A special message to the granddaughter of Abraham Joshua Heschel

What Really Is THE Question?


A while ago, I sent some of my essays to Susannah Heschel, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s daughter. She wrote back that she liked the pieces and asked if I could write something on Yitro, her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah Parasha last year on Shabbat Yitro.

Dear Avigael Natania Mira,

It is with great humility and appreciation that I submit this writing in honor of your Bat Miztvah in memory of your Grandfather Abraham Joshua Heschel and in response to a request from your Mom.

I am not sure if Mom would ask you to write a paper you would receive that request as I did, with trepidation and awe. Perhaps after experiencing some of these thoughts you will realize why I was so moved when the daughter of Rabbi Heschel posed this request.

Avigael, now that your Bat Mitzvah is upon you, what will tomorrow bring? How will your behavior change? What is new for you? What is your role in our Jewish world? What is your role in the World? How will you represent your Jewish role to the World? How will you carry on the representation of a monumental figure and your distinct lineage to the Jewish and Non Jewish world? Your decisions on how you carry yourself carries perhaps a greater consequence than most, because of your Judaism and the direct relation to the Eternity of Avraham Joshua Heschel’s influence.

Tony Robbins is a world famous orator, author, life coach, skill instructor and personality that  is recognized as enabling and enriching many of those he touches toward a more successful life and livelihood. His messages revolve around tapping into your inner potential and sharing skill sets that will allow you to become the best you can be and succeed in what you take on.

In a very early lecture he gave,Tony puts forth what appears to be a simple yet vital instruction. A secret to fulfillment and achievement is a result of the decisions you make. He pushes the importance of making a decision and how that may be the most important act one can take on, to make decisions, to take that action and realize a life as a result of all our decisions.

When I first heard that over 20 years ago it truly was a wow and it still resonates with me. However, with all due respect to Mr. Robbins, there is an action more powerful and in my view more potent, indeed an intuitively Jewish exercise to initiate. That is to ask questions. To continually ask questions and as a result pursue those questions with integrity and then take action, make that decision, with confidence.  In order to make that commitment, to embark on the journeys that will define your life that will shape your and our world, it begins with questions. Look at Moshe’s dialogue at the burning bush prior to his next steps, “Who am I?….What shall I say your name is? And G-d asks Moshe questions.  “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes a man mute, deaf or seeing or blind?  A question raised by your Grandfather there, “how is it the fire did not consume the bush” as he brings it up relevant to your Parasha “ how can one see the fire and thunder and endure the voice of G-d and survive?”

Questions are what lead to awareness, knowing, proper responses and actions. The answers are vital, they lead to either success, mediocrity or failure. The Rabbis tell us that the requirements of the Passover Seder are not fulfilled unless a child asks a question… that the experience generate enough curiosity for a question. Another requirement for a proper Seder is that we are asked to perform the re-enactment in such a way that we can see ourselves actually living in the Exodus. To invoke that kind of wonder that is indicative of curiosity, questions and living the words we are given. That we are there those very days!

With those thoughts in place, lets briefly explore Yitro in a Heschilian manner that G-d willing will have an impact through questions raised, responses received and decisions made in your life, Holy decisions.

First, allow the posing of a question in the context of my introduction; With the knowing that we live the Torah and applying the same concept in seeing yourself as being there during the Seder; Imagine you run into Yitro, what would his impression be of you and your ways?

May I say that of all insights and magnificence the pen of Abraham Joshua gave the world on Torah, perhaps more than any other Portion in the Torah, this Parasha is most witnessed in his writing and his living. I feel inclined to call it Heschel’s Parasha.

As you know, Abraham Joshua Heschel transcended religion, he was able to connect with, inspire and enlighten all peoples. Most famous of course was his relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King, but he also was able to persuasively influence the Pope among many others. Heschel truly lived the mission of being a “light onto nations.” Clearly, the lives of the people he touched, Heschel himself, the world and the Jewish people were enriched as a result of these relationships. One may even suggest, as was G-d’s being.

