Mimi Feigelson is a woman Orthodox Rabbi in Los Angeles who works as a spiritual mentor for rabbinical students and as a lecturer of Rabbinic Literature at the American Jewish University. She has a command of the works of many of the early Hasidic Masters. This week, she found a question in the Mei HaShiloach, the teachings of Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Lainer of Ishbitza who lived in the first half of the nineteenth century. Just so everyone is not confused, we are starting off with the teachings of a Hasidic master who died in 1853 as taught by a woman Orthodox Rabbi in Los Angeles.
Rabbi Lainer comments on the Yovel, the Jubilee. The rule in the Torah is that every fifty years, all lands revert back to their original owners. Rabbi Lainer asks, “If after forty-nine years I have to return the land to its owner, what is the purpose of all my toil? Why invest, develop and improve the land if at the end of the Sabbatical year, it all returns to its original state?”
Rabbi Feigelson goes on to say that she not only hears his question about the land, but also hears it about life itself. “If the outcome of being born is that we will one day die, what is the point of cultivating a rich and vibrant life, that inevitably will end at a designated, and perhaps untimely moment? This is the question I am left with.” A real estate developer might be interested in the first question, but all of us have an interest in the second.
Rabbi Feigelson teaches, “For too many years and lifetimes we turn to our heritage, or tradition, our Teachers and Sages, to supply us with Answers. Some Answers to ease a philosophical, spiritual or existential crises; some so that we know how to prepare our homes for Shabbat; some because we seek to belong, and perhaps, looking back and being reminded where we come from may help us, even for a bit to contextualize the present, suggesting a refuge. … This belief made me miserable. Miserable because I was always failing. … I was taught that I was one of God’s children and I was failing miserably both as a child of the Divine and as a servant of the Divine.”
What Rabbi Feigelson learned from the early Hasidic masters is the lesson she teaches her students and is a lesson that we need to focus on in our lives today. As a historian, I am constantly amazed to find the answers to life’s most difficult problems in the words and teachings from centuries ago. On the one hand, it surprises us that even without all the modern inventions at our disposal, Sages living hundreds of years ago found the solutions to problems that we are facing today. On the other hand, the human condition is such that every generation, from ancient times until our own has had to struggle with big questions; it should not be unusual to find answers to our questions in the past.
The secret that Rabbi Feigelson teaches from the classical Hasidim is that Torah is not a book of answers, it is a book of questions. The Talmud, the entire Oral Torah is filled with conversations about mistakes, about all the things that can go wrong in life. Questions asked of Rabbis in every generation are questions being asked because someone did not know what to do at that moment. If we make mistakes in our lives, if we have failed, we can look to Jewish History and to Jews in every century to know that they failed too, and they, like us, were searching for answers for their questions. Rabbi Feigelson concludes, “What we share are our questions, and what separates us is our answers.”
In all of life, human beings are united in the questions we ask. There are no political divisions when we are asking questions. As long as we are asking questions like, how do we provide health care to everyone? How do we deal with the poor in our communities? How do we care for the suffering people? How do we make this world safer for everyone? What are we responsible for in our society and what role does our government play? All across the political spectrum these questions are the same. We only separate over the answers.
If we were to take a hard look at Judaism today, we would see Jews of all ages asking big questions: What is the meaning of my life? What role does religion have in how I live my life? Does God really care what I eat, when I rest and how I conduct my personal life? Why does God care? In a universe that is filled with billions of stars and infinite possibilities, in what way do the things I do matter? Why should I care about my neighbor, even love my neighbor, if nothing we do really matters in the long run? All the things we worry about are here today and gone tomorrow. Everything we care about is here today and gone tomorrow. Everything we accomplish is here today and gone tomorrow. What difference does it all make?
Are these Orthodox Jewish questions? Are these Reform Jewish questions? Are these Conservative Jewish questions? Are these questions only for Jews? These are Human questions. I assure you that we are the only organism on this planet that have these questions. Our Torah, our Rabbinic Literature and all of Jewish history show us that these have been the driving questions in our faith for thousands of years. Every generation of the Jewish people have studied these questions and asked them anew in their own times.
But if we are united by our questions, we separate over our answers. Judaism is a faith of optimism. If you believe that nothing matters, that God makes no demands of us, that there is no real Justice in the world and we are not judged for our actions, then you have left the borders of Judaism and you are looking for your answers outside our faith. Judaism sees our answers arising in our community. If you want to go through life alone, without any help or advice from anyone else, you have left the borders of Judaism. We support each other in our communities and we care about the successes and failures of every person.
If we are unsure of the answers to the big questions in life, then we are acting like good Jews. Our faith is not about final answers. It not about being right or wrong in the final analysis. Our faith is about growing in our understanding each day. Today it may be the Rabbi of Ishbitza in the 1800’s or we may find answers from an Orthodox Woman Rabbi in Los Angeles, and tomorrow the answers may come from Israel, New York or maybe, we will find the answers to life in something we learn right here in Manchester.
Answers may separate us but they don’t have to. We can stay united as long as we are asking the right questions. We must always remember that the Torah does not end with the proclamation, “And they lived happily ever after.” That would make our Torah into a fairy tale. Jews don’t believe in fairies. Crossing the desert was challenging work for Moses and for the Israelite people. Living in the Promised Land was just as hard. Living our lives is also hard. And the questions of life still loom large in our thinking.
I don’t have all the answers in life. If you are looking for all the answers I am sure that there is someone out there who will sell you the snake oil that will solve all your problems. I can point you to a place on the internet where you can find the one food that will melt away all your fat. You can find happiness easily, just send $29.95 along with a self-addressed stamped envelope to a post office box in Michigan.
I visit people who have suffered the loss of someone they love. “Why, Rabbi, Why? She was a good person, He was kind and gentle, Why Rabbi, why did he or she have to die?” I don’t have that answer. I can only offer my heart and my hand so that nobody should have to walk that road alone. That is why we are all here. We don’t know the answers at all, but we bind ourselves with the others sitting around us through the questions we are asking. How can we bring Justice to the world? How can we ease the suffering of others? How can we be sure that the homeless have a home, the hungry get fed and the poor can live with dignity? How can we end discrimination by race or by gender? How can we end war and bring peace to any part of this world?
I don’t have an answer to these questions. But we can still ask them and we can still stand together, offering our hearts and our hands so nobody will have to walk these roads alone. We can share the questions and that will have to be enough for now.
What is the point of living, what is the meaning of life if we are all destined to die? There may be no answer to those questions but knowing that we are with friends as we walk the road of living, that is not just sufficient, it is, for us, everything. May we walk with God as we walk our path through life and may we always give each other faith and hope along the way as we say…Amen and Shabbat Shalom
Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, May 20, 2017.