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Small Changes, Big Questions

This week we enter the Hebrew month of Elul, the season devoted to introspection as we prepare for the upcoming the High Holidays. We ask many questions of ourselves. What can I do differently? To whom should I offer apologies? How can I do better?

All these questions are connected to the very first question.

After God created Adam and Eve and placed them in their lavish new home, the Garden of Eden, God told them they could eat whichever fruits and vegetables they wanted, except the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Of course, they did not listen. They ate the fruit. Then, when they heard God approaching, they became afraid and hid.

No one can hide from God. And God called out, “Ayekah—where are you?” God knew exactly where they were hiding, but God wanted Adam and Eve to own their mistake, to admit their error and amend their failings. Instead, Adam said, “It’s not my fault. It’s that woman’s doing.” (Hmm. The Torah sounds so contemporary!). And Eve said, “It wasn’t me. It was that talking snake.” (Hmm. There we go again blaming fictions instead of taking responsibility.)

No one should hide from questions.

Because Adam and Eve failed to admit their mistake and attempt to correct their wrongs, they were punished. God asked, “Where are you?” so that they might figure out where they stand. Instead they blamed others.

Repentance was only a question away.

Recently, my colleague Rabbi Judy Schindler taught that this one-word question, “ayekah” is similar to the Hebrew word, “aykha—woe.” This is the word that opens Jeremiah’s lament about Jerusalem’s destruction. “Woe! Lonely sits the city once great with people.” are the words that open our Tisha B’Av mourning. Woe is me is how we recall the destruction of the ancient Temples.

All that separates these Hebrew words are a few vowels. Add a dot, change a few of those mysterious symbols, and “where am I” is transformed into “woe is me.”

Most of the time we vocalize the wrongs that happen all around us by saying, “Woe is me.” We lament our misfortune. We cry to God about the injustices that befall us.

If the coming High Holidays, however, are going to have their intended meaning then we best ask, “Where am I?” Change is never accomplished by casting blame. It can only be achieved by asking questions. They must be as searing and probing as that very first question.

All that separates us from the repentance that is our most urgent task are a few vowels. All that stands in the way of change is something as small as a vowel.