(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...sho'eil umeishiv, questioning and answering...
(Deuteronomy 10:12) V'ata yisrael, mah adonai elohekha sho'eil mei'imakh...; Now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you...
Rabbi David Wolpe quotes Nobel Laureate I.I.Rabi as attributing his success in physics to his mother. The other children would come home and their mothers would ask them, "What did you learn in school today?" Rabi's mother would ask him, "Isaac, did you ask any good questions in school today?"
The fact of the matter is that Judaism has a well-deserved reputation as a tradition that encourages questions. Everything is subject to questioning – even God, in fact, even God's existence. (A famous midrash in Sifrei Devarim claims "were it not for Abraham it would have been as if God never existed!") Torah is not exempt from those questions. Instead, the entire endeavor of midrash is based on the notion that there remain questions about the Torah. As you may know, midrash comes in two varieties, the more popular aggadah (story-midrash) and the more studied halakhah (legal midrash).
Every midrash begins with a question, even if the question is not apparent until the end, or until the reader reflects on the text. How did Abraham discover God's existence? What happens if two people have equal claim to a found object? Did the Torah mean "an eye for an eye" to be taken literally? Every question, however, ends with an answer – and occasionally more than one answer. While Judaism encourages questioning, it also insists that there are answers to the questions. And while there may be no such thing as a wrong question, there are most certainly wrong answers.
This week's verse poses a question that is essential: What does God ask of you? Deliciously, the question is addressed to "Israel," which can mean either the collective Israel (the people) or the individual Jew. When reading from the vocalized and pointed text of the Torah, there is a momentary pause at the end of the question before it is answered. Every imaginable possibility exists in that fraction of a second. Even if you know the rest of the verse, it is worth squeezing yourself into that space and allowing the answer within you its expression. What does God ask of you, yourself? What does God ask of us all?
Moses offers the definitive answer when the text resumes: Just this: to be in awe of the Lord your God, to walk in all God's ways, to love God, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart (abilities) and with all your soul (life). Just that? Thanks, Moses. I gave up spareribs and Saturday chariot races, agreed to tell the truth and stop drooling over my neighbor's sandals, and now you sum it all up with "just this:" everything.
It is the right answer, but is it a real answer? Throughout the Bible (and beyond) other have taken a crack at that same question and suggested variations on the answer. Most famous among them is the prophet Micah who echoed the question and answered more succinctly: to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. While no less challenging than the answer of Moses, it seems at least more accessible.
On the other hand, I wonder why Micah needed to answer that question at all if he knew the original answer, as he undoubtedly did. I suspect that it had to do with his own attempt to acquire Torah. Moses's answer remained Moses's answer. As inspiring and comprehensive as it was, it is the answer that inspired Moses and his generation. As authoritative as it was, it spoke in the idiom of the time. Micah spends a long time setting up his answer by placing the question in the context of the reprobate generation he addresses. When he asks the question in similar language (close enough to resonate, different enough not to imitate), he offers an answer that is entirely consistent with the "right" answer, but one that speaks to a community troubled by injustice, cruelty and arrogance.
Every generation and every person asks the same questions anew and some new questions as well. But the worth of sacred text – Torah and its expanded teachings – is the wisdom and authority that transcends the distance between era and era and between soul and soul. The person willing to delve into that wisdom and find the answers to his or her questions and express them in personal terms – personal midrash, if you will – truly acquires Torah.
What is a way to be sho'eil umeishiv? Ask yourself, "Now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you?" Refuse to finish the verse until you have an answer for yourself and for us all.