The Questions We Must Ask

We began by singing Mi HaIsh from Psalm 34: 13-15.

The song is taken directly from Psalm 34. Mi HaIsh…in essence means: Who is the person who desires a good life? One of the answers is sur mayra v’asay tov, turn from the bad and do the good.

This past week, we observed Rosh Hodesh Elul, the beginning of the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish year. It is an inescapable fact now, the High Holy Days are on the horizon.

Elul is a month which is dedicated to the process of teshuva: repentance, literally returning. It is a time in which we begin to seriously consider how we may “turn from the bad and do the good”.

One way to “do teshuva” is to ask ourselves serious questions. We can find general questions in the siddur: Mah anachnu, mah hayenu. What are we? What is our life?

The Talmud offers in a different context some more specific questions we might ask: Did we take time for Torah study? Were we honest in our business dealings? And, finally, my favorite question which actually doesn’t appear in the Talmud but is implied by one Talmudic teaching: did we take advantage of permitted pleasures in this beautiful world?

I love that question.

Mi HaIsh: Who is the person who desires a good life?

Mi HaIsh: Who is the person?

In today’s Torah portion we see the same words Mi HaIsh, repeated four times in a very interesting section of text in which the Torah identifies four groups of men who were granted exemption from battle. We read that the officers would stand in front of the people on the eve of battle and they say: Mi HaIsh.

Mi HaIsh? Who is the man who has built a house and not dedicated it yet?

Mi HaIsh? Who is the man who has planted a vineyard but didn’t drink its wine?

Mi HaIsh? Who is the man who has betrothed a woman but has not married her as of yet?

And, finally, Mi HaIsh? Who is the man who is of soft heart and who is afraid? Let them all return to their homes.

A person who had begun a process of building, planting or marrying and had not yet finished was allowed to return home to finish the process he had begun. A person who was afraid, and the commentators discuss the meaning of this with widely varied interpretations which we can go into another time, is allowed to return home lest his fear become contagious.

It’s a fascinating text. It begs us to consider the implication if all of the soldiers, on both sides of a conflict, found a reason to turn and go home. It reminds me of that old bumper sticker from my youth: “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?”

But, that is also a topic for another day.

My interest is in the three categories: Why building, planting and marrying? What is the connection between these three?

Perhaps what they have in common is that building, planting and forming an emotional bond are three actions which bring tremendous meaning to our lives by responding to our need as human beings to leave a mark on the world. We build. We plant. We form meaningful, productive bonds with a partner.

Because these actions are so basic to human beings, they give us the opportunity to consider some very basic questions which could guide our teshuva this year:

Building: What have we built this year? Have we built a life of meaning and of usefulness? Have we made proper use of the raw materials we have been given to fashion a life of purpose? Have we built creatively and with wisdom?

Planting: What have we planted this year? Have we sown seeds which will produce nourishing fruit for our future and for those that come after us? Have we planted with forethought and concern for the time to come? Have we planted things of beauty and of meaning that will leave the world a better place?

Marrying: Have we shown concern, compassion, and love to our partners? Have we been the partner we promised to be? And, to extend the thought: What have we “wedded ourselves” to this year? What have we chosen to commit ourselves to emotionally? Have we found time to dedicate passion to something of lasting significance?

Referring back to the story of the military exemptions, I will add one more set of questions. What are we afraid of in our lives? Have we taken steps to allay those fears and live a full life taking reasonable precautions?

Some of the commentators say that all of the military exemptions were called out at the same time so that when men did leave, no one would know if they were going home to dedicate their home, drink wine, and marry their partner or if they were afraid. Sensing that no one would want to admit to being afraid, everyone left together so that no one would know who actually was afraid. The fearful man could hide among the others.

But, with our lives, there is no hiding. We stand alone before God in teshuva, in repentance. We stand before our creator and ask the questions we must ask.

Building, planting, developing deep relationships and admitting to our fears are all basic aspects of who we are.

May we consider each of them as we begin the process of teshuva.

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