Saturday, September 27, 2014

Living the Questions (Rosh Hashanah Morning 5775)

The shofar is a question mark.

See its shape, the way it curves, voluptuously, back upon itself.

Consider how, in a world that favors sharp lines, punctuated with periods and exclamations, the shofar is a gentle, bowed query, a closing whose calling is to open.

How out of place it feels, surrounded by the words we utter on these Days of Awe, so heavy with judgment, fierce with declaration, kingdoms of right angles pointing ever upward, reminders of the yawning chasm between God’s towering majesty and our evanescent lowliness.

But the shofar that meets this onslaught of prayers and petitions?  The shofar is a question mark, a bridge, bending and binding heaven and earth.

The shofar is a graceful, arched door—a portal to terra incognita—where all assumptions—past, present and future, human and divine—fall away.

The shofar is a question mark. 

And the question mark is a hook, a place to hang our sloughed off garments of fear and ego, to check our nagging self-doubt and bloated false certainty, before we step out, naked, into the world as seen by God’s eyes, with its whole and undivided light.

Or the hook may be lined and baited, the lure we cast, clumsily—hopefully—into the uncertain waters of our relationships and dreams and desires, into the uncharted depths of our own muddled heads and hearts, unsure of what we yet might land.

The shofar is a question mark.

And the question mark is a sickle, breaking trail, sometimes blazing new paths, others, no less vitally, clearing out the brush that chokes the once-familiar way.

Sometimes, cloaked in shadow, the sickle becomes a scythe, whetted and wielded by the malach ha-mavet, the Angel of Death.  We look into his terrible eyes and see ourselves reflected back.

The shofar is a question mark.

And the question mark—the sickle that becomes the scythe—is also an infant, curled in her crib, head over knees, shins and feet and toes extended, slowly waking, with a cry, unfurling into the world.

The shofar is a door. 

A hook. 

A sickle. 

A scythe. 

It is a death rattle and a baby’s cry.

The shofar is a question mark.


The Nobel Laureate Isidor Rabi was once asked: “Why did you become a scientist rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman like all the other immigrant children in your neighborhood?”

Rabi replied: “My mother made me a scientist.  After school, every other mother in Brooklyn would ask her child, ‘What did you learn in class?’  But not my mother.  ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘Did you ask a good question today?’  That difference—asking good questions—made me who I am.”

I love this story, which has always struck me as profoundly and beautifully Jewish.  Since I first heard it over two decades ago, I have sent my children off to school nearly every day with the parting words: “Ask a good question today!”  Isidor Rabi wasn’t an observant Jew, but the ethos he learned from his mother embodies the best of our tradition.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us that we are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers.  Or, as another modern day Jewish sage, Pauline Esther Philips, also known as Dear Abby, famously responded when asked: Why do Jews always answer a question with a question?:  “How should they answer?”


The shofar’s call is also a question.

As Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg reminds us, if you strike a piano key or pluck a guitar string, you produce a note. But if you blow into the shofar—even if you have some skill and have blown successfully on a dozen previous occasions—there is always some doubt. Responding to the atmosphere in the synagogue, or the spirit of the service, or some unseen facet of the blower's inner state of being, the shofar may simply refuse to produce any sound at all. There is always a mystery, always a question.

Our liturgy for this sacred day echoes this reality.  In the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, we read: “The great shofar is sounded, a still, small voice is heard.”  This poetic phrase recalls a passage from the book of Kings, in which the prophet Elijah is running for his life.  After forty days in the wilderness, he arrives at Mount Horeb and promptly holes up in the very cave where God was first revealed to Moses. But God has no patience for Elijah’s hiding.  As the story goes:

A great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Holy One—but the Holy One was not in the wind.  After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Holy One was not in the earthquake.  After the earthquake, a fire—but the Holy One was not in the fire. 

And after the fire, a still, small voice.

A still, small voice. . . And when Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face, and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.

And then the voice said to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

The shofar’s mysterious call is inextricably linked with that question.  It is the still small voice, asking Elijah in his cave—and each one of us, every moment of our lives—What are you doing here? 

What are we doing here?  This is the ultimate human question, the one that leaves us, alone, created in God’s image, with the mixed blessing of self-awareness, in such a quandary.  Our world is so full of distractions, it’s so easy to lose the signal amidst the clattering noise, to occupy ourselves with trifles.  Like Elijah, we’re constantly tempted to pull our cloaks over our faces, to hide behind a thousand trivial diversions rather than focusing our energy on what really matters: examining our choices and motivations, and committing to a more conscious, reflective life.  The poet Rainer Maria Rilke referred to this countercultural path as “living the questions.”  He recognized how hard it is, noting that “those tasks that have been entrusted to us are difficult; almost everything serious is difficult; and everything is serious.” 
But as God instructs Elijah—and us—if you are not living the questions, you are not really living.  To question our lives is to be born anew each day.  And as Bob Dylan reminds us, “He not busy being born is busy dying.”

