Kol Nidre : The Four Questions

Kol Nidre
The Four Questions
October 9, 2008
Rabbi Marc D. Rudolph
Although an honest judicial system is essential for the proper functioning of a society, nobody ever wants to go to court. If you must go to court, of course you want the best attorney, and the best preparation, that you can properly have. If this is true for a court composed of men and woman of flesh and blood, how much more so is it true of the Heavenly Court. And although we stand a chance of avoiding going to court in our lifetimes, according to our tradition, each year, on Yom Kippur, this Yom HaDin, this Day of Judgement we come before G-d to be judged.

“You truly judge and admonish, You know our motives, you witness our actions,” says the prayer Unetaneh Tokef. “You write, you seal, you count, you measure. You remember all that has been forgotten. Everyone passes before you. You review every living being. You decree the destiny of every living creature.” What questions will we be asked when our case comes before G-d? If we knew the questions beforehand, we could prepare ourselves with answers that would vindicate us before the heavenly court. In fact, the Talmud offers us speculation on how G-d evaluates our lives. These are the Four Questions. Not the four questions of the Passover seder — a different set of questions. The questions don’t concern the performance of ritual tasks, like the Seder questions. Nor do they concern the belief in G-d. It is not about whether you fasted on Yom Kippur, or even how often you attended services. The Four questions are interesting because they shed light on important Jewish values that should guide our lives. The first question is, “Did you carry out your business affairs honestly?” Given the state of our country’s current economic affairs, there may be a lot of answering for that has to be done today. Conducting ourselves with monetary integrity with Jews and non-Jews alike — is more impressive to our neighbors than any ritual undertaking, any belief, that we might have. The 13th century French legal scholar Rabbi Moses of Coucy ruled that Jews must be particularly honest in their dealings with gentiles lest a Jew cheat a non-Jew and the latter then resolve never to convert to Judaism. Indeed, it is agonizing when a Jewish businessman or woman is accused or convicted of cheating . You may recall the story of Jack Abramoff, who was sentenced last year to 5-10 years in prison for fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy in a the Washington Lobby scandal. Abramoff was raised as a conservative Jew, attended Brandeis in part because he heard that it had a kosher kitchen, and led a committed Jewish life. He said of his legal problems: “I had lost a sense of proportion and judgment. God sent me 1,000 hints that He didn’t want me to keep doing what I was doing. But I didn’t listen until He sent this catastrophe.” The second question one will be asked by the Heavenly Court is: Did you set aside time for Torah study?” A favorite saying of Hillel’s was: “Do not say, ‘When I have leisure, I will study, for you may never have leisure.'” There are many opportunities to study right here at Congregation Beth Shalom. Every Thursday around lunchtime we gather in our library to study the 613 commandments as the Rambam understood them. On Saturday morning before services we have a text study of the weekly parasha. Yesterday our cantor started her adult bar and bat mitzvah class this year. You can learn about knitting and about the tallit by attending a workshop on October 23 on “How to knit a Tallit.” I will be teaching a course on business ethics and professional relationships in the Talmud. If you want to learn how to read Hebrew, we have an adult beginners course, “Read Hebrew America” starting on November 6. We are living in a golden age of adult education in English. Thousands of volumes, heretofore only accessible to scholars who understood Hebrew, have been translated into English. The internet is a vast and convenient resource for study. Perhaps you are embarrassed to study. Perhaps you feel you don’t have the proper background. Our sages compare the Torah to water. Just as water descends drop by drop and eventually carves a river, so one who learns a little each day becomes a flowing fountain. The third question you will be asked according to the rabbis is, “Did you work at raising children?” When the Roman historian Tacitus wanted to describe the strange customs of the Jewish subjects of the Roman empire, he pointed to their strong desire to have children, which, he wrote, “made it a crime among the Jews to kill any child.” Among Greeks and Romans, exposing unwanted infants to the elements so they would die was a common practice. The also Torah warns us many times against giving our children to :Molech” — the practice of Israel’s neighbors to sacrifice their children to their gods. Some may say that they do not want to bring children into this world of violence, global warming and scarce resources. Raising children is an act of hope Even in the dark days of World War II, in the Warsaw Ghetto, Jewish women expressed their hope in the future through giving birth. One unknown diarist commented, on seeing two pregnant Jewish women, "If in today's dark and pitiless times a Jewish woman can gather enough courage to bring a new Jewish being into the world and rear him, this is great heroism and daring. . . . At least symbolically these nameless Jewish heroines do not allow the total extinction of the Jews and of Jewry." We are not going to finish our task of mending the world in our generation, so we need to raise children who will carry our work forward into the future. The fourth question is: Did you hope for the world’s redemption? If Judaism was only concerned with the individual, then the first three questions would be sufficient — But Judaism is also concerned with greater issues — have you concerned yourself with bringing the end of suffering and oppression to the world? Sometimes the problems of the world are so overwhelming we turn away. We feel impotent to change anything. Here it is wise to remember the words of our sages: “It is not up to you to finish the work, but neither are you free to neglect it.” These, then, are the Four Questions of Yom Kippur Why is this day different from all other days? On all other days we engage in earning a living. On this day we are judged by how honest we have been in our dealing with others. On all other days we pay some attention to the needs of the soul. On this day we are evaluated on how well we have set priorities in our lives. On all other days we engage in the nuts and bolts of raising our families. On this day we are evaluated on how well we are doing in passing our values on to our children and grandchildren. On all other days we hope for the redemption of the world. On this day we hope for the redemption of ourselves.