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Parshas VaYakhail/Pekudei - On Asking Questions

By Rabbi Yaakov Shlomo Weinberg of The Torah Connection

Posted on 03/08/13 |

On Asking Questions

At times during the weekly give and take of divrei Torah that are presented I will pose and point out a question for which I have no ready answer. A concern was raised that since the ma’amorim go out on the internet and non-religious people might see them, they might get the impression that we, the religious, also don’t understand the Torah.

The Other Track

My feeling is that the case can be made on the other track just as easily. The non-religious person will see that we are not naïve and not afraid, as some, if not many, believe, or that we accept everything and anything without question. The questions are asked. But we also know how to keep going, question or not. There is a well known Yiddish expression – “Fun a kashya shtarbt mehn nisht (one doesn’t die from a question).”[1]

In fact, questioning and attempting to answer is one of the main ways to grow in Torah. Three episodes from Rav Shach on the Hagadah are instructive.

Mah Nishtanah

“One of Rav Shach’s students came to visit him on the first day of Pesach. ‘So where were you for the Seder last night?’ asked Rav Shach. ‘By my parents.’ ‘And did you ask the Mah Nishtanah (the Four Questions)?’ ‘No, my little girl did that.’ ‘That’s not good,’ Rav Shach told him. ‘Each generation should ask the one before it.[2] Your daughter should ask you and you should ask your father.’”

The question and answer format is all important. Even if one makes a Seder individually, he should ask himself the four questions.[3]

To Create and Destroy

“Hashem created worlds and destroyed them … until He created this world. He then said, ‘This world I like, the others I didn’t like.’”[4] [5]

Asks Rav Shach, “How can this be understood? Clearly, Hashem did not need to go through a trial-and-error process before obtaining the desired result. Rather, the world was created for the sake of the Torah[6] and in accordance with the dictates of the Torah. The wisdom of the Torah is transmitted through discussions and dialogue, through questions and answers, through establishing working assumptions and then confirming or rejecting them. It was for this reason that the very creation of the world had to have these processes embedded into it.”[7]

Sleepless Nights

One of Rav Shach’s earliest students in Ponevezh related the following. “The morning after Rav Shach’s weekly shiur (lecture), Rav Shach approached me, tapped me on the hand, and asked if I had slept well the night before. ‘I slept well,’ I answered. But Rav Shach was not satisfied with my answer. ‘Tell me the truth, did you sleep well, really?’

“I answered in the affirmative once again, but the Rosh Yeshiva inquired once more. At this point, I became puzzled by his persistence and asked if there was something wrong with my appearance. He said that no, my appearance was fine, but nevertheless he thought that I might not have had a good night’s sleep.

“Then he asked, ‘Were you in shiur (lecture) yesterday?’

“‘Certainly!’ I answered, and added, ‘I can even repeat the whole content of the shiur now if the Rosh Yeshivah would like me to!’

“‘That is not necessary,’ he answered. ‘But tell me, what did we end the shiur with?’

“‘A strong question on the Rashba,’[8] I answered confidently.

“‘When one is left with a question on the Rashba,’ he admonished, ‘how is he capable of sleeping on his bed in peace and tranquility? I myself didn’t sleep the whole night! Yet you tell me that you slept, as if there was nothing on your mind to interfere with your sleep!’”

Back to the Concern

Of course, all this had nothing to do with the aforementioned concern. I only used it as an opening to bring before the reader the great importance of asking questions and attempting answers in learning Torah.

In regard to the actual concern, I queried a Rosh Yeshivah whom I often ask regarding such issues. He felt there was no problem involved here.

On Asking Questions – Part II

Contradictions

When a question is to be asked, one must be careful that there not be a self-serving element behind it. After the akeidah (the binding of Yitzchok),[9] when Hashem told Avrohom to release him, Avrohom asked Hashem,[10] “I will present my question to You – previously You said to me, ‘Through Yitzchok will offspring be considered yours.’[11] Subsequently, You said, ‘Please take your son and bring him up as an offering.’ Now You say to me, ‘Do not send forth your hand at the lad.’” Hashem answered him, “I never said sacrifice him, but rather bring him up. You have brought him up. Now take him down.”[12] [13]

The question is asked that the main thrust of Avrohom’s question could have been asked earlier. “First You said that your offspring will be considered through Yitzchok and now (at that time) You say bring him up for an offering?”

