbat is called Zecher L'tziyat Mitzrayim: a commemoration of our liberation from slavery. One day a week, we liberate ourselves to learn, to love, to grow, to be human.

Asakta b'priah u'reviah? Do you make time for your family? God asks, because in family there is immortality.

III. Third question: Nasaata B'emunah? Did you do business with integrity?

This is the most surprising of the questions. We expect a question about Torah, and a question about family. We also expect a question about Tzedaka, giving charity, about ritual -- laying Tfilin, praying, about supporting a community....all important parts of Jewish life. But where is immortality found? In the world of business.

One of my professors in Seminary asked us once, what's the most important section in all the Torah? We argued: Genesis, the Shma, the Exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Mt. Sinai. Nope, he said, Ki Tetze L'milchama. We went scrambling for our books to find out what that was. Deuteronomy 21: When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire her, and would have her. You shall first bring her into your house and she shall cut her hair and her nails, and discard her captive's garb. She shall spend a month's time in your house mourning her father and mother...and then you may come to her, and marry her, and she shall be your wife. And if not, you must release her.

Why is this the most important section of the Torah?

In my study, in my den, over my breakfast table, in my deepest thoughts, I can be a moral hero. It's easy to be a moral hero, a Tzadik, in theory. Deep in our hearts, everyone thinks of himself as a good, sincere, well-meaning person. The real question of morality is what happens in the real world: in the marketplace, in business, in a world of tough competition, of conflict and its passions.

He sees her on the field of battle, and desires her, he wants her. The lusts and passions of battle flowing through his veins. With rape and looting and wanton acts of violence all around him, he wants her. No one would know, no one would care, after all who is she? a captive, an enemy, the spoils of battle. He wants her. And at that moment, in that most amoral of all circumstances, amid the smoke and screams and confusion and fervor of war, the Torah says, Stop. You must consider her humanity, you must restore her dignity, you must allow her to mourn, you must allow her to heal. You actually make her ugly -- shave her head, pare her nails-- no make up, no adornment, and then, let her live in your house for 30 days, and then, if you still want her, you may marry her, and afford her all the protections of your household...otherwise, she goes home. That, my professor taught, is the soul of Jewish ethics.

In the worst of circumstances, when passions are high and all immoralities would be overlooked, when anything goes, the Torah stays, STOP: you must respect the humanity of the other, you must preserve the dignity of the other, and more importantly, you must preserve your own. What's at stake is not just the humanity of the other, but yours.

Nasaata B'emunah: were you a mensch, even in the competitive world of business? were you honest with your customers, fair with your clients, and gracious to competitors? But more, nasaata b'emuna, God asks, were you faithful to yourself, to you own principles?

What does business do to us? How many human beings must earn their livelihood at the expense of their own humanity? How much of us must die in order to make a living? Our self-respect? our dignity? our morality? our principles? our ideals? our dreams? Have you seen Glen Gary Glenross? Go check it out from the video store, and watch the way the souls of men wither in certain businesses. Ki Tzetze L'milchama, when you go out to war, don't lose your soul.

One of the most difficult things and most rewarding things a rabbi does is to be with a family upon the death of a loved one. There is so much to learn from what people say about their loved ones after death. No one ever says, He was rich, he was successful, he was powerful, he was influential. They'll tell you, he was generous, he was honest, he cared, he was respected. No one ever remembers how efficiently you acquired, how well you did, what you took. What they remember is what you give, what you share, what you contribute. No one ever said, I'm sorry dad didn't have more. They say, I'm proud of what my father gave away.

Nasaata B'emunah? Even in the amorality of the marketplace, are you loyal to the best within you?

IV. The last question: Tzipita L'yeshua? Do you anticipate redemption? Do you have hope?

It's a crude atheism that dismisses religion as a primitive response to human fear: Religion the crutch, religion the irrational escape from the unknown. It's the sort of argument your teenager tosses at you as you try to get him out of bed and into the shul for Yontiff. It is crude because it understands neither religion nor life. Superstition is a human response to fear. Science is a response to the unknown. Religion comes from elsewhere: from gratitude and from hope. Every day, according to the Talmud, we recite one hundred brachot, one hundred blessing, to recognize and appreciate the miracles that are ours in daily life. And everyday, we struggle to renew our hope. Hope is fragile, delicate. But hope is key to immortality.

In the Talmud, there is a story about a brilliant young rabbi name Elisha ben Abuya. Elisha spent his life searching for answers to the questions of the meaning of life. He spent his life searching for a foundation upon which he could base his faith. One day, he went for a stroll in the countryside and stopped to watch a man and his young son gathering eggs from the wild birds of the forest. You know that in the Torah there is a commandment which forbids us from taking an egg while the mother bird sits on the nest. It is called, Shiluah ha-ken, and instructs us to send the bird away before taking the eggs. So the father instructed his son to climb a tall tree to shoo the mother bird away and collect the eggs. The boy climbed to the top of the tree, and he reached out toward the nest. And just then, he lost his footing, and slipped, and fell to the earth and died. Elisha, who witnessed all this, was devastated. If such a boy could die -- in the process of fulfilling a mitzvah of the Torah, a mitzvah of mercy, and upon the instructions of his father -- if such a child could die in such a way, then "Lait Din v'lait dayan", "There is no Justice and there is no Judge". From that moment, the Talmud relates, Elisha separated himself from the Jewish community. He is referred to by the title "Aher" -- The Other, the Alien. The world is filled with suffering, with pain, and it would seem that the good suffer the most...there can be no God.

