D’var Torah: Asking the right questions

 

If I polled most of you about the significance of Sept. 19, 2018, you would likely respond, perhaps after quickly consulting your calendar, that it is Yom Kippur. After doing some biographical research, Douglas Adams, however, might arise with a far different response: He might suggest that I have now reached the age of omniscience in my life.

For those for whom Douglas Adams is not a familiar name, a moment of biography is needed. His book and the subsequent movie by the same name, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” have amassed a cult-like following. Perhaps even more well-known than the book or movie is the line in the book, intended as a joke, that “The Ultimate Answer to Life, The Universe and Everything is…42!”

Indeed, on Sept. 19, 2018, I turn exactly 42-years-old.

I do not believe in any cosmic significance to the number, and I believe wholeheartedly that Douglas Adams, as he has said repeatedly in interviews, simply picked the number without deep consideration. Judaism, however, ascribes great significance to the number 40. It is a number of wholeness and completion: the flood lasted for 40 days; Moses was on the mountain for 40 days; the scouts traversed the Land of Israel for 40 days; and the Israelite generation needed to wander and pass on in the desert over a period of 40 years. To be sure, Pirkei Avot 5:21 teaches that, at the age of 40, a Jewish adult reaches the age of understanding if not outright wisdom.

The wisdom that I have culled at 40 (and as a soon-to-be 42-year-old) is that the key to understanding is not in having discovered the correct answers but rather is in having asked the proper questions. Our omnipresent challenge is uncovering the process of asking these essential questions.

For me in my fourth decade, this is what the High Holiday season has evolved into. From the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah, apexing on Yom Kippur, and continuing through Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret, we all seek the strength to perform genuine and even transformative teshuvah – the process by which we acknowledge our misdeeds, apologize for them, ask for forgiveness for them, and finally change our behavior.

This process, however, is born out of asking the right questions. What did I do this past year of which I was proud, and how do I do more of that? What did I do this past year of which I was ashamed, and how do I prevent myself from doing that again?

Who am I as a person? Who do I strive to be? How did I progress toward that goal in the year that has passed? And what must I do in the year to come to draw nearer to it?

These are the introspective questions that must drive our teshuvah. Without them, we are simply apologizing for our misdeeds — without a doubt no insignificant accomplishment but also far short of the aspirational impact of teshuvah that the rabbis envisioned for us during these Holy Days.

Douglas Adams quipped that the reason that the answer to the ultimate question is so random and banal – 42 – is because we were asking the wrong question. Indeed, I do not believe that my 42nd birthday will bring with it any great revelations. Rather, I hope that it is the sanctity of Yom Kippur as the culmination of a deep period of introspection and reflection that will make Sept. 19, 2018 truly a day worthy of celebration.

And it is further my hope and prayer for each of us this High Holiday season that we are able to engage meaningfully in the ultimate questions about our own paths in Judaism and in life. In doing so, may we truly arrive at transformative answers.

Rabbi Moishe Steigmann is the founder and director of The Spark Wisconsin based in Milwaukee and is the rabbi at Congregation Cnesses Israel in Green Bay.