Why didn’t Avrohom ask it at that time?

No Self-Serving Questions

They answer that a person doesn’t ask questions where he potentially has something to gain. A question at such a time reveals an underlying hope to change what is being commanded, i.e. “How can You ask me to sacrifice Yitzchok when You promised me that he represents the future?” That would reveal an underlying opposition to the proposal or command. However, after everything was finished he asked, in order to clarify the seemingly opposing statements.

Non-Belief

With this example we can clarify a lot of “questions.” There is a famous story regarding Reb Chaim Brisker. He once encountered a man who had become a non-believer. He admonished the man. The man answered him that he had too many questions and problems with religion and for him to observe religion would be an act of self-deceit. However, if Reb Chaim would answer his questions …

Rationalizations

Reb Chaim agreed to listen to his questions but first asked him if the questions that bothered him came first or his rejection of Torah came first. The man didn’t understand the difference. Reb Chaim answered that if his questions came first he would be able to answer them all and set him at ease. However, if his rejection came first, then the questions were not questions but rationalizations which are basically an unwillingness to hear.

The Holocaust

Regarding the above, I would like to touch briefly on one question – the Holocaust. We’ve dealt with this previously in a more detailed manner. I bring it up here because of an article written not too long ago about the passing of an Orthodox woman at age 100. She had gone through the war. Around twenty years earlier she had been interviewed by a journalist. She told him about the many miracles that saved her life during the war. He asked her, “What about all the other people whom G-d did not save? Why didn’t He do miracles for them?” She answered, “That’s a good question. I don’t know.” He asked, “So, how can you still believe?” She answered, “I don’t know. I believe in G-d and that’s all I believe.”

An Insecurity

One reads these lines amazed at the insecurity of the journalist. He wasn’t interviewing a theologian. He was interviewing a simple, old, Jewish lady. Yet he felt the need to question and attack her lifelong beliefs.

Apples to Oranges

The above is just an aside. What is really of import is that the journalist fell into the same trap that many, if not most, fall into. The Holocaust (and in general the question of bad things happening to good people or vice‑versa) does not call into question G-d’s existence. This is a question of apples to oranges. Existence is predicated by, among other lines of reason, the teleological argument (the argument from design)[14] and from the argument of “atem aidei” – you, the Jewish People, are My witnesses.[15]

The Holocaust is not a question of “existence.”[16] It is rather a question on “Goodness” and “Fairness” not on existence. We can’t get into the question now but the Torah itself speaks about it and warns about it in Parshas Bechukosai and Parshas Ki Savo. There are other factors as well.

Ma’amar 2

Bechipazon (With Haste)

Don’t Jump

“There are times when a person begins to go on a straight path and then he leaves it because it is too difficult for him … this was through his own fault in that he wanted to go in one jump to the highest level. (One cannot jump up a ladder.) One must rather go ladder-wise, rung by rung.” [17]

Do Jump

On the other hand, there are times when one does jump. “There are times when one feels an awakening to start anew, when he receives mimorom (from on high) the will to lift himself from his lowly status … to start a new path. The main thing at those times is to act bechipazon (with haste) and lift himself with a jump. At such a time one doesn’t go step by step, but rather rushes and grabs the opportunity.[18]

When This Way, When That Way

I present both of the above to the reader. I do not believe that they disagree. I believe that they are both applicable at various times. I apologize that I don’t have the key to when one goes behadrogoh (step by step) and when one jumps. The emotional constituent might be a factor but I don’t believe it to be the final arbiter. One might have the emotion and yet jump too far.

Not To Sleep One’s Opportunities Away

On the opposite side of the ledger one must be careful to use his abilities to the utmost.

“We often find people who when young show a great deal of promise and tremendous abilities. Later in life, however, we no longer find these abilities which they had shown in their youth. The truth is that, indeed, they no longer have them because they did not work to develop their abilities. Those abilities, therefore, wasted away. Similar to physical strengths and abilities, if they are not used or exercised they tend to atrophy. So also, regarding mental or spiritual abilities, if they are not used and “exercised” they will tend to atrophy.”[19]

To Lose The Moment

In a similar vein is the following.[20]

“I was a young man, attending secondary school in Russia, when I was drafted into the army. Shortly afterwards, World War I broke out. Every day I shot and killed and hid in my foxhole trying to avoid being killed myself. For hours and hours the shooting would continue, then there would be a cease-fire. At that point both sides would emerge to remove the fallen soldiers from the field. After a short reprieve the shooting would begin again. We were exhausted and spent. But I noticed something interesting. In the foxholes next to me were young religious Jews. During the cease-fire they would take out a Tehillim and pray with great intensity. When they finished I could see that they were comforted. Their faces were relaxed and they approached the next round with confidence in G-d.

