Taste of Torah
A Bima-Ready D’var Torah Every Week
The book, Taste of Torah: A Little Nosh of D'rash, is now available! Containing a collection of divrei Torah from the ISJL's circuit-riding rabbis, traditional Jewish recipes with a Southern twist and much more, it's a great gift for personal edification or to honor a friend or loved one. Thanks to the Lewis Bear Family Foundation, all proceeds go to continuing the mission of the ISJL.
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The Question Mark of Freedom
Torah Portion: Exodus 33:12-34:26
Haftarah Portion: Ezekiel 37:1-37:14
Have you ever had an MRI; one that may have even saved your life? If so, you have Isidor Isaac Rabi to thank. Rabi was a Polish born, Jewish American physicist, who received a Nobel Prize in 1944 for discovering nuclear magnetic resonance, the key component in MRIs. Rabi was once asked in an interview: "Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or a lawyer or a businessman, like so many other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?" His answer: "My mother. When every other child would be asked, 'did you learn anything in school today,' my mother would say: 'Nu? Did you ask any good questions in school today?"[i]
From his mother, Rabi learned that it is not the answers but the questions that come to define us. Maybe that is why, in the hagaddah of Passover, we are instructed to ask: "Mah nish-ta-nah ha-lai-lah ha-zeh mi-kol ha-lei-lot // Why is this night different from all other nights?" Specifically, each and every year, generation after generation, we want to know: (1) why on this night do we eat only matzah (unleavened bread) instead of challah or leavened bread; (2) why on this night do we eat only bitter herbs instead of sweeter vegetables; (3) why on this night must we dip our food twice; and finally (4) why on this night do we recline instead of sitting up straight?
These questions aren't simply encouraged. They are commanded! Ideally, as we may know, it is incumbent upon the youngest child capable to ask. However, in the Gemara concerning Passover, the rabbis teach: "If there is no child, then the father asks his wife. But, if he has no wife, then he must ask himself [even though he clearly knows the answer]. In fact, should there be only two wise sages present and both know all the laws of Passover thoroughly, they are still commanded to ask one another."[ii] This is odd, no? Why in the world is questioning so necessary? What's the real value inherent in this yearly act, as it is clearly not about providing answers?
Some would say that questioning invokes humility. It is as if to say, even though I think I know everything, by questioning I'm acknowledging that I could have missed something or have yet to be exposed to it. Certainly, humility is something from which the uber-intelligent but self-absorbed Sheldon Cooper for TV's Big Bang Theory could benefit. The sages of the Talmud showed this humility when numbering this great body of Jewish knowledge. On which page does the Talmud begin? If you assume one or aleph, you would be incorrect. It actually begins on page two, indicating that even the wisest among us cannot know everything.[iii]
Others have argued that it is not humility but empathy that induces those who know to ask questions anyway. Maybe they are aware that some among us are shy or soft-spoken but who nevertheless thirst for knowledge. Yet, we may not ask for lack of courage or comfort. But, when the wisest of our community is willing to appear unaware, this encourages and empowers us to expose the limits of our knowledge as well. Even if we don't ask on our own, at the very least we have heard the question we had wished to ask and, God willing, received the answer. Hence, this is why rabbis often ask questions to which they already have the answers.
Without a doubt, humility and empathy are essential to asking good questions. Yet, that could be said for most of life. So, why is questioning so vital to the story of our redemption from Egypt? Rabbi Michael Chernick teaches, "As slaves, we were not allowed to ask questions; simply follow orders."[iv] Thus, in making sure Israel could and should ask questions, God was letting us know this servant-to-master relationship was going to be different. Instead of dictation and subjugation, God's covenant meant cooperation and liberation. Yes, the true mark of freedom is none other than the question mark, indicating a freedom to speak and think for ourselves!
The freedom to think for oneself is what allowed Isidor Rabi to be such a success, saving countless lives. May that be the case for us all. May we think more for ourselves, asking the questions that have yet to be asked, thereby freely taking and leading others down roads that have yet to be taken. For, we pray, somewhere down one of them will be the answer(s) to making this world a reflection of Heaven, where all of God's creations can once again dwell in harmony and peace, a Promised Land. Like our ancestors, let's approach that Promise one step at a time, one year at a time, one generation at a time, one question at a time.
Kein y'hi ratzon, may this be God's will and our own!
[i] Donald Sheff. New York Times: 19 January 1988
[ii] BT Pesachim 116a
[iii] BT Brachot 2a
[iv] Prof. Michael Chernick holds the Deutsch Family Chair in Jewish Jurisprudence and Social Justice at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. This teaching was passed to me from Rabbi Josh Franklin, a fellow HUC-JIR alum in the name of Rabbi Chernick.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Pesach Samei-ach!
May you have a peaceful Sabbath and a
May you have a peaceful Sabbath!
Rabbi Marshal Klaven
Director of Rabbinic Services
Please share this message with family and friends, especially those who do not have access to email, and when your congregation gathers for services I invite you to read this Taste of Torah from the bima. As always, please be in touch. I'd particularly appreciate hearing about simchahs, moments of joy, [i.e. births, birthdays, engagements, anniversaries, graduations] or illnesses or other challenges in your family or community.