Your Shul at the Jersey Shore

Shabbat Parshat Shmini 5778

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Not Enough Questions

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5773

Every year I notice that I receive more questions in in the 3 weeks or so leading up to Pesach than I do during the rest of the year combined. It is a good news bad news scenario. It is very good that we care about Pesach and pay extra careful attention to the details of the mitzvoth of the holiday. It is relatively bad news for the rest of the year but more on that in a moment.

The other pattern that I noticed and this was more interesting was that nearly everyone apologized before they asked their question. I am sorry to bother you but can I ask you a question?

Only a handful of people prefaced their question with “I hope this is not a stupid question”.

There is a small and underappreciated section of our parsha that contains an important message for us regarding asking questions.

Most of our attention is drawn to the death of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s two sons and to the section detailing the laws of kashruth.

In between those sections there is a brief exchange between Moshe and Aaron regarding the eating of a particular sacrifice.

The kohanim are given laws regarding the eating of the sacrifices and Moshe comes to inquire about the goat that was given as a sin offering. Moshe inquires and finds that it was burnt. He turns to Elazar and Itamar and ostensibly Aaron and asks “why did you burn the sacrifice that you were supposed to eat? Those were the rules, why did you not follow them?

Aaron responds – today we brought the olah and sin offerings and then the tragedy befell us, do you think that God wanted us to eat the sin offering?

Moshe heard and it was good in his eyes.

What does Aaron’s response mean and why is it pleasing to Moshe?

Aaron responds with a halachik argument. The tragedy befell us and we became onenim, the status given to people between death and burial of a relative, and the halacha is that an onen does not perform mitzvoth. Thus given our onen status we could not eat the meat; that is not what God would not have wanted, so we burnt it!

A detail in the halacha that Moshe is not aware of is presented and accepted.

Why was that pleasing to Moshe? He is the teacher of Torah; he is the master, why does this make him happy?

Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno argues that Moshe is pleased that his brother has reached the status of being able to learn and decide the halacha.

Rashi offers a much more basic but fundamentally important answer. He writes:

 הודה ולא בוש לומר לא שמעתי Moshe admitted defeat and was not embarrassed to say I never heard that. There is no shame in admitting that you do not know something. If that is true of Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest prophet to ever live, the master teacher of Torah, how much more so is it true for every other Jew who has ever lived.

Still the commentators are bothered, could it be that Moshe never heard this halacha and Aaron did? Didn’t all of the Torah come from God to Moshe to the people?

The Riva, in the 14th century in his commentary to the Torah argues that Rashi is using shorthand to reference a Gemara in Zevachim that has a slightly different version of Moshe’s response.

הודה ולא בוש לומר לא שמעתי אלא שמעתי ושכחתי זבחים ק“א ב– Moshe admitted and was not embarrassed to say – I learned that and I forgot.

That is even more amazing- Moshe is not embarrassed to admit that he forgot. And if Moshe can forget that which he learned, how much more so every other Jews who has ever lived…

Riva also points us to the 5th chapter of Pirkei Avot (Mishna 7) where the sages highlight the importance of humility in learning.

The Mishna lists 7 traits or items that a wise person possesses. One of those is the ability to say “regarding that which I have not heard, I did not know that”.  In order to grow in wisdom, to be a wise person you need to know that you don’t know everything and you can’t be embarrassed to acknowledge that verbally.

The Mishna ends that the opposite of these 7 traits renders one a golem! Only a golem, a mindless clay creature would think that they are all knowing and not be ready to admit that they did not know something. 

What is the difference between the wise man and the golem? One might be tempted to argue that the difference is the ability to think and to learn. The Mishna tells us that this is not completely true. The real difference is the desire to think and to learn.

When you do not know something – there is an inherent tension between being embarrassed that you don’t know and the desire to learn, between the ability to protect one’s self and the ability to grow.

That is why the same Mishnayot in Pirkei Avot teach us that velo habayshan lomed, (avot 2/5) – the one who is embarrassed will not learn.

Rabbeinu Yona in his commentary to that Mishna writes that while a certain amount of shame can be positive in many areas of one’s life but never in learning.

Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno there writes the obvious, one who does not ask because he is she is fearful of what others will think of them, will remain forever with their questions.

You cannot learn if you don’t ask!

I want to conclude by responding to the observations with which I began.

  • There is no such thing as a stupid question if your desire is to learn.
  • Please don’t apologize for asking questions. You should never apologize for wanting to learn. And you should know that I love answering questions because it means that you want to learn and know and grow religiously.
  • Please give some thought as to why it is that you ask so many questions around Pesach and not as many during the other 11 months of the year. It cannot be that we know everything. Even Moshe did not know everything. And it cannot be that we don’t forget things, as even Moshe learned and then forgot. Maybe we take Pesach more seriously than other areas of Jewish law, maybe we know more and so we can ask more, or maybe we are simply happy where we are during the rest of the year and apply the don’t ask don’t tell policy.

Whatever the reason, you cannot learn if you don’t ask, so please ask. I would love to get questions throughout the year as I do on Pesach!