My students rushed to write these words down as I uttered them, and I knew they had been touched with a moment that they will hold on to. For too many years and lifetimes we turn to our heritage, our tradition, our Teachers and Sages to supply us with Answers. Some Answers to ease a philosophical, spiritual or existential crises; some so that we know how to prepare our homes for Shabbat; some because we seek to belong, and perhaps looking back and being reminded where we come from may help us, even for a bit, to contextualize the present, suggesting a refuge.
I know that this is how I grew up. Believing that the Torah had All The Answers, had the wisdom to guide me to living a perfect life every minute of my existence. If only I had All The Answers I would be able to serve my Creator in complete glory, would know how to observe the halakhah, all the laws of the Torah, in its totality, making me desirable to my Maker and my partners-in-Journey. I would be able to return the world to God at the end of the day in better condition than I received it in the morning. I would be able to lay my head on my pillow at night more whole than how I woke up that morning.
This belief only made me more miserable. Miserable because I was always failing… I couldn't keep my kavanah (intention) in place from the first word to the last word of shacharit (the morning prayers) every day; and I couldn't remember to say a brachah (a blessing) every single time I ran over to the water faucet in the middle of a basketball game; and I definitely wasn't able to hold myself back from some juicy gossip or give enough tzedakah (monetary gifts) to feed the hungry. And this is only the beginning of my list of transgressions… the easy part of the list. I was taught that I was one of God's children, and I was failing miserably both as a child of the Divine and as a servant of the Divine. And all I wanted was to be a beloved child and devoted servant.
It is for this reason, that in the same way my students scribbled on the margin of the teaching from the Mei HaShiloach (teachings of the Chassidic Master Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Lainer of Ishbitza, 1800-1853) that we were learning together last week, "Torah is a Book of Questions, not of Answers!" I scribbled in my notebook some thirty years ago a teaching from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (ob"m): " All of the Torah sh'B'al Peh (the Oral Torah) is about mistakes! All of the the Torah sh'B'al Peh (the Oral Torah) was coined from things going wrong, not from things going right! Our Responsa literature is the fruit of questions posed when someone didn't know what to do, or when life was not at all what we imagined it to be." His words blew my heart open, for all of a sudden there was a place for my mistakes within a system that was my Home and my Tormentor simultaneously. I had finally heard a word of Torah that could allow me to honor the human condition that defined me.
It is for this reason that I look for Teachers that are Teachers of Questions, and often I remind my students when they come looking for answers that what I have to offer are questions and partnership in the Journey. I pose that the Answers are theirs to find, and my answers can at best help me get through the day, but they may very much not be the Torah that they themselves need to hear. I suggest that what we share are our questions and what separates us is our answers .
An example of Questions that are shared and Answers that potentially separate I experienced after I met Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shlomi (ob"m) for the first time, some twenty-five years ago, on a motzei Shabbat in the home of my Teacher Madame Collete (ob"m). He was unpacking what he portrayed as a paradigm shift, a movement into the post-halachik era. My antinomian streak was being lured in, while my Orthodoxy was demanding Answers to Questions that Reb Zalman couldn't give me then (he did answer them for me 15 years later, when I asked again…). I walked away heavy hearted thinking that the Answers not shared would keep us apart for ever; not knowing that, Thank God, I would find my way back to him when we were both able to return to the conversation.
That week, when speaking with Reb Shlomo, I asked him where did he and Reb Zalman part ways. I knew that the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Reb Yosef Yitzchak, had sent them out together to the campuses of America a decade before I was born, but never knew why their paths separated. Where it was that their Torah took them down different roads. Reb Shlomo said: " Zalman thought that everything had to be in the Torah and when he couldn't find it, he went to other Traditions. I thought that everything had to be in the Torah and when I couldn't find it in went to the Mei HaShiloach (teachings of the Chassidic Master Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Lainer of Ishbitza, 1800-1853)!
As the years have passed, the binding of my volume of the Mei HaShiloach gets more and more frail and frayed. Not so much because of his Answers but rather because of his Questions. Two of these questions are drawn from this week's Torah portions.
From the first Parsha, B'Har, I am left with the question of the Yovel, the Jubilee. The Mei HaShiloach asks as a mouth piece to many of us: "If after forty-nine years I have to return the land to its original owner, what is the purpose of the toil? Why invest and develop and improve if at the end the seventh Shmita, Sabbatical, all returns to its primary state?" I hear him asking not only of land but of life. I hear him asking (perhaps with different words): "If the outcome of being born is that we will one day die, what is the point in cultivating a rich and vibrant life, that inevitably will end at a designated, and perhaps untimely, moment?" This is the first Question I am left with.
And the second question, from B'chukotai, is one that haunts me even more than it comforts me, and yet, gives a respite for my questioning soul. The Mei HaShiloach asks: "Even if a person observes all of the Shulchan Aruch (Rabbi Yosef Karo's foundational Code of Law) can they escape from the doubt of whether they fulfilled God's Will or not, for God's Will is so deep, who can find it?" Imagine, you live your life with accordance to the letter of law, following all the details exactly the way the halachah prescribes and at the end of every day, or even of every action, you find yourself asking the most painful of Questions: "Did I get it right? Did I align myself with God's Will? Do I know what it is that God wants of me, and how God wants me to live my life in service?" While the Mei Hashiloach suggests numerous paths to narrow the magnitude of the questions, he does not offer an Answer…. He shares with us the Questions.
I pray that we continue to Ask Questions; that we continue to see our Torah as a source of the deepest Questions. I pray that we find those people in our life that we can sit with in our Questions, in our ‘not knowing' and will continue to embrace us even when our Answers separate us. I pray that the One-and-Only takes pleasure in our Questions, and that this Shabbat we find ourselves at a Shabbat table that allows us to verbalize our Questions without forcing us to fit into an Answer.