Judaism loves questions.
During our daily prayers, we confront God with questions. On Shabbat and holidays, especially on Passover, we ask our children to ask us questions. And when a Jew meets another Jew, questions are often asked, and answered with… other questions.
If that is not enough, in the Talmud, there are more than 30 synonyms for the word “question,” alluding to our love for asking questions and leaving no stone unturned.
Isidor Isaac Rabi, the American physicist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1944, was once asked how he became such a prominent scientist. He replied: “It was thanks to my mother. Growing up, my friends would come back home from school, and their mother would ask them, ‘What did you learn today?’ But my mother asked me a different question. She would say: ‘Izzy, did you ask your teachers a good question today?’ That made all the difference. Asking my teachers good questions turned me into the scientist that I am today.”
Inspired by this obsession to question, I recall asking my dear mentor, world-scholar, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, just a few years ago: “What would you say is life’s most important question?”
Without skipping a beat, he replied: “‘And then what?” (-in Hebrew: “veaz ma?”) And he explained, with his characteristic smile:
“You see, it’s easy to fly into a passion. But what happens after the passion is gone? And then what? Our children become Bat and Bar Mitzvah with great excitement. But can they remain committed to Judaism, when no one is celebrating them anymore? Many weddings resemble extravaganza shows. But can our marriage continue to grow even when the sound of “here comes the bride” has been replaced with the sound of a baby crying? We graduate from school and celebrate our achievements with great pride? But can we continue to study with devotion, to live with passion, and to do good with conviction?”
His brilliant response sheds light today on two burning topics which we are all facing today: a. “how will our world look like after this pandemic fades away?” b. “Judaism’s take on graduations.”
During the upcoming months, we will hopefully also find ourselves in a new, post-covid-19 world.
But will we emerge from these historic times as better, healthier, and stronger people? Will we have responded to this universal crisis with a mightier show of love and unity? Will we have learned the many lessons that this global upheaval has taught us all – that our sense of certitude is an illusion; that the journey of life, with all of its fluctuations, is the destination; that the only true anchors of life are our beloved families, our true friends, our values, our moral compass, and our God-given skills and purpose; and that although we have no control over external circumstances, we do have full control over our attitude, and our ability to turn challenge into opportunity and darkness into light?
During the upcoming month, many of us will also congratulate relatives, friends, and acquaintances on their graduation from college, high school, elementary school, and yes, even kindergarten!
But will our graduates continue to grow and learn? Will they be able to say “hello” to the opportunities of tomorrow, with the same passion, joy, and enthusiasm, as they are saying “goodbye” to the efforts of yesterday? Will these graduations be remembered as the end of their achievements, or will they signify the beginning of a new and brighter chapter in their lives?
Indeed, life is an ongoing journey. We must pause to reflect on the past and present, however difficult as it may be, but we must never fully rest the flaps of our wings that push us forward and pull us upward. For no matter how much we have learned and accomplished, there is still so much more we can become, and do.
May God bless us with wisdom and courage to always respond to the “and-then-what question”, with vigor and conviction, and with never-ending growth, in all good areas, from strength to strength. Amen.