Parshat Toldot 5778
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Parshat Toldot 5778

Im Kein Lamah Zeh?

We understand that real earning takes place when we ask questions that matter. If you sit in a class and you are inspired to ask a question, you will remember the response. It matters to you.

And you know, as teachers we understand that the most intelligent students are noted, not because of what the knowledge they retain but because of the questions they ask.

There is a wonderful and often quoted line from Isidor Isaac Rabi who was a Galician born physicist and Nobel prize laureate.

He was quoted as having said: My mother made me a scientist without ever intending to. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: So? Did you learn anything today? Not my mother. “Izzy” she would say, “did you ask a good question today?” That difference – asking good questions – made me a scientist!
When I think about the Torah and the places of significant impact, I think about some of its questions and how they ultimately lead to so of the most profound teachings.

In the beginning, God asks Cain, where is Abel your brother? And Abel responds with a question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and from there a whole system of human responsibility evolves.

Or God asks, a little later in Genesis: “Shall I withhold from Abraham what I am about to do to the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah?” And Abraham answers with a question: “Will the God of justice destroy an entire city? What is there are ten righteous people?”

The questions are memorable. They say more and imply more than we can state here.

Some people ask great questions. We love to hear a speaker or a teacher say: That was a great question. Because it opens an important conversation.

And we also know that some of our most profound questions may be unanswerable.

In today’s Torah reading there is a question that haunts me… Rebekah we learn is pregnant with twins. And the twins, who will become Esau and Jacob are battling in her womb. Guys have no idea what it is like to carry a baby. And I wonder what could it possibly be like to be carrying twins. We learn that the twins are battling or wrestling in her womb. And she is obviously distraught.

And so she goes to inquire of God. She asks:

Im kein lamah zeh anochi?
If this is so why am I alive?

The plain meaning of the text is what’s going on with me, in me? But there is another interpretation. And that what states: I am suffering so much… Why do I live?

A little later in the text there is a repetition of the words: Lamah zeh li?

It is Esau after he is famished and feeling as if he was going to die of hunger. Brother Jacob holds him hostage to his desperation and says: Sell me your birthright! And Esau responds… what good is it to me, I am at the point of my death.

The question why do I live is not only a question about physical survival. In fact, I think it is a question that begs for answers. Most of us go through life trying to make a living, fill our time with enjoyment or perhaps going to school, playing sports, waiting for the next good meal. We look for good t.v. or movies or entertainment, but rarely does one stop and ask this question:

Lama li anochi?
Why am I alive?

I do hear that question when I visit the terminally ill or those suffering in the pains of illness. There, like Rebeka, the question is for what I am lingering. I know the ultimate answer. Why do I suffer? And that is a profoundly important question, at the most difficult time.

It is often that it when we reach the end of our days that we may ask that question. But it is rare to ask those questions when we are young… and we should.

I have heard from retirees that the beginning of retirement may feel liberating, but shortly there is a sense of purposelessness for some. And this is true especially when you viewed your work as having significance.

The question then, should be asked; What is the purpose of my life now? What can I be doing to make a difference to feel useful… All of us want to be useful. Make an impact. Make a difference… What are we doing? Why are we here?

The most popular spiritual advice book in the last few decades was written by a Pastor Rick Warren. The book sold millions and millions of copies and was on the best-selling list for years. The name of the book was “The purpose driven life”. Warren obviously hit a chord with Americans. People are searching for what matters, for what to do, for what meaning and significance.

Perhaps even without having a life feel threatened we do ask the question of Rebekah; Im kein lama zeh anochi?

So how do we arrive there? How do we find a place where we can define our purpose?

I began by speaking about questions… And I think that is where we need to go. Not only the question of “what is your purpose”, but from our rabbis I would suggest that we consider something that they have given us.

And these questions bring us to a sense of purpose…

Why are we here?
What is important?
Who do we serve?

So the rabbis of old did something really significant to bring us to this question. That is, they imagined that when life is done we will appear before God. And there we will be asked four questions. And form these questions we can learn about purpose. And the first is about Torah. I don’t think we can speak about a purposeful Jewish life without speaking about Torah.