To truly get the power of this major theme, let’s revisit last week’s reading, Beshallah – During the encounter with Amalek, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that the Israelites had been oriented in the ways and Miracles of G-d, but he points out, “There was yet one experience left for them to undergo during those weeks of preparation for receiving the Law; they had yet to learn the position for the future nation of G-d as a nation among other nations.”—In essence he was indeed asking a question. Writing about the threat as experienced by Amalek, were they ready? I believe his statement has more meaning and implications than that. What is our position as a nation among other nations?

The Sfas Emes (someone your grandfather felt needed more attention) on commenting on this Parasha brings down a statement from Jeremiah, “The Lord is my strength and my stronghold, my refuge on the day of trouble; unto you nations will come from the far corners of the earth.”  The Sfas Emes shares, “G-d has chosen the children of Israel as His own portion. One might think that this would make for a greater distance between G-d and the other nations. But actually, just the opposite is true. This was G-d’s deeper plan, to bring all the nations near to Him by means of Israel. Israel understands this and it is their desire to bring everyone close to G-d.”

For just a bit, let’s examine direct implications relayed in the reading this week; It says ”And Moshe went out…” How can you construe that? How about, he left his shtetl to interact with the world in pursuit of his/our mission?  Later it reads  “Moshe told his father in law all that G-d had done for Yisrael…….Yitro said  Blessed Be G-d.”  Moshe set the stage for the importance and the prophesy of enlightening the world on our ways, of G-d’s ways and to me the message and results are most evident. Didn’t Jethro have multiple names throughout the Bible? Could that possibly represent multiple nations? To carry our message throughout the world? Does not the midrashim suggest that Yitro converted to our ways?

Heschel points out in contrast to Samuel, who moved from place to place mixing with others, “Noach stayed at home, waiting for others to come to him. He and his family were saved, while his generation perished.”    In a book from one of his Talmidin, Heschel, Hassidism and Halacha, Rabbi Samuel Dresner,  relays a story when R. Heschel spoke at a corporate retreat for Bell (telephone company) executives, one (a gentile) said he felt that he was in the presence of a Prophet, that if he (Heschel) would extend his hand, he would take it and go where ever Heschel would go. That is the relationship of Yitro to Moshe. AND! There is a payoff to these relationships as is evidenced in the results of Yitro asking questions of Moshe regarding his management burden of the Israelites, “What is this you are doing for the people? Why are you sitting alone and all the people standing around you from morning until evening?” These questions led to guidance provided by Yitro allowing Moshe to effectively Govern and make Management Decisions that enabled the methodical and profitable performance of the New Jewish Enterprise, becoming a Nation. The course of history was steadied and our eternity secured. By the way, if you examine the guidance of Yitro, you’ll find that same wisdom called upon in the world’s best companies today.

Avigael, what would Yitro see when he meets you!? What do you look (Jewish perspective) like? Would you move him? Would he see G-d’s Miracles through you? Would Yitro see your Light? Would Yitro want to further your life’s goals?

Let’s spend a few minutes going deep into some of your grandfather’s thoughts that can inspire all our behavioral decision making in our encounters with all mankind and Hashem.

As I shared earlier Dr. Heschel reveals much thought on what led up to and includes the revelation. Keep in mind, we just experienced the makos/plagues, splitting of the sea, manna, water from the rock, etc….He writes in an essay your mom compiled in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity “The Hebrew Bible records G-d’s mighty acts in history. What is overlooked is that on every page of the Bible we come upon G-d’s hoping and waiting for man’s mighty acts.”  Avigael, what are those “mighty acts” G-d is seeking?

Heschel raises a multitude of questions here…”To us today the great puzzle is: how is revelation possible? How to conceive that which is eternally hidden should become revealed? While as to the Biblical man the great puzzle is: how is the experience of revelation possible? How is it possible for man to endure the shattering presence of G-d?”  Keep in mind these questions follows some of his writing on how the bush was not consumed by the fire…? What was that fire?

Heschel takes from the Parasha, “Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire; the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, the whole mountain trembled greatly”…. He writes, “ To the Biblical man, the miracle of revelation was not only in the fact of G-d speaking but also in the fact of man being able to endure it.”