“I didn’t have that comfort and I needed it very much. My parents were not religious at all, although my grandmother used to light candles every Friday night. Every time I thought about it, I became angry that my father had not taught me anything about Yiddishkeit. This thought gnawed at me every time I saw those young Jews reciting their Tehillim so fervently. Finally, one day when I was in the foxhole after a particularly hard round of fighting, I cried out, ‘G-d, You know that it’s not my fault that I don’t know how to approach You. My father didn’t teach me anything, and it’s not my fault that I don’t know how to be a good Jew. I am facing the enemy, trying to stay alive. I don’t know them and they don’t know me. I don’t want to kill anyone. If a bullet hits my hand so that I can no longer shoot, it will be a sign from You, G-d, that You are indeed here, even on this battlefield.’

“I finished my prayer. It was quiet. A few minutes later the sound of a single shot shattered the silence. The bullet hit my finger!

[The chalutz showed R’ Shlomo Zalman his finger which had remained useless from that day on. Then he continued.]

“My gun fell from my hand and I lost consciousness from the excruciating pain. I was in a military hospital for days and I promised myself that as soon as the war was over I would go home, and find someone to teach me as much as possible about Yiddishkeit. I was never sent back to the front.

“Finally, the war ended. I came home and had to make a decision. Should I learn about my religion? But what would I do for a living? If I went back to school for three months I would get my diploma in agriculture and be assured of a livelihood. I decided to get my diploma and then go to a shul or yeshivah to learn about Judaism.

“I went back to school and in three months I finished. Then I began to study Torah. My head was clear and logic dictated that I study with intensity, but now after three months of my original resolve, my heart was not in it any more. I thought I could continue learning, but it just didn’t go. Had I started three months earlier, maybe I would be a different person today. The first Yom Kippur after the war, I went to shul, but as I held the Machzor I became frustrated with my inability to read Hebrew. The next Yom Kippur I didn’t go any more.”

Ma’amar 3

L’ailah Min Kol Birchasa … V’Nechemasa

In Kadish we say that Hashem is “L’ailah min kol birchasa v’shirasa, tushbechasa v’nechemasa” (beyond every blessing and song, praise and consolation). What is the meaning that He is beyond “nechemasa” (consolation)? Also, it would seem that this is not the place for it since it is different from the other praises of “birchasa, shirasa v’tushbechasa”?[21]

On Comfort

We need to refer back to a previous ma’amar (Hamakom Yenachem) (Vol. 3 #19) where it was brought that there can be no comfort for one who was lost, until the coming of Moshiach and techiyas hameisim.[22] Then it will be revealed that there was never any bad. It was rather all good. This is the comfort of “Hamakom yenachem.” Therefore, just as a person has no grasp or understanding of the “Greatness” and “Might” of Hashem (“Have you then finished all the praises of your Master?”[23]) in the same way one can have no grasp of Hashem’s “Goodness” and “Kindness.”[24] [25] All this will be revealed to us in the nechamah of the future.

V’Nechemasa

Therefore, this praise (“v’nechemasa”) is included with the other praises of Kadish. At present when one sees bad things happening to good people or vice versa, the atheist will say that Hashem is chas v’shalom either not all good or not all powerful. Therefore, we include “nechemasa,” His goodness, together with the other praises regarding His power, might and greatness to show that it is all one “package.” Since Kadish is a request and yearning for the revealing of Hashem’s kingdom in the days of Moshiach, therefore, it is specifically in Kadish that these are all mentioned.[26] Accordingly, nechamah here doesn’t mean a nechamah for Hashem but rather a nechamah from Hashem by showing us that everything was really for the good.


