Sermon Erev Rosh hashanah starts with asking good questions
So who’s the smartest person who ever lived? Many people say Einstein. Jewish tradition suggested King Solomon. But actually, in a book about genius, Einstein is rated number ten. Shakespeare is number two, so who is the smartest, overall genius who ever lived? According to that genius book – Leonardo DiVinci.
I just read a new book called “How to think like Leonardo DiVinci.” Seven steps to genius every day. If that’s any book, Leonardo DiVinci certainly is one of the most amazing people ever. He thought of submarines, airplanes, helicopters and weapons that weren’t introduced in the battlefield for four hundred years. He helped reorganize biology, study of plants and animals, and the human body. He painted the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, anticipated evolution, the law of gravity, and the sun not revolving around the earth way before the people that were credited with it anticipated it.
The thing I wanted to mention most about this book was that in the seven steps to think genius like Leonard DiVinci, guess what step number one is. It is something that a lot of Jewish mothers know intuitively. Because when a child comes back from Hebrew school, a lot of parents would say “What did you learn today?” But the Jewish mother is supposed to say to her child, “Did you ask a good question today?” Judaism is full of questions. Sometimes the questions are sometimes more important than the answer. Leonard DiVinci was a fellow that asked questions constantly, never stopped questioning. So this book calls the Italian word for curiosity the step number one in genius.
Yom Kippur demands we ask questions to begin the search for answers. Jews joke that a basic Jewish conversational style is answer a question with a question. How much did that cost? Why do you want to know? Or how much do you think it cost? Question after question was considered a key method of obtaining wisdom in ancient Greece, and is the basis of the Socratic school of learning.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that coming to God is possible only after wonder-when we look at the universe and wonder how and why and what,
The bible really begins with a question. When Adam and Eve do the first naughty thing by violating G-d’s strict command not to eat from the tree, G-d asks a question. The question is the Hebrew word aleph yud chuf hay, ah yecha Where are you? That is the preeminent question that is asked in the ten days of awe. The basis of the question we must ask ourselves. Where are we? Where do we stand in relationship to the best that we could be. Where do we stand in relationship to G-d’s desire for how we’re supposed to live? Where do we stand in our relationship to our responsibilities to ourselves, to our family, to our community, to the world?
In the next generation after Adam, another question by God plays a central role in the story. When Cain killed Abel and so disappointed G-d. G-d simply said, “Where is your brother?” To which Cain gave the wrong answer, asking another question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And the answer is obvious – “Yes, you are”. It reminds us of Moses challenge to the 2 ½ tribes in Numbers when they wanted to stop short of the land and Moses asked “will your brothers go to war and you stay here and do nothing?”
The first stage of thinking like a genius, like Davinci, is to ask the right questions-to always be wondering, asking, questioning.
Jews never had been content, even with respect to God. We question everything-even God. So many of our converts come to us with the frustration that in their prior religion, they could not ask. I have to admit that in my early Jewish education too, my parents were often frustrated when I reported that my questions were often answered with “because its geshribbin-its written-it’s a test of faith etc.
But that is not the true Jewish way. When God told Abraham in Genesis God was planning to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham asked him a question which was really a challenge-would not the Judge of all the earth do justice?
In Numbers, when the five daughters of the good man Zelophad died, they did not think it right that there dad’s land should be lost and challenged a law they thought unjust, and asked Moses who asked God, and God affirmed their challenge.
The most widely celebrated jewish experience of the year revolves around questions-the Torah says when you settle in the land your children will ask why do you observe these rituals? That came to be the basis of the 4 questions of the passover seder. No answer until you get a question
Feeling abandoned and hurt prompted questions-such as by the psalmist who said "I lift up my eyes to the heavens and wondered wherein comes my help" or Isaiah expressing god’s question-God looked down and saw injustice and wondered why there was no one to intervene.
It seems as though Yom Kippur is about answers-, not questions. We sinned thisly and thusly. Rabbi David Woznica is a prominent rabbi in the Los Angeles area,
Formerly the director of the Center for Jewish Life at the 92nd Street Y.
