WHAT IS THE QUESTION?
May 24, 2016
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #1022, B'Har, B'Har-B'Chukosai, Parsha Thought

THE ENIGMATIC QUESTION

The Torah generally does not raise questions about its own dictates. The Torah gives voice to G-d’s will. Our responses are not what the Torah is about. Yes, in several of the narratives, the Torah will describe the actions of the Jewish people; how they accepted, followed and submitted to the Divine will or, when they rejected it. But, the Torah never introduces a hypothetical challenge to G-d’s will.

The above is true, with, at least, one notable exception. In this week’s parsha, the Torah introduces the commandment to observe the Sabbatical year, when no sowing and harvesting is permitted. The commandment to observe the Sabbatical year is then followed by the commandment to observe a Jubilee year, which follows a Sabbatical year and is also bound by the restriction of sowing and harvesting.

The Torah then makes a promise to those who observe the commandments:

“…you shall dwell securely on the land. The land will give its fruit, and you will eat your fill; you will dwell securely on it.”

After making this promise of security and prosperity the Torah “volunteers” the following hypothetical question:

“If you will say: What will we eat in the seventh year? Behold! We will not sow and not gather in our crops!

The Torah proceeds to give G-d’s response:

“I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year and it will yield a crop sufficient for the three-year period. You will sow in the eighth year, but you will eat from the old crop; until the ninth year, until the arrival of its crop, you will eat the old.”

Commentators are puzzled by the hypothetical challenge of a skeptic that was included in the Divine narrative! When G-d commands us to observe the Sabbath the Torah does not give voice to the many skeptics who reject the commandment. Why does the Torah single out this commandment to address the likely challenge of the skeptics?

A POSITIVE QUESTION

The Rebbe (Likkutei Sichos volume 27, p. 184) asks another question, the answer to which will also resolve our question. The Rebbe notes that the precise wording of the Torah is not “if you will say,” but “when will you say.” In other words, the Torah is predicting that it is inevitable that we will ask that question, implying that it is a positive question that should be asked.

The Rebbe explains that rather than viewing the questioner as a skeptic, we should view him or her as an inquisitive person, much like the Wise son of the Passover Hagada who asks about the meaning of all the commandments. His interest is not to challenge the observances of Passover but rather to understand what they are all about.

Similarly here, the Rebbe elaborates, the question is not how it will be possible for us to observe the Sabbatical year. The answer to that is clear, G-d will certainly provide. Rather the question is: how is G-d going to provide for our needs under these circumstances. Not how can He, but how will He do it. The questioner accepts the premise that G-d could certainly do it, but he is curious to know which method will G-d use. Will he provide us with Manna from heaven or will He avail Himself of some other miraculous means of sustaining us?

The answer, the Torah gives, is that in the sixth year of the Sabbatical cycle the yield will be blessed so that we will have an ample supply of grain for three years.

LESSON FOR THE END OF THE SIXTH MILLENNIUM

The fact that this “sophisticated” question is mentioned specifically in the context of the eve of the Sabbatical year suggests that it conveys a message for us as we stand in the end of the sixth millennium poised to enter into the Age of Redemption, which parallels the Sabbatical year.

What is the lesson for our times?

We too have good reason to ask a multifaceted question of G-d. Why are we still in Galus? Why is there still suffering in the world? Why hasn’t the third and final Beis HaMikdash been built? Why can’t we see our Rebbe?

But there are three ways this question can be asked. One is objectionable, another is proper and desirable, but the third form of the question is the ideal form. And, as we shall see, this form can actually bring about the desired answer—the Redemption!

The first, undesirable, form of the question derives from a lack of faith and trust in G-d and in the words of His Torah. The third, ideal, version derives from profound faith and comes from the mind and heart of a sophisticated Jew.

LOST!

Let me illustrate this point with three attitudes that one can have when one’s day is not going according to plan.

For example, a person may be driving toward a destination and discovers that he has made a wrong turn and is now miles away from where he thought he should be. There are actually three different ways people will react. (Often, it will depend on the importance of getting to the particular destination, but one’s personality will also determine his reaction.)

The first reaction, primarily coming from a high-strung individual, will be to get upset, frustrated, angry and depressed. In some extreme instances one may even blame someone else for his error. He may even lash out at a loved one for not catching his wrong turn, or even blame G-d for this unfortunate turn of events. This irate person might then express his frustration with the question: “Why is this happening to me?”

The second reaction, coming from a more docile and easy-going individual, is to focus on corrective measures. His question will be, “What do I do now?” He realizes consciously or subconsciously that it is futile to get angry and counterproductive to play the blame game. Rather, his focus is on making a U-turn and getting back on route.

Undoubtedly, the second approach is superior and healthier than the first. But it is not the ultimate approach.

ADVENTURE

The ideal approach is the one of who gets excited about the detour. Certainly, he realizes that this was all an expression of Divine Providence. This person concludes that G-d has orchestrated this diversion to put him or her in a certain place for some presently unknown purpose. I remember once that after having made an unwanted detour, I ended up in a remote area where I found a colleague of mine whose car had broken down, leaving him stranded. Stories of similar incidents can be heard every day. The person who has this strong belief in Divine Providence not only feels good after he experiences G-d’s plan, but even before. No sooner than we realize we are lost we know that we are on an adventure. G-d has something in store for us and our natural sense of curiosity gets the adrenalin flowing and our spirits are uplifted.

It may be suggested (See Chassidic commentary, B’er Mayim Chaim) that these three approaches to the detours in life parallel three of the four sons who ask questions at the Seder. (The fourth son is the one who does not know how to ask questions.)

THE THREE SONS

The Rasha, rebellious son, is angered by all the tedious work involved in the Passover holiday. He is angry that his life of hedonism and narcissism is being disrupted by the Seder. The tone of his question is unmistakably angry and defiant. He was forced to make a detour on his life’s road and he is one unhappy customer.

The Tam, simple son, doesn’t get angry or excited; he is down-to-earth and practical. He asks, “What is this? What am I supposed to do”? This approach is certainly positive but is still not the ideal.

The Chacham, wise son, gets excited at the Seder. He wants to know the secret behind all that he’s doing. He knows there’s more to the story. His soul’s intellectual curiosity and desire for spiritual adventure motivates him to ask more and more.

Let us apply these three approaches to the present situation. (See Likkutei Sichos ibid, for a different lesson.)

THREE SHADES OF THE GALUS QUESTION

Our question, why are we still in Galus, can be approached in three ways.

The first, undesirable, approach is to become frustrated, angry and depressed. As a consequence of this negative attitude, the person may lose faith and become lax in doing those very things that will hasten the Redemption.

The second approach is to focus on what is our proper course of action. We should ask what the Rebbe told us we should do to prepare ourselves for and hasten the Redemption. The answer includes the emphasis on learning the Torah’s teachings about Redemption and Moshiach to condition our minds to think in Moshiach-oriented fashion and to translate that sensitivity into our behavior. Or, as the Rebbe put it: “live with Moshiach!”

And while this approach is certainly commendable, every second we remain in exile we must look for the spiritual “adventure” that G-d certainly had in mind for us in our temporary “detour” and take advantage of this unique opportunity. This realization—coupled with the trust that we will imminently be shown the express route to the Beis HaMikdash—should bring us tremendous joy.

There is, however, an important caveat. Even as we express our joy at the new adventures we confront in these last moments of exile, we simultaneously must cry out to G-d and demand that He relieve the pain and suffering of His people. The Rebbe emphasized that we must alternate between crying out with the words “ad masai-how much longer?” and the joy of knowing that we are living in Messianic times. 

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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