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Rabbi’s Parsha: Three Questions in our pursuit of meaning

Special to the Journal

Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “Religion is an answer to man’s ultimate questions.” However, in order to get the right answers, we must ask the right questions.

What questions should we ask?

In the early chapters of Genesis, G-d, speaking directly and through messengers (the angels), asks humankind three questions: Where are you? Where is your brother? Where is your wife?

G-d doesn’t need answers. Rather, we human beings need to hear, ponder, and reflect upon the questions. Through this process of contemplation and self-assessment, we nudge the trajectory of our lives toward holiness, toward a life of well-being, fulfillment, and greatest value.

The First Question

After Adam eats from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, G-d asks him, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). From Adam’s response, we learn that the question was not about physical location. Adam answers, “… I was afraid, because I was naked …” We can infer from Adam’s answer that he heard, “Why did you hide?” Or, in general terms, “Why are you behaving the way you’re behaving?”

G-d’s question, “Where are you?” is in invitation to look inward, to examine, and take spiritual stock of our lives. Are we aligning our thoughts, feelings, and actions? To what end or ultimate goal?

The Second Question

After Cain kills his brother Abel, G-d again bursts into the lives of human beings with a question: “Where is your brother Abel?” (Genesis 4:9). As we well know, Cain responds, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

As Nahum Sarna points out, the fact that Cain and Abel are brothers is repeated over and over, a full seven times in this chapter. Sarna comments that this stress “on the obvious fraternal relationship of Cain and Abel emphatically teaches that man is indeed his brother’s keeper …”

As we start the annual cycle of Torah readings, G-d asks us to seriously consider our relationship with our fellow human beings. If “Where are you?” takes us inward, “Where is your brother?” forces us to extend our lives in service of something greater than our own existence.

The Third Question

In this week’s parsha the question is, “Where is your wife?” (Genesis 18:9). We now know that “Where is …” is not a literal question. Rashbam, the ancient biblical commentator and Talmudist says as much. So, what is the deeper purpose of this question?

Could it be a reminder of the importance of our most intimate relationships? That just as we must reflect upon ourselves (Question 1) and our concern for the other (Question 2), we must also ponder the most intimate of our human relationships?

Yehuda Kiel writes, “They [the angels who asked, ‘Where is your wife?’] hinted to Abraham that only Sarah is ‘your wife,’ not any other woman. She, and she alone, will bear him the son who is fit for Abraham’s blessing.”

Through the lens of Kiel’s commentary, “Where is your wife?” could mean, “Are you aware of the blessings, fulfillment, and self-actualization that are only possible because of your spouse?” It asks us to take inventory and appreciate that so much of what we have achieved in life was attained through the depth of a spousal or similar relationship.

We live our lives in pursuit of meaning. Jewish wisdom and practice offer an answer. With this week’s Torah portion, Genesis completes the last of the three questions necessary for a life of meaning: Where are you?

Where is your brother? Where is your wife? What matters most is not our answers, but that we start the Jewish year by asking ourselves these questions.

Rabbi Michel Ragozin is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott.

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