Questions and Answers

New York
August 23rd 2012 / 5th Elul 5772

Dear All,

It’s the dog-days of summer, but also the pre-season for the New Year.  College students are moving into new dorms; rabbis are getting ready for Rosh Hashanah sermons. The shofar is blown at the start of morning services.  The political conventions are about to happen. A new 7+ year daf yomi cycle is underway.

And I find myself thinking about questions and answers. In a few different contexts, in the last week or two, I was either revising educational materials, or else meeting with Jewish institutional leaders and talking about the forthcoming shmita (sabbatical year), which starts on Rosh Hashanah 5775 (2014).

Old models of pedagogy, and old models of orthodoxy – Jewish, Christian, and Western – tended to focus on answers and, in particular, the right answers. More recent ones nominally emphasize questions – “the question is more important than the answer,” etc.

I’m struck by how corrupting it is when people ask rhetorical questions, or questions to which they seek to elicit a particular answer. If you know the answer, why ask the question? Don’t waste my time. Or don’t pretend that you’re respecting my opinion, when really you’re not.

I think this is especially a problem in certain parts of the liberal Jewish world.  I was going through some educational materials last week and I was trying to drill in to questions that are real questions.  I think we do this too infrequently.

In relation to some of our educational materials I was thinking about the root word “yetzer,” which in context means something like “inclination” or “desire” or – more bluntly – “lust.” Jewish tradition is very engaged with the notion of kefiyat yetzer – focusing the will, which is sometimes mistranslated as “focusing [or controlling] the evil inclination.”  But yetzer is not the same as yetzer hara – evil inclination. Jewish tradition sees yetzer as a primal human drive; something that causes us to build houses, get married, start businesses, have kids.  Kefiyat yetzer doesn’t mean controlling the evil inclination; what it means is focusing our inclinations, our drives, so that we do good and not ill. That may seem to you like a subtle distinction, but it is not. Rather than seeing our will as inherently evil – the idea of primal sin in the Catholic tradition – Jewish tradition sees us as being, in a sense, unformed. We make ourselves every day, afresh, choosing and re-choosing between good and evil, and the many shades in between. And we know from contemporary social psychology that prior behavioral choices we make – choices of environment in particular – influence the decisions we then make. (If you’re trying to focus your inclination away from eating too much sugar, start by putting yourself in an environment without cookies and sugary snacks.)

So as we move towards Rosh Hashanah, I leave you with these genuine, non-rhetorical questions:

  • Where do you focus your will easily, and where not?
  • What aspects of your environment – home, work, school – support your best self?
  • What are the one or two things that most distract you, or bring you down? Are there simple changes that you could or should think about that would help you to focus your will a little better in the coming year?

And – in relation to answers, and not questions – I also want to share with you with one of my favorite quotes from Wendell Berry. I write this from memory – the quote may be inexact – but somewhere, 30-odd years ago, he wrote, “we nowadays use our bodies simply to move our brains from where they were last needed to where they will next be needed.”

It’s a striking quote, and he meant it as a damning indictment of a world in which most of us don’t grow our own food or weave our own clothes or build our own houses. But since he wrote it an awful lot of us stopped using our bodies even to move our brains from place to place – we delegated that task to cars, in particular.

In this last year, since I came back from my mini-sabbatical, I have indeed been using my body to move my brain from place to place, cycling especially the 8 ½ miles from my home, on the upper west side, to my office near Wall St, and back again.  It’s been the first year that I’ve really cycled to and from work so consistently – including at least a few days in the winter when it was under 20 degrees. (Kudos to Mayor Bloomberg and Transportation Alternatives for strengthening New York’s network of protected bike lines.)

I mention this because, even though I’ve been running Hazon for a dozen years now, I’ve been shocked at what a powerful form of kefiyat yetzer it has been. Riding to work is mostly a decision of prior planning: if I put my clothes out the night before, if I figure out what I’ll need in different circumstances, if I know what the weather’s going to be, if I have things I need at the office, then usually I’ll get on my bike in the morning. If I didn’t plan it properly, if I’m not prepared, then I don’t. And when I do ride my bike I feel better – not often, but always, absolutely without exception. I feel sharper, I feel happier, I feel better rested.  I shouldn’t be surprised by this: we’ve evolved over 10,000 generations, and it’s only in the last one or two that we’ve so enabled ourselves not to use our bodies.

So as we head into the new year, I bless you and me and all of us that we should ask ourselves genuine questions – and when we hear an answer we know to be true, we try to bring it to fruition.

Shabbat shalom


Nigel Savage
Executive Director, Hazon

P.S. A huge mazal tov to our Cross-USA Riders, who cycled in to DC last week – an incredible achievement. And if you want to push yourself a little – in a warm and supported environment – now’s the last moment to sign up to join me at the Hazon New York and the Arava Institute Hazon Israel Ride.

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