In a sub-chapter, The Two Aspects, Heschel notes from this Parasha “The Lord came down upon Mount Sinai”…….then a few posuks later it relays..”I have talked to you from heaven”  He did not descend upon the earth; all that happened was that his word welled “from heaven.”– summing up Heschel’s thoughts regarding The Two Aspects he points out…  ‘For revelation was both an event to G-d and a event to man… The same act had two aspects. G-d did and did not descend upon the earth. The voice comes out of heaven but man heard it out of Sinai.”

What does all this mean? How does it relate to my questions to you as a Bat Mitzvah and to all of us as a Holy People?  How do we answer or resolve these puzzling questions. From a Heschelian perspective how does the fire burn bright and not consume? The answers I believe are in what Heschel writes above in The Two Aspects, “revelation was an event for G-d and an event for Man.” As he writes, those events were twofold  Mattan Torah – Giving and Kabballat Torah – Receiving. This all leads to the answers on how to make sense of it and bear it all.  As I see it, we must live it. Truly absorb G-d’s call and really live it. To treat these “mighty acts” that G-d is seeking from us as events. These mighty acts are the Mitzvahs you, we are children of. To understand the meaning of G-d came down upon Mount Sinai but “talking from Heaven” coupled with the eternity- the fire that doesn’t consume, we must be, live that fire through our embodiment of the mighty acts, that is How Yitro will be so moved as he meets you.

You know well that Abraham Joshua Heschel embodied this exalted form of living. How do we, can we approach this manner of being of realizing wonder from each of the Mitzvahs and of everything and everyone we encounter and to share that wonder as he did. R. Heschel gives us the ways. He suggests not to succumb as most do in their search for G-d by looking at nature or an amazing happening and say simply, there is G-d. Of course G-d is there, but he reveals a simple approach to Holiness and awe– to question, what is behind, who is responsible for what I see or experience? To ponder on the question as if seeing a magnificent watch and thinking about the watchmaker.

Next, as Heschel writes in G-d In Search of Man pointing out that only Moshe drew near the thick darkness… “Thus the word of G-d entered the world of man; not an ought to,….. a perpetual event, a demand of G-d more real than a mountain, more powerful than all thunders….” he is referring to the Mitzvahs of which he says  “the commandment is the link of man to G-d. Man’s existence has a touch of eternity… G-d is waiting for his deeds.”

So, how do we bring this awe, this wonder, this thunder to our lives in fulfilling our mission and the revelation? As Heschel analyzed in Torah Min Hashamayin from this Parasha “On the the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on THIS VERY day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai” He brings down Ben Zoma “It is not written on that very day, but rather on THIS VERY day.” The point, to see Sinai as it is happening now, that you are receiving Torah every day, THIS VERY DAY. The words, the mighty acts shared then, see them as they are happening now, as you are there. R. Heschel illustrates this with his very life, that this is the approach to live, for a Jew to live. To see wonder in everything. To receive those “mighty acts” and make them events! To celebrate our mission for all to see and that is how the fire does not consume but shines bright for eternity. Live that Holiness and we know how Yitro and all will respond when meeting you. “Blessed Be G-d.”

Avigael, in closing I want to pose this thought revolving around What really is The question? You will hear many Drashas in your life, allow me to share something with you that has always disturbed me. A Rabbi, professor, a professional orator or even a casual speaker at a function will say; “The question in this week’s Sedrah is….” Really!?  Anytime you hear that “The Question is..”,  ask are there are no other questions? Think about it. “The Question?” How could that ever possibly be? Just by stating “The Question” so much potential is eliminated. In every instance you experience this statement you can substitute “The” with “A” except in one instance. Let’s ask your grandfather for guidance in “THE” response.

Many times Abraham Joshua Heschel (whom you were named for) refers to THE ultimate question. THE question that  truly leads to all other questions and provides the basis for ALL our decisions is, What does G-d want from me? That is THE question!  And, we have the guidebook with the answers, Torah. Avigael Natania Mira, now is the time in your life to pose that question and make the right decisions.  It is all uniquely revealed in Heschel’s Parasha, in your Parasha. Please do let me know what Yitro says.

Shabbat Shalom and MAZAL TOV!

About the Author
Co-founded with Nan Klein in 1976 one of the country's first video companies. We produce programming for the top organizations in the world. We live a fully Shomer Shabbat life in Woodmere, NY.
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