He is fond of telling the story of how, when he was a child,
His parents -- mistakenly -- informed him that the tradition was
To strike one's heart during the Al Chet
Only for the sins that one had actually performed.
So, throughout his childhood and adolescence, every Yom Kippur,
He would read the list of sins, and make a judgment for each one whether he was guilty of it that year, or not.
We have sinned against you by speaking recklessly - yeah, I did that one.
We have sinned against you through bribery - no, not that I can think of.
We have sinned against you through arrogance - okay, a little.
We have sinned against you through impure thoughts -- yeah, I had a couple of those.
Until one year, when he went to a more traditional synagogue for Yom Kippur
And -- during the Al Chet, as he was choosing judiciously when to strike his heart,
He noticed - that the guy next to him was striking himself for EVERY SINGLE LINE!
And David Woznica couldn't believe it!
Get a load of this guy! What a jerk!
How could he possibly have had TIME to do all those things!?
But then, of course, he was shocked to notice the guy on the OTHER side of him
Was ALSO striking himself for every single line.
And the person in front of him.
And behind him.
And finally he came to the conclusion that perhaps his parents hadn't accurately transmitted the tradition to him.....
But YK is really about questions-we are forced to continuously ask ourselves questions
• Am I satisfied with the way I’m living my life and the person I’ve become? What would I answer if a booming voice from heaven confronted me with the question, "What do you think you’re
Doing down there with the life I’ve given you?"• What has been the quality of love that I’ve given and received?
This past year? Have I been willing to invest myself in the spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and physical intimacy that’s needed to sustain love? • What have I learned and taught this past year? Have I accepted?
The obligation to be a lifelong learner, growing in my capacity to co-produce the world with God?
• How would my community be different if all of us were committed to the vision and path of Torah? Has my relationship with my community been as a passive consumer of social and
Religious services or an active producer of a commonwealth of righteousness, truth, justice, freedom, peace, and kindness? • What has been the effect of my work on the world, both in?
Terms of the individuals I’ve touched personally and the ripple effects my work has had? Have I made doing well—acquiring position, possessions, prestige, and power—the exclusive purpose
Of my work in the world, or have I made doing good my highest priority—using the gifts I’ve been given to create more of God’s goodness in the world?
A Sage in the Talmud suggested the questioning does not even end at our death. He suggested that when we die, our judgment is based on questions:
How did we use our time on earth? Did we do our work with integrity? Did we do our part for universal peace? Did we live Jewishly? Did we raise a family? Among others.
It’s fruitful to consider what questions we’ll be asked by God. The entire purpose of these questions on this Holiest of days is obviously to help guide our next year to make it as holy a year as we can.
Its important to know what questions God will probably not ask us to and what we will be asked:
1... God won't ask what kind of car you drove. He'll
ask how many people you drove who didn't have transportation.
2... God won't ask the square footage of your house,
He'll ask how many people you welcomed into your home.
3... God won't ask about the clothes you had in your closet, He'll ask how many you helped to clothe.
4... God won't ask what your highest salary was. He'll
ask if you compromised your character to obtain it.
5... God won't ask what your job title was. He'll ask
if you performed your job to the best of our ability.
6... God won't ask how many friends you had. He'll ask
how many people to whom you were a friend.
7... God won't ask in what neighborhood you lived, He'll ask how you treated your neighbors.
8... God won't ask about the color of your skin, He'll
ask about the content of your character.
These are not tough questions. Want tough questions? watch the tv show
being as smart as a Jewish fifth grader-learn. These are life enhanciong, holiness enhancing questions.
So what are the answer to these questions? That we should be seeking everyday. The starting point though, the key to the answer is this:
It’s the answer Abraham gave when G-d called his name in the Torah reading in the second day of Rosh Hashana. It comes from Isaiah when he’s called by God to serve as a prophet. It is the name of one of the most powerful prayers of Rosh Hashana – It is: Hineni, here I am.
Let’s ask ourselves everyday, starting right now. Let’s our answer first be., heneni-here I am ready-ready to aspire to higher levels of Holiness .