“No man regrets of his evil, saying, What have I done? Each one running to his own course, as the horse rushes into the battle” (Jeremiah 8:6). The verse teaches that Jeremiah’s generation would pursue and go by the momentum of habit and conduct, without leaving themselves time to consider their deeds and ways. Thus they fell into evil without even seeing it. In truth, this is one of the cunning strategies of the evil inclination, to relentlessly burden people’s hearts so as to leave them no room to reflect and consider which road they are taking (Mesilat Yesharim, Zehirut 2)
I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy, of course, was at his elbow in a moment. Before I knew where I was I saw my 20 years’ work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defence by argument I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch. The Enemy presumably made the counter-suggestion (you know how one can never quite overhear what He says to them?) that this was more important than lunch. At least I think that must have been His line for when I said “Quite. In fact much too important to tackle at the end of a morning,” the patient brightened up considerably; and by the time I had added “Much better come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind,” he was already half way to the door. Once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man’s head when he was shut up alone with his books, a healthy dose of “real life” (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all “that sort of thing” just couldn’t be true (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, #1).
Questions are precious. However, they have a habit of passing through our minds and getting lost in the busy-ness that is life. In the midst of a shiur or havrusa, we can raise questions on the matter at hand. Out on the street amidst “real life,” or when lunch is devilishly on the mind, it is more difficult to give a question the thought that it deserves. This is true for each of us as individuals – it is likewise true for us as part of our communities and as a society.
Genesis Rabba 39:1 emphasizes Abraham’s initiative in bringing about God’s revelation. It emphasizes his willingness to see his surroundings and to formulate critical questions:
Rabbi Yitzhak said: this may be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a castle aglow. He said, “Is it possible that this castle lacks a person to look after it?” The owner of the building looked at him and said to him, “I am the master of the castle.” What happened with Abraham our father was similar. He said, “Is it possible that this universe lacks a person to look after it?” The Holy Blessed One looked at him and said to him, “I am the Master of the Universe.”
TRADITION Questions, our new digital feature launching this week, is a project devoted to this culture of questioning. It will attempt to preserve this legacy of Abraham within a new context. There are many castles still aglow. We would do well to take note of such castles and ask what their existence means to us and to our religious lives. As students of Jeremiah (and Mesilat Yesharim), we would likewise benefit by asking, “What have we done and what are we doing?”
Each short essay will pose a question relating to our religious community or aspects of general society that affect our community. Each installment will contain three parts:
What will such questions do? They will open discussion by explaining the need for that discussion. Questions create two worlds – the world as it seems to be and the world as it might yet become. Some upcoming titles:
We hope that TRADITION Questions will gather thoughtful reflections on contemporary social phenomena within our Jewish communities with a spirit of curious introspection. These questions will spark conversations among our readers and within those communities about failures and successes, risks and opportunities. Please join us in the discussion. Please ask questions.
Chaim Strauchler, an associate editor of TRADITION, is rabbi of Cong. Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck.