Isidor I. Rabi, a Nobel Laureate in physics who died nearly 30 years ago, once told the following story: “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending to. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: So? Did you learn anything today? But not my mother…“Izzy,” she would say, “did you ask a good question today?” That difference—asking good questions—made me become a scientist.”
What separates a good question from a not-good question? The intent, tone, and wording of a question are all important. Does the question demonstrate honest curiosity and an authentic desire to know the answer? Does the question leave room for many answers, or is a certain set of answers either assumed or precluded in the asking? Does the question spark more questions?
In Parshat Lech Lecha, we are introduced to the first angel of God, whose appearance comes in the form of a question. The angel appears to Hagar, who is fleeing, having recently given birth to Ishmael and been placed under Sarah’s oppressive hand. Hagar is stopped in the desert near a spring, when an angel of God approaches her, asking, “Where are you coming from and where are you going?”
Is this a good question? The reader of this biblical passage may feel that the angel’s question is somewhat deceptive. The angel surely knows Hagar’s circumstances, and therefore cannot be asking out of curiosity. The great medieval commentator Rashi teaches that the angel “knew [the answer to the questions], but wanted to give her an opening to talk to him.” From Rashi’s explanation and the fact that Hagar replies, we might assume that the angel’s tone is inviting rather than off-putting. What about the wording? The question is simple enough and seems to leave room for answers. Yet, perhaps it is prescriptive, suggesting that there should be a place that Hagar is from and a place where she is going, and implying judgment if the question actually can’t be answered.
Hagar does not have the easy answer. Her origin story is fuzzy. While the biblical text teaches us earlier that she is Egyptian, the place from which she is coming is confined here to her relationship with Sarah: “I am fleeing from my mistress.” Hagar knows neither where she is coming from nor even where she is going—she is just fleeing. According to Sforno, a 16th-century Italian commentator, Hagar is saying to the angel: “I am not going to a place I have chosen myself; I am simply escaping intolerable conditions.” Hagar has no destination in mind and cannot see into her future, so she cannot answer the second half of the question.
Let’s try this question in a different situation. What if at the beginning of Parshat Lech Lecha, which is Abraham’s origin story, an angel had asked the same of him? He could have replied, “I am from Haran and am following my God to a land that will be shown to me.” With a sense of geographical grounding, even without a defined destination, Abraham can look into the future with some confidence and hope.
Imagining the question in yet another situation: What if the angel asked each of us, “Where are you coming from and where are you going?” As individuals, whether we acknowledge or understand it or not, we each have a sense of our own history that allows us to create a vision for the future. As a nation, differing understandings of both our history and our future have been central to the electoral politics of the last year, raising questions about who is (and can be) an American, what it might mean to “make America great again,” and how we can ensure a safe, productive, and healthy American future.
The ongoing struggle at Standing Rock exemplifies this tension. We need to understand the history of colonization and settlement in the United States, including treaties written in the 1800s, to relate to the struggle to support Indigenous sovereignty. The question of how to honor sacred land and burial grounds spans from the past to the future, and tensions surrounding the future of American energy needs are literally fueling the Dakota Pipeline project that the Water Protectors are standing up to resist.
The biblical text teaches that when the angel approaches her, Hagar is sitting by a spring of water, al eyn ha’mayim. According to Sforno, wherever there is a junction of two roads, it is described as eynayim (eyes) and the use of “eyn” here (in context, a spring, but a homonym for the word for eye) is a clue that Hagar is also sitting at a junction. Hagar’s choice is to either move further into the wilderness or return to a place of oppression. Without a clear sense of her history, Hagar chooses to follow the angel’s advice – to return to Sarah – and is rewarded for that choice through her son.
Many people have described this year’s election as a crossroads, a choice between two distinct paths into our future. We do not have an angel of God telling us to move in one direction or another—but we do have the angel’s question: Where are we coming from, and where are we going? The next President of the United States has been elected; we have chosen our direction at this particular crossroads, but there will be many others ahead in the context of this national choice. Striving to better understand our history and thinking deeply about our future will be important touchstones at every turn.
The questions we ask ourselves as we move forward should harness our curiosity and elicit our compassion, so that we can to listen to one another in a way that provides for the possibility of transformation and healing. And we must acknowledge that Hagar—literally, “the stranger”—still lives among us, see her sitting at the crossroads, and take the time to hear her story and her vision for what is yet to be, recognizing her history and her future as part of our own.
Rabbi Becky Silverstein is the Director of Education at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. Ordained at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, he also holds a Bachelor of Science in engineering science from Smith College. Becky has worked with youth and their families in a variety of settings, including serving as an educator and facilitator with Keshet.
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