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Learning Begins with a Question

by Rabbi Daniel Gropper, Community Synagogue of Rye


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The following is an excerpt from the Rosh Hashanah 5772 sermon given by our Coalition colleague, Rabbi Daniel Gropper.  Download and read the entire text below.  

How is your congregation listening to learners questions, responding, and continuing the learning along with them?

…Consider other ways we respond to our kids and the implications of those answers.  One is to respond with an invisible instant omniscience and quick piety. It occurs during the earliest years. Why is the sky blue? God. Why are babies born? God. Why did grandpa die?  Why was there an earthquake? God. There was a Sunday school teacher who used God to explain almost any question. Once she asked the children “What is a small, brown furry animal who hides acorns during the winter months?” An eager child raises his hand and says, “I know the answer is God but it sure sounds like a squirrel.” The child has caught on. It is bad theology that uses God as a short-cut and it cuts off real questions.

            Or we answer in a way that is honest but not necessarily truthful.  Consider a fictional girl.  Let’s call her Lisa.  When Lisa prayed for a doll for Chanukah and didn't receive it, she asked her teacher if God hears prayers and if God answers them. The teacher dutifully said, “God, indeed hears and answers prayers.” “But,” says Lisa, “God didn't answer my prayers.” “Yes He did” said the teacher, “He said, 'no'.” That terse theology will shut up Lisa.  Not only does it perpetuate a false rabbinic theology, it will harm Lisa the rest of her spiritual life. Years later, when Lisa’s mother lies dying in the hospital, she will pray for her recovery, or maybe she won’t pray at all, because either she had a lousy childhood experience with prayer or no one showed her that prayer could be more than just reading words form a book.  Her mother will die. Did God say, “no”?  And if so, was it because of something she had done or something that her mother had done? The early answers in the formative years form building blocks out of which Lisa’s religious credulity is shaped. There is a short line that leads to the answer about praying for a doll for Chanukah and the trauma of the Holocaust. The answers we give early have an afterlife of their own. Flippant answers can create the ominous silence of disbelief.

            How would I have answered Lisa?  I would have first told her it’s a great question and then would have said, “I don’t know, let’s look for some different answers together, try a few on and see what you like best.”  In searching I might remind her that God is not a cosmic butler, there to attend to our every whim and desire.  I might explore with her the Hebrew word for prayer, l’hitpalel, which means, to judge yourself, to hold up a mirror, to ask the same question God asked Adam in the Garden, “ayekah?  Where are you?”  How are you doing?  Are you being honest with yourself?  I might show her that the same word l’hitpalel also contains the root pheleh meaning wonders; that another purpose of prayer is to make us more aware of our surroundings so that we might recognize the wonders of God’s creation and come to see our role in tending to God’s garden.   I might expose her to the limits that the Rabbis of the Talmud put on acceptable prayer by saying that, for example, a pregnant woman cannot pray that her child be male or female, that to do so is to utter a tefillah shav — a vain and blasphemous petition and that praying and wishing are two very different things.

            Depending on Lisa’s age, we might talk about the rabbinic reality principle that reminds us how nature is morally neutral.  I might show her that remarkable Talmudic discussion that asks: Suppose a man steals a measure of wheat and sows it in his own field. “It would be right that the wheat not grow. After all, it is stolen seed. But the rabbis conclude “Olam k’minhago noheg — nature pursues its own course.  Suppose a man has intercourse with his neighbor's wife?  It would be right that she should not conceive. But Olam k’minhago noheg, nature pursues its own course (Avodah Zarah 54b).  This introduces a theology that our young should learn now, not “later.”  If we don’t answer our children, even with “I don’t know let’s look together,” they will stop asking and say religion has no purpose or will go looking to other faiths for the answers…

Rosh Hashanah 5772 – Learning Begins with a Question
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