Questions Aren’t Fatal

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When, as a teenager, I first read about the Code of Hammurabi, the ancient set of social laws dating from the time of our forefather Avraham, I was greatly troubled.

Elements of the code, instituted by a king of the First Babylonian Dynasty, bear clear similarities to various of the Torah’s laws. What, I asked myself, were laws that would only be given to the Jewish People at Sinai doing inscribed on tall stones centuries earlier?

So naturally, I brought my question, like countless others about science, history and other things, to my rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore. He just looked at me in his inimitable, sympathetic way, and posed a question of his own. “And Avi,” he said with deliberation, “just what do you think Avraham Ovinu spent his entire life doing?”

My question, I immediately realized, wasn’t much of one. A fundamental datum about Avraham, I knew but didn’t consider, is that he spent his days tirelessly spreading the word about the Creator of all, and sharing elements of His Torah (whose laws, the Midrash teaches us, were known to, and studied by, our forefathers).

Did I really think, Rabbi Weinberg was saying to me, that Avraham’s efforts had had no effect on the society of his day, or on laws enacted by leaders of the time?

Young (and not so young) Jews will always have questions about our religious tradition, or mesorah; and asking questions is the only way to ascertain and internalize truth. Some claim that teachers of Torah today don’t allow certain issues to be raised. If that is true (and I hope it’s not), it is lamentable. Because no question, honestly asked, is a bad question. And if a teacher doesn’t feel adequate to the task of correctly answering one, that’s also fine. In such cases, both teacher and student can—and should—go to someone more knowledgeable to learn more.

Many even seemingly formidable questions are easily toppled. Before Rabbi Weinberg pointed me in the right direction, Hammurabi’s Code seemed a terrible challenge, although it wasn’t one at all. And many other questions I had in my youth about Torah met similar fates.

That’s not to say, though, that all questions are answerable.

As important as it is to be able to pose queries it is equally vital to recognize that there are questions whose answers are simply beyond human ken. For instance, when we ponder the limits of time or of space, comprehension eludes us entirely. It is more than mildly intriguing that a single Hebrew word serves as the translation of both “the universe” and “forever.” And the word—olam—is itself, significantly, rooted in the word for “hidden.”

Human minds are hard-wired to go haywire when they try to wrap themselves around concepts like infinity or eternity. And science comes up punch drunk, too, when it tries to comprehend the very small (sub-atomic physics reads like fantasy) or the very large (cosmology reads like mysticism).

And then there are many matters even here in our own macroscopic lives that likewise befuddle us, questions seemingly without answers. Not only “big” ones like how to reconcile free will with G-d’s omniscience (about which Rabbi Akiva starkly, defiantly states in Avos (3:19): “Everything is foreseen, but permission [to choose] is granted”) but “smaller” ones as well, like “Why did I have to be born [fill in the blank]?” or “Why did [ditto] have to happen to me?”

Part of maturity, in fact, is accepting that there are answers that, trapped as we are with limited brains in a physical world, are off-limits to us. Recognizing, that is, the import of a wise Yiddish expression: “Fun a kashya shtarbt men nisht”—loosely translated, “questions aren’t fatal.”

When I have the opportunity to address a group of young people and there is time for questions, I always offer as a preface words that my own children have often heard. “I can accurately answer any question you may have” I boast. “As long, as you realize that ‘I don’t know’ is a perfectly valid answer.”

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

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