Forecasts on August 6, 2012 called for favorable Martian weather over the landing zone. After a journey from Earth of more than 350 million miles and 8 months, engineers said they were hopeful the rover, the size of a small sports car, would land precisely as planned near the foot of a tall mountain rising from the floor of Gale Crater in Mars’ southern hemisphere. Between the time the Rover entered Martian atmosphere and the moment of touch down on the planet’s surface, the scientists would sit in nail-biting anticipation which they called: The seven minutes of terror, during which they didn’t know if the Rover would make it, would crash, would burn up, would miss its mark, would fail. The Rover, you’ll be happy to know, landed safely, to the cheers of hundreds of scientists who worked on the project and millions of Americans who watched it happen. The Rover is called Curiosity. And it traveled to Mars, in search of life.
And even though that red planet is very far away and even though many of the scientific details probably elude most of us, here on these holiest of our days, on these days that ask us to look deeply at who we are, how we interact with the world around us, what kind of life we are trying to lead—perhaps we can learn a great deal from this particular mission: A small spaceship on Mars, called Curiosity, whose job it is to seek out life. While our Rover seeks out carbon atoms and water molecules to find life, on some level, sitting here in our earthly seats, our mission is the same. To seek life. In fact, we are obsessed with life and what it means during these days: We ask to be written in the Book of Life. We collectively wonder who will live and who will die. And this very morning, we read God’s words to the people: I place before you life and death—choose life.
And that becomes our primary task on these days. To seek out life—good life, meaningful life, the kind of life we want to lead.
Now, I know there are all kinds of names for spaceships and that this Rover was named by Clara Ma, a then 6th grader from Kansas who wrote the winning essay, but I also know that there is Torah everywhere, and that a spaceship named Curiosity whose job it is to seek life might just be a little extra-terrestrial Torah worth paying attention to. Think for a moment about how useless would be a Rover whose name was Indifference or Judgmentalness—rolling around Mars, not really caring about what it finds, kind of annoyed to be there. In order to seek life, to find life…on Mars…and here …Curiosity may be more than just a name. So what would it mean for us to be more curious, to get curious, to pro-actively nurture in ourselves the attribute of curiosity. Would it lead us to more of the kind of life that we want to live?
Curiosity is not generally one of the top qualities we talk about, but those other ones…the big ones—you know, compassion, kindness, generosity of spirit—often our ability to feel and express these things stands behind a locked door, whose key is shaped like curiosity.
Here’s what I mean. Is anybody here familiar with the concept of “vaguebooking?” Vaguebooking is a term related to putting up posts on Facebook. Are we familiar with Facebook? (Right, it’s the social media site we old people still use.) So generally people post political opinions or pictures of cats, babies, food, and vacations that I’m not on. But sometimes, a person will update their status with a vague and non-committal statement that is begging others to ask what’s going on. A vaguebooker might write things like: “I guess I’m not wanted here.” Or “apparently, some people don’t care about their friends.” Is this a familiar experience for you? Besides vaguebooking being something we might want to add to the list of things that we atone for in this season, it’s also a pretty good example of the power of curiosity. For example, a teenager I used to work with once wrote on her Facebook page: My life is over.
Now, this could have just been a dramatic vaguebooking, but it didn’t feel right. So I reached out. And I asked her what was going on. And it turned out that the rest of the sentence was: My life is over, my parents found out about my girlfriend.
I learned that her parents were very upset with her coming out and that she really needed someone—she needed someone to take the risk to be curious and ask more. And in that asking, she found her life was not over, but on some level, it was just beginning.