The first question is “keavaata itim letorah.” Literally that means “Do you set a time for learning Torah” And in the minds of the rabbinic tradition this is sacred and gives life purpose. Torah is an eternal conversation between generations of Jewish men and women, sharing their perceptions of life’s meaning and purpose, of a Divine presence in their lives, of the lessons and message of life, of what they learned from life. When we study Torah, we join the process, we join the conversation that’s thousands of years old.

Open any page of Talmud, and you understand something about Jewish purpose: Here is the Mishna, edited in 200 CE by Yehuda HaNasi in Israel, and here is Gemara, published in 500 CE in Babylonia, and here is Rashi from 12th Century France and the Tosafists, his grandchildren, 12th & 13th Century France and Germany; and from the other side of the world, Alfasi in 9th Century Morocco, Rambam, 11th Century Egypt, Joseph Karo, 16th Century, Eretz Yisrael, the Vilna Gaon, 18th Century Lithuania… and on and on, until you get to the last page of my Talmud, where you find the are the notes of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein who lived in the Bronx up until his death a few years ago… All debating how the ethics and teachings of the Torah find their way into life, about the meaning and purpose of life. To read them is to join the conversation.

My teacher, David Hartman, told a story: When he was a boy in Yeshiva, they came around collecting money for a commemoration of the 750th Yarhtzeit of the Rambam. He looked up from his text, “He’s dead? How can he be dead, we were arguing just this morning!”

sustains a conversation that brings you beyond yourself, but it connects you to others. And it creates a mind that is willing to delve into deeper questions and find more meaning.

The biologist, Lewis Thomas writes about organisms — from the tiniest microscopic life forms, through insects, and larger animals — that form communities. We make an error, he argues, when we look at the individual as the basic life form. There are really no such things as “a bee” or “an ant”. The social organization of these organisms is so vital to their survival, that we must consider the primary unit of life to be the community — the hive, or the nest is the organism, not the individual. With Jews it is the same story. There is no such thing as “a Jew”. Jews come with ancestors and descendants, and with community. We are, as the fundraisers remind us, we are one: across generations, across oceans, we are one; and what binds us together is our shared wisdom, our Torah.– that form communities. We make an error, he argues, when we look at the individual as the across generations, across oceans, we are one; and what binds us together is our shared wisdom, our Torah. To learn Torah, to have Torah, to share Torah is to find immortality. It is our definition of purpose.

But lately, I have been feeling very strongly that this has to do with the fact that Torah is not just the scroll, the five books, but Torah is learning. And learning begins with the word. And reading and speaking. And, I believe that in this post-modern, highly technological world…the word learning and language and communications are being lost. We need to be learners in order to be critical tinkers. We need to be engaged in reading and study…

And this… itim latorah… time for learning… is about a life of purpose.

Connecting generations
Creating community
Deepening understanding
Attaching to Torah gives life purpose.

II. Second question: Asakta B’priya U’reviah? Literally is means, did you have children. I’d like to understand it as did you devote yourself to family? Because when all is said and done, family is so critical. Family love gives us meaning and a sense of ourselves. From family we gain confidence and value. We leave ourselves in our children and grandchildren. They remember: Every act of charity, of kindness, of love. Every moment of cruelty, indifference, of selfishness. They watch, they know, they remember.

Our parents need us, our children and grandchildren, too. And for many of you, great grandchildren. And we give each other purpose. And that is why we begin Toldot; these are the generations, this is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham. Abraham begot Isaac. And the interesting wording indicates that our lives go back and forth… those who are older and come before us and those who will come after us! We need to care for family. We need to spend time, celebrate and comfort each other.

Rabbi Harold Kushner once quipped that no one ever lay on his death bed wishing he had spent more time on his business.

A Hasidic Rebbe once wrote that a person who cannot take an hour for himself is not a human being. Family needs time, caring and nurturing. Shabbat, by the way, is intended for a few reasons, and I would say, family is at the forfront.

Asakta b’priah u’reviah? Do you make time for your family? God asks, because in family there is purpose. People who are happy in their families and with their families feel purpose.

