Shaya Cohen -


Why Me? Inquiring Minds Want to Know

My mother taught me from a young age that good questions are more important – and harder to create – than good answers. As I have grown up, her wisdom has been validated countless times: coming up with your very own question is something few people can do, while anyone can make a stab at an essay answering a question that someone else has posed.

The hardest questions – and answers – are the ones that are unique, the questions that help us find our own path in this world, whether in marriage or career, the ways in which we should invest in our friends, our children or our parents. And at some level, they sound self-centered, even bordering on narcissistic. But I think this is not the case: “Why me?” is a great question. You don’t have to take my word for it, of course: Rebecca (Rivka), Issac’s wife shows the way. She was pregnant, and the text tells us:

But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If this is the case, why do I exist?” She went to inquire (drash) of the LORD.

Look at her question! It is not “I want to know what G-d thinks.” Instead, she is asking about herself, in a personal way: “Who am I? Why is this happening to me?” The question seems to verge on the existential, which may not be what you would expect from a text dating from before the Greeks.

In some faiths, one is taught that whatever happens is destined to happen, written in some form in the stars, and that questioning what happens to us is pointless or even wrong. But in the Torah, Rivka demands an answer, and she receives it.

The way the Torah uses this word teaches us a great deal about the value of asking questions – especially of G-d.

If you search there for the LORD your God, you will find Him, if only you seek (drash) Him with all your heart and soul. (Deut. 4:29)

The key word is drash, which means to inquire or challenge, or seek. G-d clearly urges us to drash – but not merely to seek G-d, but to understand the relationship each one of us is capable of having with the Creator. This is a common question, but a question for which each person gets their very own answer!

Rivka’s question actually becomes the template for how Jews are meant to relate to G-d; the people take Rivka’s actions to heart. Much later in the text, after the Exodus, Moses tells his father-in-law what he does all day:

The people come to me to inquire (drash) of God.

Despite what you might think at first blush, drash is not the language of obedience or accepted subservience. It is the question of dogged and determined questioning. How do we know? Because G-d is the first to use the word in the text, and it is used to describe G-d’s response to murder. After the flood, G-d tells Noach:

But for your own life-blood I will require a drash: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a drash for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man!

G-d’s declaration that he will demand a reckoning of every murder is the very same word used to describe Rivka and Jewish queries to G-d. There is an equivalence here: we are meant to be just as zealous in questioning G-d and our connection to Him, as G-d is when he punishes murderers! The zealousness of our drash in questioning G-d is matched by G-d’s drash for addressing murder.

How can we compare the two? A murder is a life snuffed out, the opportunity to touch the infinite, lost. The text, by using the same word for human questions of G-d, is making an equivalence: an unexamined life, like a murder, is a terrible waste!

If you search there for the LORD your God, you will find Him, if only you seek (drash) Him with all your heart and soul. (Deut. 4:29)

It is extraordinary how personal this is – from Rivka’s deeply personal question about her pregnancy, to each person’s need to invest their own heart and soul – it is clear that G-d does not deal with mankind, or the Jewish people, as a group. Instead, the answers are found only if we seek them with every bit of ourselves – and the answer is different for each and every person, just as Rivka’s pregnancy was uniquely her own.

The result is an ageless characteristic of the Jewish people. From Rivka through holocaust survivors or parents of handicapped children, we are the people who drash. We push, we ask, we are not to be satisfied with bromides like “It is G-d’s will.” Because, after all, it may be G-d’s will that our challenges are there specifically to get us to ask the question! Our forefathers asked questions and challenged G-d, arguing when they thought they were right; the text is clear that we are to follow their lead.

Our questions, like Rivka’s, do not need to be channeled through a sage or a prophet. Though if Moses is handy, it is not hard to see the logic of asking him! In Rivka’s case we do not know precisely how she had her question answered, which I think is a key part of the point: she “went to drash G-d.” She stepped out of herself, and she sought answers.

When G-d asks the questions, drash seems to mean a divine reckoning, paying the price for our actions – as it was used with Noach, describing the consequences of murder. Similarly, when Joseph has been sold into slavery, his oldest brother berates the other brothers:

Then Reuben spoke up and said to them, “Did I not tell you, ‘Do no wrong to the boy’? But you paid no heed. Now will come the drash for his blood.”

Elsewhere in the Torah, we use drash in formal courts to describe making inquiries as part of a legal process to ascertain fact and determine consequences, while G-d uses drash to watch over the way we live in the Land of Israel: questioning whether we are making good choices. The word, at least in relation to G-d, is integrally linked with taking responsibility for our own lives, for choosing to have conscious and thoughtful agency over our own decisions.

We are forbidden, on the other hand, to drash of the dead, presumably because Judaism is always focused on what each person can do next, not living a recursive loop with our past. As we know from the civilizations that have worshipped the dead, that path leads to stasis, existence without actual living.

Similarly, we are warned against querying how people worship other gods:

Beware of being lured into their ways … Do not drash about their gods, saying, “How did those nations worship their gods? I too will follow those practices.”

A key feature with idolatrous religions is that people are individually insignificant and non-differentiated when the deity is Mother Earth or Baal or Zeus. All of these faith systems ultimately treat people like animals, measured and valued for their economic output or offerings or emissions, not because they each have their own unique soul and pathway to making the world better and holier. In a Green worldview, each person is a blight on the environment, and their worth can be measured according to their carbon footprint – as opposed to a divinely-gifted spark that has the power to connect heaven and earth.

So if we drash into paganism, we are discarding each person’s own ability to ask their own questions and find their own answers. Instead, we follow a profoundly egalitarian worldview, seeing each person as quite rightly having their own opportunities and pitfalls, their own path in this world, a path that is only discovered in conversation with G-d.

The Torah tells us that questioning our own lives and what G-d expects from us is not only acceptable: it is an essential quality of what it means to be a Jew.

P.S. The last time the word drash is used in the Torah, it forms a fascinating bookend:

When you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will drash it of you, and you will have incurred sin. . .

Recall that the first time the word is used, it is post-flood, and G-d is telling Noach about the consequences of murder. And then at the end of the text, G-d is equally interested in mere vows! The text takes us from shedding blood to making a promise and not fulfilling it! The growth of mankind from the beginning of the Torah to the end is quite dramatic: we start as animals who kill, and we end as beings who recognize that our mere words have power to create or destroy. The spiritual power of a person to change the world using only words is connected to our ability to do violence and shed blood.

[an @iwe, @blessedblacksmith, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter collaboration!]

Comments are welcome!

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