Often, getting curious about someone else is considerably harder than getting past our Facebook frustrations—Some years back, I was working with a great group of congregants in Los Angeles who were engaged in community organizing. So they are having these face to face conversations with people to learn what kinds of pressures are on their families. And one of the leaders, Rachel, told me this story: she sat opposite another congregant and asked her what keeps her up at night. And this woman said: I respect that you want to change the world, but I really don’t want to get involved with what you’re doing. And Rachel said—that’s okay. Can you tell me a little more about why you don’t want to get involved? And her fellow congregant immediately began to cry. And she said: I fought once. I fought hard in the 60’s and we thought we had won. And now I see my son facing all the same problems. After all that, we lost. And I feel so hopeless that I can’t fight anymore. I’ve worked my whole life – it’s all I ever do—and now I’m not financially secure enough to retire. I didn’t think I’d be here at this point in my life. And Rachel nodded and she said – yeah, I’ve heard that from a lot of other people, too. And they spoke for the better part of an hour.
And at the end, she said: ya know, if there are going to be other conversations like this going on—I think I’d like to be part of that.
Now, Rachel could have walked away. In fact, she told me that she was pretty offended at first. You don’t want to be part of this project? Fine. And she could have gotten up, hurt, insulted, and left. But instead, she took a deep breath and a pretty big risk and she asked WHY. And it turned out the key to her feeling compassion for this person was shaped like curiosity. Why are you shutting me down? Why are you not interested? “Why” opened the door to a more meaningful connection—between them, and ultimately, between this new member and her community—and instead of ending with greater distance between them, Rachel’s real curiosity drew them closer together. Now, I don’t mean that Rachel pried into her life with salacious questions for her own entertainment—we get more than enough of that from reality TV. Rather, she suspended judgment to try to get past the walls that we all put up to protect ourselves and in doing so, she reached a place of understanding and connection.
And sometimes, it’s even harder than this. Because sometimes the person opposite us is not an acquaintance, but rather it’s someone very close to us who does something that hurts us and yes, I’m suggesting that we get curious with them, too.
In these moments, our inclination so often, and understandably so, is to focus on how hurt or angry we are, or to dismiss their behavior as “they’re always like that” or “I hate that guy” …and so the door to our ability to feel compassion for them, to understand what is making them act like this, remains locked. Now, before we go on, I want to offer that in the most serious instances, some hurtful actions, be they violent or abusive, are beyond the pale and we each need to heal from that within ourselves and with professionals and friends. But in our day to day interactions with most people, what if we could ask them WHY? What’s going on for you right now that you are acting like this? And what if we are honestly curious about their answer?
Okay, that’s a nice “what if,” rabbi, but to what end? Why take the personal risk, why build the courage that it would take to do that when it is so much easier to close Facebook, lick our wounds, be angry, or walk away? Because life is not just what we do in isolation, but rather, it is the richness that comes with our sacred connections to other human beings. And to be in real relationship with one another, to understand each other, forgive and be forgiven, is the essence of what it means to seek life on these holiest days. And without nurturing in ourselves this attribute of curiosity, we risk all of that.
There is a story in the book of Exodus about the first time that Moses encounters God. One day, while walking, he sees this bush on fire, but the bush is not being consumed. And Moses says: Asura na v’ereh et hamareh hagadol hazeh. Madua lo yiv’ar hasneh? I will turn and I will look at this great sight. WHY is the bush not burning up? Madua? WHY? Moses could have done a lot of things in this moment. He could have dismissed this fiery shrub and walked on by. He could have doused it. He could have grumbled about it because it was making a hot day even hotter. But he didn’t – he stopped. And he looked. And he asked a most sacred question—Madua? WHY? And our tradition tells us that it was BECAUSE he stopped to ask why that God knew this was the right guy. And so God called to him from out of the bush, Moses Moses! And Moses answered “Hineini”—“Here I am.” Moses’ biblical act of curiosity allowed God to call out to him by name, knowing that God would be heard. And Moses, having created this sacred space through his curiosity, does this incredible thing—he was able to say to God: Hineini—I am here. I am present. I am with you.