According to the rabbis the Third question we are asked I Nasaata B’emunah? Did you do business with integrity?
This is the most surprising of the questions. We expect a question about Torah, and a question about family. We expect a question about Torah, and a question about family. We also expect a question about Tzedaka, giving charity, perhaps about religious observance… all important parts of Jewish life. But the world of business.

One of my professors in Seminary asked us once, what’s the most important section in all the Torah? We argued: Genesis, the Shma, the Exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Mt. Sinai. Nope, he said, Kit Tetze L’milchama. We went scrambling for our books to find out what that was. Deuteronomy 21: When you go out to war again your enemies, the Lord God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive, and you see among te captives a beautiful woman, and you desire her, and would have here… She shall spend a month’s time in your house mourning her father and mother… and then you may come to her, and marry her, and she shall be your wife. And if not, you must release her.

Why is this the most important section of the Torah? Because in our study, in our sanctuary, over my breakfast table, in my deepest thoughts, we can be moral heroes. It’s easy to be a moral hero, a Tzadik, in theory. Deep in our hearts, everyone thinks of himself as a good, sincere, well-meaning person. The real question of morality is what happens in the real world; in the marketplace, in business, in a world of tough competition, of conflict and its passions. How do you treat your clients, customers, patients, employees?

That, my professor taught, is the soul of Jewish ethics. In the worst of circumstances, when passions are high and all immoralities would be overlooked, when anything goes, the Torah says, STOP: you must respect eh humanity of the other, you must preserve the dignity of the other and more importantly, you must preserve your own. What’s at stake is not just the humanity of the other, but yours. Nasaata B’emunah: were you a mensch, even in the competitive world of business? At those moments where you know there may be profit or gain, but it compromises something else? Were you honest with your customers, fair with your clients and gracious to competitors. But more, nasaata b’emuna, God asks were you faithful to yourself, to your own principles?

What does business and money do to us? How many human beings must earn their livelihood at the expense of their own humanity? If your purpose is only to make money… you will die unhappy. But if your purpose is to live a life of integrity, live a life devoted to others, to family, to your shul, to tzedakkah, to learning and to community…something else appears.

I do funerals…there I see the wealthiest people are the ones who are beloved by their families and friends. They are the ones who lived life with integrity.

Nasaata B’emunah? Even in the amorality of the marketplace, are you loyal to the best within you? The last question may seem remote to a liberal community… but I think it is crucial to understand. Tzipita L’yeshua? Do you anticipate redemption? I think it needs to be: Do you live with hope? Hope gives purpose. True religious feeling comes from gratitude and from hope.

Every day, according to the Talmud, we recite one hundred brachot, one hundred blessings, to recognize and appreciate the miracles that are ours in daily life. And everyday, we struggle to renew our hope. Hope is fragile, delicate. In a world that sees so much chais. In a world filled with random violence, random terror, and random death. A life that contains hope is a life that says, I can make a difference. I make a difference through acts of charity, and kindness. I make a difference through encouragement and love. And we wouldn’t do any of those things if we didn’t have hope…

As I get older the language of the music of my youth begins to play more and more in my head… There was a group, Pink Floyd and they had a song called The Wall. The Wall said: “All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall. All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall.” That’s not our purpose. Because we see that through our capacity to reach out, to show kindness, to give… we are expressing something very human… and giving purpose. Over the entrance to the Bratislava synagogue, to this day, there is a sign: “Jews do not despair.”

The psychologist, Victor Frankel, himself a survivor of Auschwitz, studied those who survived and those who did not. “The last, and greatest human freedom,” he writes, “is the freedom to choose your attitude.”

Tzipita L’yeshua? Choose hope, said God. Choose hope and sing it to those around us. Preserve it, protect it, nurture it. It makes our lives purposeful. We want purpose, so let’s ask the questions, The Rabbis told us that God asks.

  • Can you find time to read and study and learn?
  • Can we embrace family?
  • Are our business decisions, which includes even the way we vote, reflective of our deepest ethics and responsibilities?
  • Have you kept hope alive?

This is what Rebekah’s question inspired me to ask and that we need to think about once in a while… Im kein, lami li anochi???

What gives our lives purpose?

Shabbat Shalom