Friday, March 26, 2004

The Interview

I’m used to asking personal questions, not answering them. As a Rabbi, I prepare for weddings and funerals with personal questions about the couple’s aspirations and the deceased’s character. So I probe personal lives, obliviously doing my job, searching for speechworthy material. But I must admit that it was unsettling when I finally found myself on the receiving end of personal questions.

It was a school project; Two high school students were interviewing me. They wanted to know about my heroes, my interests, and what inspired me to become a Rabbi. And I found it difficult to give answers. It’s always awkward to open up about personal matters, even if they’re trivial. But remarkably, I didn’t have immediate answers; I had never thought much about these questions before.

We don’t ask ourselves serious questions, and that’s a shame. Good questions are the difference between mediocrity and excellence. Indeed, the right question can be revolutionary. Theodore Herzl asks: “Can we wait in pious resignation till the princes and peoples of this earth are more mercifully disposed towards us?”. Because of this question we now have a State of Israel. Martin Luther King asks: “Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or the extension of justice?”. Because of this question the civil rights movement grows, and racism slowly begins to crumble. Simple, sincere questions can start revolutions.

What makes questions so powerful is the way they strip away the veneer of falsehood. Incessant logic has a way of exposing the corrupt realities hidden beneath phony explanations. Good questions persist until they finally get a genuine answer.

Unfortunately, our predisposition is to ignore and accept. Anyone who has fallen victim to fraud (as I have) knows that you always look back and wonder: “why didn’t I ask any questions?”. Just a little more scrutiny and you would have figured it out. But we’re simply not in the habit of asking questions, even of relative strangers, and blindly accept the status quo.

And the last person we’d ever ask questions of is ....ourselves. We have “excuses” (lies, actually) to explain why we are lazy and disengaged . Our true priorities get submerged under self deceptions like “I’ll do it when I have a chance” and “it’s not my responsibility”. We unquestioningly smother our souls in phony excuses, and as a result remain mediocrities.

The Talmud says that after we die, we are interviewed by an angel who asks us whether we lived a life focussed on family, ethics, spirituality and hope. Truth is, we need to ask these questions while we’re still alive. And that’s the exactly the point of the Talmud: it’s a terrible shame to wait until you’re interviewed, whether by angels or teenagers, before thinking seriously about life.

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