[1] There is a humorous aside regarding this phrase. Hashem had told Odom that “on the day you eat from the eitz hada’as (tree of knowledge good and bad) you will die (Genesis 2:17). Yet Odom lived to be nine hundred and thirty years old (ibid 5:5). It’s a question (a kashya). You see from here that from a question you don’t die. (In fact they speak about this question.)

[2] “Ask your father and he will tell you.” (Deuteronomy 32:7)

[3] Rav Shach p. 41-42

[4] Genesis Rabah 9:2

[5] I’ve often considered this Medrash as a possible basis for the fossils which have been discovered which, therefore, have no direct connection to the present world. Perhaps.

[6] Rashi Genesis 1:1

[7] Rav Shach p. 42

[8] One of the greatest of the Rishonim (1235-1310)

[9] Genesis 22:1-12

[10] Rashi ibid 12

[11] Ibid 21:12

[12] Genesis Rabah 56:8

[13] See Rashi there further as to Hashem’s reason for all this.

[14] We went into this on a much broader and deeper scale in Parshas Vo’eschanan, Volume 1, no. 39.

[15] This means that (a) Yisroel has been and is here since Biblical times to testify to the Oneness of Hashem and (b) their existence follows the script given in the Torah. See Chovos Halevovos, Sha’ar Habechinah, chp. 5; Meshech Chochmah Parshas Bechukosai; Hakdomos Rabi Yaakov Emden Lesiduro.

[16] And, therefore, that “existence” must be recognized and dealt with. It cannot be ignored.

[17] The Gra, Mishlei 19:3 as quoted in Even Shlomo.

[18] Ohr Gedalyohu, Mo’adim p. 131

[19] Ohr Gedalyohu, Genesis p. 40

[20] The Maggid Speaks, p. 208-9

[21] See Otzar Hatefilos on the Kadish before Aleinu at Shacharis in the commentary Acharis L’sholom who asks this very question. “The wise people of our time have noted that the word ‘v’nechemasa’ does not have a simple understanding. The K’sav Vehakabalah brings that in Arabic ‘nechemasa’ has a connotation of grandeur and praise. (It would perhaps seem a little difficult as to why an Arabic word should be instituted in an otherwise Aramaic rendition?) In the Likutei Pardes (attributed to Rashi) (based on Brachos 3a): ‘I heard a Bas Kol (Heavenly voice) cooing like a dove and saying woe is Me that I destroyed My House (the Bais Hamikdash) …’ This is why we say ‘v’nechemasa’ because Hashem “needs,” as it were, comfort on His ‘pain.’” (All the above except for parentheses is from the Acharis L’sholom.)

Words similar to Rashi are found in the Tosfos Harosh (Brachos 3a) and in the Eitz Yosef in the name of the Kol Bo and the Levush (in the Kadish after the Korbanos).

The above give an understanding in the word “nechemasa” regarding Hashem. However, it would seem that some of the previous difficulties still remain – that the word “v’nechemasa” is of a different piece than the others, “birchasa …” which are praises; also, what is it doing here in Kadish?; also, what does it mean that He is l’eila (above) the nechamos?

[22] That’s why the wish for a personal nechamah is tied in with the nechamah of the aveilei Tzion and Yerushalayim.

[23] Brachos 33b

[24] Rav Tzadok, Pri Tzadik, Shabbos Hagadol 1

[25] See Michtav M’Eliyahu book 3 p. 270. “Regarding Hashem’s actual trait of chesed we can have no actual grasp.”

[26] Subsequently I found an explanation close to the above. See Otzar Hatefilos in the Kadish before Aleinu in the Iyun Hatefilah. “Rav Lipman in the Sefer Hanitzachon (simon 113) writes that what we say ‘venechemasa’ (in Kadish) I heard that Kadmoneinu (earlier commentaries) explained that all the nechamos which we long to see on which Yisroel will in the future say a new shir ushevach (song and praise) (See the last brachah on the first part of the Pesach Hagadah – “v’nodeh lecha shir chadash”) to Hashem … and at present we say (in Kadish) that He is extolled and upraised even above all those praises of nechamah (goodness). That is to say above all the songs of comfort which will be sung in the future …”


We thank Rabbi Yaakov Shlomo Weinberg of The Torah Connection for these divrei Torah - Parshas HaShavua sponsored by Dr. Shapsey Tajerstein, DPM Podiatry Care 410.788.6633


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