Just Ask Questions
The questions were like a barrage from one of my favorite childhood games called Crossfire. This was probably not helped by the fact that my dad worked as a professional interviewer in HR. All of our friends knew that when they came over, they were going to face a litany of questions at the Yolkut house. Never intended as an act of intimidation, the questions that were asked were always of the get-to-know-you variety. I liked to think of it as our way of showing you that we cared about you.
It’s something that has made its way into my adult life with Lauren. When we have the chance to gather with folks, we often discuss after the fact whether folks made space for us by asking questions. How did we do in asking them? Questions are not only a great way to understand someone but they also signal to the other person that you’re interested in understanding them. An awareness of the other is a conscious move on behalf of someone who knows how to make space.
It is a concept rooted in a powerful moment in the Torah portion this week. Jacob has a dream in which angels ascend and descend a ladder and a promise is given to him. Then we are told the following (28:16):
“Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely God is present in this place and I did not know.”
The traditional commentaries on this suggest Jacob was upset that he did not realize God was in this place so he should’ve slept elsewhere or prepared accordingly.
However, to fully grasp the following teaching, we need to understand a peculiarity in the Hebrew of this verse. The text tells us that certainly God was in this place and then it says, ואנכי לא ידעתי, literally translated as “And I, I did not know.” The construction of “לא ידעתי–Lo Yadati” includes the first person, so saying “Anokhi-I” beforehand seems superfluous.
On this seeming redundancy, I share with you the following teaching from the Tiferet Shlomo, Rabbi Shlomo Hakohen Rabinowitz, the first Rebbe of the Radomsk Chasidic dynasty in 19th century Poland:
“This “I, I did not know,” means I did not know myself at all. I was not aware of myself at all, but only of the unity of the Holy One.”
Picking up on that extra “I” word, the Tiferet Shlomo realizes the text must be telling us something deeper about Jacob’s personal transformation in this moment. In order to recognize God, Jacob had to nullify his own self. Remember, this is Jacob’s first journey after having been sent off from his father, immediately after his continued embroilment with his brother, Esav. He had been so wrapped up in his own conflicts with his brother and father that it took this moment for him to encounter God. He had to suppress himself in order to meet the Divine.
This idea can be instructive for us as it relates to how we relate to others. In this case, Jacob had to make space for God by doing some self-contraction. In our relationships, sometimes we need to put ourselves to the side to make room for others.
This manifests most strongly for me in asking questions. When I push my needs aside, it allows for an interest to grow with those around me. It doesn’t need to happen all the time. Hopefully, those with whom I am in relationship are reflecting back to me, creating that same space for my self to inhabit. In that space grows the potential divine spark of a friendship.
The next time you find yourself in such a setting, pay attention. How much are you talking? How much are you asking? What space are you making for others? In those answers, you very well may find something greater than yourself.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Weekend, y’all!