Sheindel Rabi’s question about questions transformed her son into a scientist; God’s questions are even more ambitious, for they seek to transform the ordinary person into a mentsch.

Today, on Rosh Hashanah, as we celebrate the world’s birth, let us consider the first three questions that God asks humanity, just after our creation in the opening chapters of Genesis.

The first two questions come just after Adam and Eve defy God and eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Garbed in their newly-sewn fig leaves, they hide themselves from the Holy One, who responds by asking: “Ayeka—Where are you?” and “Mah zot aseet—What have you done?”  As all of the commentators are quick to assure us, these are not requests for information.  God knows full well where they, and what they’ve done.  God’s questions are, instead, an invitation—an opportunity for Adam and Eve to reflect on their deeds and take responsibility for their choices. They blow their chance, offering lame excuses for their actions.  Adam blames Eve, who in turn, blames the snake.  But the questions remain for us, their spiritual descendants.  Sooner or later, and often at the most unexpected times and places, God or life will shake us up and ask: “Where are you?” and “What have you done?”  When those questions come, as they inevitably and repeatedly will, then we each face the same choice as Adam and Eve in the Garden.  Will we, too, hide—and in so doing, die a little more each day? 
Or will we muster the faith and courage to reflect on our choices, acknowledge our failings, and begin the hard but holy work of making teshuvah—of returning to the right path that begins when we step up and proclaim: “Hineni—Here I am.”

When she hears the shofar’s call on Rosh Hashanah, the author, teacher and spiritual seeker Sara Yoheved Rigler hears yet another question: What is your life’s mission?  For as she points out, we cannot really evaluate our progress without first knowing our purpose.

What are you doing here?  Where are you?  What have you done?—In order to live all of these God-given questions, we need a context, a job description, a clear sense of what we’re called to do.  And these things are not generic; they are differently and distinctively defined for each of us.  As a great 16th century Kabalistic master teaches, no one has ever or will ever come into this world with the exact same mission as yours. The light that each of us is meant to shine into the world is ours alone, as individual as our fingerprint, as personal as our voiceprint. 

To help us understand this, Sara Rigler offers this story:

After six months of working for the company, it’s time for your evaluation.  You walk into the boardroom, where three designer-suit-clad personnel managers are sitting behind a mahogany desk.  The one on the left scans your file, looks up at you accusingly, and says: “I see here that you did not report for work at 9 am even once during this entire period.”

The woman in the middle shakes her head disparagingly and remarks: “This is a Fortune 500 company.   And yet, instead of a jacket and tie, you report for work wearing blue jeans.”

The man on the right stares at the papers in his hand and says, grimly, “Our surveillance cameras show that you spend less than 10% of your working hours at your desk.  The rest of the time, you’re just walking around the building.”

The first evaluator now shoots the question: “Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

“Yes,” you reply with confidence.  “I was hired as the night watchman.”

Many of us go through life oblivious to our true callings.  We follow the course expected of us—going to college, getting a job, raising a family—without ever contemplating the real reason we are here.  As a result, we’re pulled in a hundred different directions and we don’t know which way to go, because we’ve forgotten—or never even thought to take—the map that is uniquely ours. 

The Talmud teaches: “Ayn l’chah adam sh’ayn lo sha’ahThere is no person who does not have a mission.

The shofar’s call asks each of us: What is your mission?

God’s third question is directed at Cain, after he kills Abel. 

God asks him—and each of us—“Where is your brother?”

Again, God, having witnessed the murder, poses the question as an invitation rather than a request for information. 

And again, like his parents, Cain misses the opportunity, callously responding, “I don’t know.  Ha-shomer achi anochi?—Am I my brother’s keeper?

But here, too, the question remains, for us, who are, indeed, called to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers:

Where is your brother?

All of the introspection that this sacred season demands will surely come to naught if it does not move us to act on behalf of others, to tend to the needy, to work for peace and justice, to better care for God’s creation, to engage in the mitzvah of tikkun olam, repairing what is broken in this battered, bleeding world.

Where is your brother?

This is a question each of us can live and answer only with our deeds, its civic demands defined by Isaiah in the haftarah portion we will read next week on Yom Kippur: “To unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain.  To share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house.  When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin.”

Where are our brothers and our sisters?

They are waiting for us, their keepers, everywhere and always, to extend our hands to them.

The shofar is a question mark.

The shofar is a door. 

And a hook.

And a sickle.

And a scythe.

The shofar is a question mark.

It is the death rattle of the year gone by, pleading as it passes:
“What will you leave behind?”

And the shofar is the newborn babe’s first wail, the stark cry of entrance, of a new world laboring to be born.

Hayom harat olam—today creation begins anew, with that uncanny and unforgettable howl that contains everything:
the fear and the faith and the beauty and the pain and the heartbreak and the love that endures—

And questions and questions and questions, without end.

What are you doing here?

Where are you?

What have you done?

Where is your mission?

Where is your brother?

Hayom harat olam—today, here and now, even as we speak, the world is being born, and in the shofar’s cry, it calls to us.

How and when will we live its questions?

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