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Do All Questions Deserve Answers?

Friday, 24 May, 2019 - 1:27 pm

The famous joke goes:

Why do Jews ask so many questions?

Why not?!

***

The most famous night of questions is Pesach. On Passover we encourage our children to ask questions. The format of the Seder is questions and answers.

It’s obvious that in order to enrich one’s knowledge we need to ask questions. As the Talmud states, “The bashful do not learn.”

The only bad question is the unasked question!

However, do we really condone any and all questions? Is it valid to question G-d? How do we cherish questions without saddling Judaism with an unnecessary burden? Other faiths often eschew questions. While we Jews have no such qualms about querying our own faith – we encourage it! – does that mean all queries are worthy of consideration, or is there a limit? Aren’t there instances in the Torah where G-d is disappointed with the Jewish people’s questions?

***

This week’s parsha, Behar, offers a wonderful case study.

G-d instructs the Jewish people to observe Shemitta, the Sabbatical year. During this year no planting or harvesting may be done in Israel.  Afterwards the Torah states, “And when you will say, "What will we eat in the seventh year? We will not sow, and we will not gather in our produce!"

The answer is given in the next verse: “I will command My blessing for you in the sixth year, and it will yield produce for three years. And you will sow in the eighth year, while still eating from the old crops until the ninth year; until the arrival of its crop, you will eat the old crop.”

Let’s contrast this with Shabbat. Every week we are required to rest on the seventh day of the week. Yet, nowhere does the Torah offer a question-and-answer to the obvious loss of income from Shabbat observance.

The obvious reason no question is offered is because it would be inappropriate.  Shabbat is a display of faith. By refraining from work once a week I demonstrate that G-d is the true source of my sustenance.  Questioning that would be due to a lack of faith.

Why then is the question offered by the Torah regarding Shemittah?! It seems that the Torah is condoning this question! Why?

***

The distinction between Shabbat and Shemittah is that it’s indeed rational for us to believe in Shabbat. After all, Shabbat is a gift that we gave the world and has been universally embraced. Virtually every society implements a day off in the weekly cycle. Whether for religious, economic or other reasons – a day of rest is accepted as a good idea.

For Jews, it’s rational to maintain that although my day off is Saturday, I will still be able to support my family. Even other faiths do so. For us it might be a test due to the society around us (which might observe a different day of the week). But, essentially, we believe – and therefore we observe.

Why doesn’t the Torah demand the same devotion and ‘blind faith’ for Shemittah?

***

The difference is precisely the rationale mentioned above. For Shabbat, we can see a way in which following in G-d’s ways is beneficial, or at least tenable. But, regarding Shemittah, even if I believe firmly, I still can’t figure out how I’m going to feed myself. That’s why G-d offers up a magical solution – that the sixth year will have extra blessings.

In other words, if I question Shabbat, I’m really challenging my faith in G-d. When asking about Shemittah, I’m trying to understand G-d’s ways.

Indeed, there are good questions and bad questions.

Good questions seek information. Bad questions seek to antagonize.

We should always welcome questions in pursuit of more knowledge. No matter who and no matter when. Even G-d patiently answers such questions.

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