Asking Questions

רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר הַקַּפָּר אוֹמֵר, הַקִּנְאָה וְהַתַּאֲוָה וְהַכָּבוֹד, מוֹצִיאִין אֶת הָאָדָם מִן הָעוֹלָם:

Rabbi Elazar HaKapor says: Envy, lust and honor remove a person from the world.

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 4:21

One of the reasons I love engaging with Jewish texts is that they can spark so many questions. If you turn a text this way and that way, you will find all sorts of places to plug in and inquire, flexing the muscles of creativity, critical thinking, and communication. When we study text, we learn to operate in parallel at both surface and deep levels of reading, and to mine words and thoughts for relevance and meaning.

This practice is at the heart of any good Jewish Day School education, just as Torah is the foundation for all our Jewish practices and beliefs. Learning the many ways to use questions is one of the most powerful skills our schools teach, and our students use this skill both in ways that we encourage and in ways that we discourage. Sometimes we get frustrated when our children won’t stop questioning adult decisions, but honestly, isn’t this a value that we are clearly trying to instill in them?

When I read the quote above from Pirkei Avot, a few questions jump out at me:

  • I understand why envy and lust are things that the Rabbis would warn us about. Why is honor on this list?
  • Why do these things remove someone from the world? If anything, I would say that envy and lust probably root someone in the world more than is healthy.
  • What does it mean to remove a person from the world?

I don’t necessarily have answers to these questions, though I have some inclinations about the thinking that typically underlies such Rabbinic quotes. My guess is that it isn’t honor that removes someone from the world, but obsessing about being honored. That would fit with the other two items, as envy and lust are also really about wanting things that you don’t have. Constant concern over whether or not you are receiving the respect you feel you deserve is actually pretty destructive, and it does remove you from being present enough to appreciate what you have, just like envy does.

That said, there are times when these inclinations, taken in moderation, are not so unhealthy. Some amount of self-respect is appropriate, and helps you demand and get the respect that any human being deserves. Some amount of envy can lead to ambition, an appetite that, unless it is out of control, can lead you to great accomplishment. Some amount of lust as well can be healthy, as we know that physical desires like eating or intimacy are normal and healthy in Jewish tradition. I think the message might be to remember to watch out for the times when any of these impulses takes over, and leads you to make negative choices.

This Shabbat, I encourage you to speak with you children about times when you let healthy traits get out of control and lead you astray (appropriate stories only, of course). You can ask them about times when they felt like they really wanted something that belonged to someone else but couldn’t have it. What does that feel like? How does it impact the relationship?

Shabbat Shalom,