Questions Not Answers The Offerings of Our Matriarchs and Patriarchs Sermon for RH 5781

Before we begin, a note to Sefaria users. In the dvar below I bring ideas from a number of different midrashim together as well as bringing stories of several righteous individuals and offering them as the stories of one righteous individual. For example below you will find midrashim that we are taught about Abraham being applied to Sarah. Why do I do this?

For two reasons:

  • To help broaden our texts so that more people feel represented by them. In this world such diversity within our Jewish community and with amazing female rabbis and religious role models, I want my daughter and other young students not only to be able to look up to the greats of our age, but also to be able to see themselves in the text. Thus, where appropriate, and guided by our sages, I will expand the context of some of the shared texts.
  • Second, my community is one in which too much text can be a turnoff and make people stop learning Torah (God Forbid!) I am one who loves our texts, and so, in order to cram a few more in and have it still be acceptable to those I teach, I on occasion will allow midrashim to melt together and form one new text.

I hope with this explanation you will be able to find the light of Torah in these words.

Shana Tova,

Rabbi David G. Winship

Shana Tova

I want to talk to you today about our matriarchs and patriarchs. The men and women of our early Torah stories that are the focus of so much of our early Jewish education. Countless years are spent in religious school poring over these stories, trying to learn from these mighty and wise ancestors. We use Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, and Jacob as positive role models for ourselves and our students. And so, today, I want to speak with you about what foundational lessons we learn from these great men and women.

Generally when I am writing a piece like this, a sermon for the High Holy Days, Jasmine will ask me what Torah, what teachings I hope to bring into my offering. And here, this time, it is a funny question to answer. For, today, I hope to speak with you not about what can be found in our Torah, but rather what is missing. What we can learn not from the words written, but those that have been held back.

As we at this time of year look to the stories of Genesis, to the stories of our ancient mothers and fathers, we are confronted with great men and women whose relationship with God and the Divine Good were unquestionable, central to their every waking moment. Such people seem like good candidates to be strong role models. And, indeed they are. Their stories serve as guides in our life for how we ought to live. How to be an upright citizen and ethical person.

We teach our children to challenge God as Abraham did, to speak with the Divine as Sarah did. We teach them to be wise like Rebecca, and cunning like Jacob. We ask them to be like Rachel and Leah, loyal to one’s kin to a fault. We teach these lessons in hundreds of stories. The story of Abraham pleading with God on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah. The story from tomorrow’s Torah reading of Isaac walking up the mountain with his father carrying the wood, the knife, the fire, but no sacrifice. The stories of Rachel and Leah working both for and against one another. The story of Rebecca making sure the son she chose would receive the blessing and lead the people.

While we spend countless hours telling these stories, teaching them to the next generation, it has dawned on me that there are no stories to be found in our Torah of these men and women telling stories to their own children, of them offering the next generation advice. We have no scene in the Torah where a wise old parent turns to the next generation and reveals the secret of life nor the meaning of the Divine. This isn’t to say that we don’t see our matriarchs and patriarchs talk to the little ones, surely we do, but their words are either practical or ones of blessing, ones wrapped in metaphors or hidden behind actions. What we don’t have in our Torah is our ancestors turning to their inheritors and offering them an explanation of the world. No moment between Abraham and Isaac nor between Abraham and Sarah is ever recorded where he turns to them and says, “So… this whole God thing, let me explain…” We are even taught that when Jacob tried at the end of his life to offer such an explanation, to teach his own children the secrets of what was to be and how to make it through the good and the bad, that the angels confused him, confounded his speech so that his lessons, his offering of the answer could not be passed on. Why?

One might say that no explanation was needed. That for these great women and men whose lives are recorded in the Torah that no conversation was necessary when it came to the subject of God and the Divine. How could one live the life of Abraham and then need to explain the idea of God to Sarah and Isaac? Simply by living as he did, had Abraham not already explained God to them, made God manifest in their lives?

No surprise, this is how the rabbis answer our question. They look at our ancestors and they teach us that living in connection with God as they did, no explanation was necessary. That to live with Abraham and Sarah, with Isaac and Rebecca, or even with Leah, Rachel, and Jacob, one was so blinded by the light of God, by the Divine Good that ran throughout their lives, that of course one understood, even without a word uttered. It is in this way that our rabbis teach us that someone like Sarah had no need of Torah, she could sense God and the Good in everything, and as such followed all 613 mitzvot perfectly, no book or lesson needed.

Yet, there is another view offered by a minority of the rabbis, and here I think we actually find our answer. These rabbis say that for each generation, Abraham and Sarah, for Isaac and Rebecca, for Rachel, Leah, and Jacob, in order to have that connection to our religion, that connection to God, they had to leave home, they had to go to school and learn. Our rabbis teach us of a very holy place, Yeshivat Shem v’Ever, the house of study of Shem and his brother Ever. It is, according to the midrash, the first house of study ever constructed. It is where Cain and Abel go out to learn, it is where Abraham is schooled, as well as Isaac and all the others. So, one must ask the question, if this school is so important, why is it not mentioned in the Torah? Why is it relegated to the realms of the midrash?

And here, our answer is similar to before, the need for school, to go out and learn, is so central to our lives, that the likes of Sarah and Rebecca never needed to mention it. It’s obvious, no telling, no words needed.

Why is it that our ancestors don’t record a lesson on the secrets of faith and the world for their progeny? Why does Sarah not pass on to Isaac the words she herself lived by? Our ancestors knew what we must be reminded of, wisdom, faith, the good, doesn’t work that way. It can’t be passed down from generation to generation in whispered secret words. It must be recreated in each generation anew. And that, my friends, can only happen at school.

Many years ago, I was teaching third grade in religious school. It wasn’t my first year teaching, but I was still rather green and spent a great deal of time trying to make sure my classes were as cutting edge as possible. I tried all the newest teaching techniques and made sure to utilize all the most current resources. I taught classes to my students on gender identity and on modern midrash. We had a lot of fun.

One day, during snack time, two boys kissed, and another student loudly proclaimed, “Ewww, that’s gay.” I heard this and immediately swung around to address the situation. I was ready to calm, to contradict, to affirm, and establish safe boundaries for how we could move forward. I assumed I was about to deal with a deluge of homophobic comments from my students. I honestly thought to myself, “There goes the rest of my lesson plan. I guess this is what we are going to be talking about for the rest of the day!” Yet, before I could open my mouth to say anything, other students had already chimed in, “So what?” one said, “It’s ok to be gay.” Another said, “If they like each other, and they agree, then it’s ok for them to kiss.” “Stop being mean, don’t be a bully…” On they went. Before I could say a thing my entire class had stepped up to support these two and to push back on the other.

This is not how it would have gone when I was in third grade. I couldn’t believe what was happening in front of me. We talked about it as a whole class for a moment, no more than two minutes, and then they moved on. I was left shocked.

What shocked me? I couldn’t believe that things had changed so quickly, that from the time I was in 3rd grade to the time I was teaching it that the world could change so completely. I couldn’t believe that the words that had been used to torment and bully me now when wielded were powerless. I couldn’t believe how much I had thought I would need to teach my students, and instead how much they quickly taught me.

They taught me in that moment that my students didn’t just come to school to learn from me. My role was not to pass down to them some great truth and advice that my generation had heard from the one before. They were in school to learn from each other, to there, in my classroom, create their world, their Divine Good.

My role was clear, to help my students to explore and create their new Good world. It was my job, like our ancestors, to be a role model. To show them what it means to live a good and ethical life. Advice, though, advice was not what I was there to give. No grand lectures on faith and the power of the Divine Good. Here, our tradition immediately provided my path. My job was simply to ask questions and to let them find the answers.

Now, looking back on our matriarchs and patriarchs, I know what we must learn from them. We learn not their answers, for they likely no longer make sense in our world, but rather we learn their questions.

Abraham asked: What if there are 10 righteous people, will you still destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah?

Sarah asked: Can it really be that a woman of my age should know joy? Will I really have a child?

Rebecca asked: What is happening inside my womb?

And Jacob wrestled and asked for blessing.

Each one of our ancestors serves as a role model to us. But, what they pass on is not advice, but rather questions. The answers are not to be found in the scroll, rather these answers are written anew by us in each generation.

So, today, I ask not what advice do you wish to pass on, but what questions have been asked by you, by the generations before you? What questions do you and our world demand that our students answer?

What were you asked by those who came before? What might you ask them, the little ones, the next generation of Temple Beth David? What do they need to wrestle with?

We can ask as Abraham did, “What is the true value of a life, righteous or not?”

We can ask as Sarah did, “Is there any miracle too great for the Divine? An age too great for joy?”

We can ask as Rebecca did, “Can I, a woman, change my family’s destiny?”

What is clear from our traditions, what is clear from our ancestors is that we must not try to offer our students, the next generation an answer. Rather, we must pass on the questions, raise new ones, and give them the space to answer.

Shana Tova