Early in my adolescence, I discovered Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. I devoured the book, and 78 pages later, my life had been permanently changed. Quotes from the potent little tome, meticulously typed and printed from my parents' computer, began to find their way onto my bedroom walls. Here was the answer to all of my innumerable adolescent questions:
"Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."
I was well-accustomed to the impact of books on my life. As a child, Maurice Sendak's eerie children's tale, Outside Over There, compelled me with enchanting force. I was 5 years old when my mother brought the book home, and it didn't take more than one reading to recognize myself in its pages. There we were–all of us, so vivid–a family falling apart, and one little girl striving desperately to sustain and protect them.
"What are you going to do to save your family?" The book seemed to ask me, and I didn't know the answer, so I just read it, over and over again, hoping that a solution would manifest.
Later, The Catcher in the Rye let me in on a profound little secret or two: I wasn't the only one who didn't fit in, and yes–they were all a lot of phonies.
The way I see it, each of these books is distinctly Jewish. "How will you put your fragmented family back together?" Outside Over There demanded. "How will you learn self-respect in a world where you don't fit in?" The Catcher in the Rye challenged. And Rilke, with his Letters to a Young Poet, gave the most Jewish answer of all: Live the questions.
Judaism teaches that good questions lead to even better questions. We've all heard (and lived) the old joke:
Someone asks a Jew, "Why do Jewish people always answer a question with a question?"
To which the Jew responds, "Why not?"
Judaism encourages us to ask questions from earliest childhood. For most of us, The Four Questions of the Passover Seder is some of the first Jewish text we learn by heart. It teaches us that we all ask questions differently, but that each of our questions is important.
With the Days of Awe approaching, we all have our own set of questions to grapple with. I like to focus on positively phrased questions: "How can I be a better daughter, a better sister, a better girlfriend, a better dog-owner, a better friend, a better writer, a better citizen, a better Jew…ad infinitum…in the coming year?"
For those seeking a little extra help with their questions in 5768, Rabbi Jennifer Krause has the answer, and yes: True to form, it comes as a series of questions. Her new book, The Answer: Making Sense of Life One Question at a Time will hit the shelves on October 2. Krause's aim is not to give people answers, but rather to reintroduce the power of the questions themselves, a method of self-improvement which she believes is deeply Jewish.
Why? Why the heck not?