This isn't atheism, per se. Atheism as a philosophy is born of love -- love for mankind, and love for human freedom. This is different. This is born of anger with the world -- of disappointment and frustration and bitterness. It is paganism -- that vision of the world that finds only chaos. It sees a world filled with random violence, random terror, and random death. And it sees any attempt to find order or meaning or purpose in life as futile. And it is the operant philosophy of life for so many American young people.

They see the world as random, violent, dangerous and brutal. The world is the dark and sinister Gotham City of the movie "Batman" -- a brutal and uncaring place where superhuman forces of good and evil fight it out endlessly...and all of us are bystanders caught in the fray.

It really doesn't take any imagination to find evidence for this view of life...just open any morning paper.

A woman, on her way home from a Bible study group, stopped by thieves in Northridge, hands them her purse, and then is murdered in cold blood before the horrified eyes of her 9-year old son.
School hasn't been in session for a month, and how many shootings have we heard about already?
No sooner is the ink dry on the Israel-PLO agreement, when the murders begin anew.

Paganism isn't some primitive who bows down to statues. And paganism isn't ancient. Paganism is a belief that chaos and brutality are life's ultimate reality.

And this is what so many of our kids believe. I have a colleague who asks her Confirmation Classes every year, Do you think you'll live to see your dreams fulfilled? And half the kids say "no".

Listen to their music (if you can). Watch their films. Who do you think goes to see "Friday the 13th part whatever", or "Nightmare on Elm Street" or "Halloween" or "Hell raiser"? You go to Blockbusters? You see that whole row of horror films and slasher films?...Who do you think sees those films? And what do you think they represent? What do those films tell our kids?

And for the pagan, there is no right or wrong. For the pagan, there is only one ethic --"Take".

Take -- Take all the power you can, because that is the only way to protect yourself in a random, chaotic world. Cheat on tests in school. Engage in insider trading in business. Break the rules. Climb over anyone's back. Do whatever you have to, because that is your only chance to survive.

Take -- Take all the pleasure you can. Satisfy every desire and impulse as soon as you can, because who knows what tomorrow may bring. Take -- and when taking gets lonely, and when taking gets boring, then up the dosage. Do whatever you need to kill the pain. Rabbi Schulweis once observed that Karl Marx was wrong. Religion is not the opiate of the people. Opiates are the religion of the people.

And eventually, paganism dissolves into despair because a chaotic, random world is a world of hopelessness. In the monotone voice of the rock group Pink Floyd --
"All in all, you're just another brick in the wall.
All in all, you're just another brick in the wall."

This is what Judaism responded to in rejecting paganism. This is why, from the very first word of our tradition we fought the notion that the world is all chaos absurdity. Paganism robs the human being of hope. That's what at stake in theological debate. Theology isn't a sport for under-worked rabbis. Theology asks, can I hope? Is there reason to hope? In the face of Roman power, in the face of the Church, of the mosque, in the face of the Czar and the Nazis, can I hope?

Read the first chapter of Genesis, the creation of the world. Don't read it as some sort of pseudo-scientific account of the world's origins, as a primitive alternative to Evolution --that's a childish way of reading. Read it as a polemic, and argument against paganism. Read it as a plea: The world doesn't have to be chaos. The world doesn't have to be random. The world doesn't have to be evil. Life doesn't have to be bitterness.

What is the most important word in that chapter? "Ki Tov" "And God saw that it was good." That was the great revolution that began our faith. The whole world sees chaos, terror, random death as inevitable. And this one little people, a people who suffered more than any other people, this people has the cosmic chutzpah to say --" it doesn't have to be that way! Come -- be God's partner, help create the world."

Over the entrance to the Bratislava synagogue, to this day, there is a sign: "Jews may not despair".

The psychologist, Victor Frankel, himself a survivor of Auschwitz, studied those who survived and those who did not. "The last, and greatest human freedom," he writes, "is the freedom to choose your attitude."

Tzipita L'yeshua? Choose hope, says God. Choose hope and share it with your children. Preserve it, protect it, nurture it. Because immortality belongs to those who keep hope alive and warm and growing in a cold and evil world.

5. Ma Nishtana Ha laila hazeh. Why is tonight different? Because tonight, God asks us four questions:
.. Can you find time for Torah?
.. Do you invest yourself in family?
.. Are you faithful in business?
.. Have you kept hope alive?

6. When God set out to create the first human being, according to a Midrash, He consulted with the angels and confided in them His plan to create man in the Divine image.

The angels were outraged. How can something so pure, so precious and so powerful be entrusted to a creature as evil and deceitful and corrupt as man? If man has the Divine image, they reasoned, he will think like God thinks, and feel what God feels, he will create as God creates, and he will grasp eternity and live forever, as God lives forever. We cannot let this happen!

So they conspired, and the stole the Divine Image, and they decided to hide it...hide it somewhere man would never find it. But where.

Let us put it at the top of the highest mountain! one angel suggested. But no, he will one day climb the mountain and find it.

Let us put it at the bottom of the sea! another offered. But no, he will plumb those depths one day and he will find it.

They all offered suggestions, but each was rejected. And then the cleverest of the angels stepped forward. No, not at the top of the mountains, or at the bottom of the sea...Let us place it where he will never go to look for it..Let us place it within his heart, and within his soul. He'll never find it there.

And so, teaches the midrash, the angels hid the precious Divine Image within the heart of man...where it lies hidden to this day.

Immortality is not found in heaven. It is not on the top of the mountains, or the bottom of the sea. It is here, in our hearts, in the way we live. This Yontiff, sit in shul, take a walk in a quiet place, sit beneath a tree. Look within you and find the immortality that God has planted there.

Shana Tova.


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Date: 
Thursday, February 10, 2011 - 10:45am