Sometimes the questions that we ask are more important than the answers we give.
Almost thirty-five years ago, Cynthia Ozick wrote a pioneering essay on Jewish feminism called “Notes on Finding the Right Question.” She began by pointing out, “Every answer is concealed in the question that elicits it, and what we must strive to do, then, is not look for the right answer, but attempt rather to discover the right question.”
So what is the proper question in regard to this week’s double parshah from the Torah, Tazria-Metzora? The portion focuses on tzora’at, a leprosy-like skin affliction. Rashi, and almost all of the rabbinic sages who follow, essentially ask: “Why?” They conjecture about the causes and origins of this mysterious affliction. The subtext of their inquiry is: “Why do people get tzora’at?” Almost all of them answer: God afflicts people with this disorder as punishment for speaking ill of others. Midrash Leviticus Rabbah even adds some additional failings that might bring on this disease, noting: “Seven types of behavior are punished with tzara-at: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood in secret, a mind that hatches evil, feet quick to do wrong, a witness who testifies falsely, and one who incites brothers to quarrel.”
But I believe that all of these classic commentaries are asking the wrong question.
As Rabbi Harold Kushner teaches: “Our Sages often could not resist the temptation to ask, ‘What moral or spiritual failing may have caused this illness?’ Today we recognize that it is medically inaccurate and psychologically cruel to tell someone that he or she is afflicted with illness as a punishment for behavior. . .” Even when there are partially accurate “why” answers—“He got lung cancer because he smoked three packs of cigarettes a day”—they are neither helpful nor humane.
In the face of suffering, the real questions are not concerned with “why?” They are, instead: What do we do now? How can I offer assistance? Which is the path of compassion? Where are the possibilities of healing and love?
The prophet Isaiah reminds us that blessing is not found in asking why; it emerges out of deeds of lovingkindness. We do well to heed his words:
“When you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.”
How do we know when, in the presence of suffering, we are asking the right questions? When the answers call us to compassionate action.