Parshat Shemini

Parshat Shemini

It’s right there in the middle. Many just run through it, but perhaps they already know it. It’s in the middle for a reason.

For a student of the Bible there is always a reason. There is always a lesson.

At the heart of the Torah, at the exact middle point, there are two words that teach us a fundamental lesson at the core of our journey. The Torah is referring to Moses when it says (literally translated) “Inquire he inquired” (“derash” and “derash” in the original Hebrew) or “he questioned deeply,” as some translate it. In many editions of the printed Chumash, a small note on this week’s portion, Shemini, indicates that these two words are the exact middle of the entire Torah. And for good reason. To be a Jew is to ask, to question, to inquire.

The Passover seder is a wonderful example. The entire story begins with questions. The catalyst for our holiday of redemption is the asking of the four questions, the Mah Nishtanah – the questions we have been asking for so many years, the questions that we ask no matter the age, stage, or time in history. So much has changed, the world has evolved, and yet we are still asking the same questions.

Colloquially, someone who did not grow up observant and has recently begun to observe as a Jew is called a “chozer b’tshuva,” one who has returned to the answer. In Israel someone who grew up observant and lost the observance mojo is referred to as a “chozer l’sheaylah,” one who has returned to the question. Yet in our Torah portion, at the exact middle of the entire Torah, it is these two words, “derash derash,” that teach us how important and fundamental inquiry and questioning are to our lives as Jews.

“Inquire did he [Moses] inquire” – this is the center point of Torah, because Moses himself, the extraordinary scholar and prophet, never ceased to inquire and search.

We must always be asking. We can never be satisfied with the status quo. We must continue to search, to discover and open up new vistas and pathways. We cannot believe or comply just because someone told us to. One must never resign oneself to the way things are.

Yes, it is so important to question; yes, it is our unique Jewish way; and yes, it is at the heart of the Torah. But the search and the question cannot be debilitating. The inquiry and discovery should never hold one back from doing what is positive and right at this moment. No matter how powerful and important the questions are, we have an even deeper ability to take another step forward. And this too we learn from the Passover seder.

I imagine our forefathers and mothers had many questions. And they had every right to question. Yet they moved forward. They had faith in taking another step even as they held the questions in their heart.

I look at my bubbe, my grandmother, who turned 90 just before Pesach, who experienced Egypt’s hell in the inferno of the concentration camps, whose family was decimated in the Holocaust, and yet she sits with her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren and sings Dayenu and has gratitude for all of God’s blessings. And I know that she is also asking Mah Nishtanah. Why? Why? Why?

And so I tell myself that I will always be a chozer l’sheaylah. I will forever ask the questions, and I imagine you will too. But at the same time I pray that I have the strength to never let the questions hold me down. I know that we all hold a reservoir of strength and dedication that allows us to step forward despite the questions and affords each and every one of us that faith we need to live a purposeful and meaningful life and fulfill our God-given mission to evolve the world to a time when we will no longer have questions.