It turns out that this word: Madua—why—appears 72 times in The Hebrew Bible. Now, if I were a rabbi who gave a lot of credence to Gematria, the art of numbers and their meanings in Jewish tradition, I would point out that 72 is four times 18, the number that adds up to the word “chai,” or LIFE, but I’m not that kind of rabbi, so I won’t talk about that kind of awesome thing—I’ll just say that 72 times in the Hebrew Bible tells us that the question “why” is fundamental.
And from our text, we learn that madua, a question that is the manifestation of curiosity, can unlock for us our own ability to say hineini to another person, as Moses, through his curiosity, is able to say hineini to God—I am here, I am with you and even though it is hard, I want to close the distance between us instead of walking away.
Take a moment, if you will, and picture in your mind, a person who has done or said something that hurt you – eyes front, don’t look at them—just picture them. What did this person do or say or not do or not say that hurt you? Do you know what’s going on in their life to have made them act that way? If you knew why, could you feel compassion for them? Might they be able to call out to you like God to Moses? Might you be able to say hineini to them, like Moses to God? Could you close the distance between you?
Our tradition teaches us that even God, who judges us during the High Holy Days, only does so after asking us myriad questions. God conducts a chakirah, an inquiry, to find out what was behind our actions throughout our whole life. And it is in this inquiry, where God learns us, understands us, hears us, that we have the chance to draw near to God. See, there is a midrash on this word “chakirah,” from the root “chakar” to inquire. Rearranging the letters, we get the word “rachak” which means distance. And those are our choices on these holy days: We can make a chakirah, an inquiry, or we can risk being rachok, far from one another.
Now it’s true, this is incredibly hard to do. Our feelings, our egos, our very senses of self will get in our way almost every time. It’s no coincidence that Moses is known in the Book of Numbers as haish anav m’od mikol ha’adam asher al p’nei ha’adamah—the most humble person on the face of the earth. It takes a great deal of humility to be able to be curious instead of angry, to inquire when we are hurting. To open our hearts big enough to even begin to wonder if maybe this other person is hurting, too. Recall those seven minutes of terror, of “nora”— that the scientists experienced between when the Rover entered the Martian atmosphere and landed safely on its mark. Our Yamim Noraim, our days of awe, or terror, give us the same trepidation about where we will land.
What will happen if we don’t nurture our anger or hurt, but instead cultivate our curiosity? Might we get hurt more? Or what if I do ask why and what I hear demands more of me as a friend, a sibling, a parent, a child? It is a risk to ask why. But perhaps the payoff is worth it.
I think about the person who might have pictured me as the person who hurt them. And I think—what if, instead of just being upset, they asked me why and what was going on for me? And I think that would be the most incredible gift I had ever been given. Imagine then what it would feel like to do that for your mom or dad, your child, your best friend, your partner, the friend you used to have, but haven’t spoken to for a year, or maybe even yourself. What if we could take this risk and unlock, unleash, unfetter all of that compassion and kindness and generosity into our lives.
Can being more curious help us break down the walls we build to protect ourselves? Can it save someone we care about from feeling isolated in their pain? Can it allow us to forgive and be forgiven? Can it close the distance between us? And if this is the kind of life that we seek, then perhaps being more curious is worth all of that risk.
Just before the seven minutes of terror, when no one knew if the Rover would succeed or fail, Adam Steltzner, lead scientist of the Entry, Descent and Landing team, was asked how he was feeling. He said: “We are rationally confident, emotionally terrified, and ready.”
Rationally confident, emotionally terrified, and ready. Yeah. Us, too. And it’s EXACTLY where we’re supposed to be. For we have a few hours yet before the end of Yom Kippur. Enough time for a phone call, enough time for a text or an email—hey, can we talk tomorrow? Enough time to find just one person in our lives and take a deep breath, take a big risk, put on our Rover game face, and ask madua…why? And as the answers reach our ears, maybe the door to our compassion and generosity and forgiveness will be unlocked and those blessings will be free to pour forth.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah. May we each be blessed in this new year with the courage, humility, and strength to be deeply curious and abundantly compassionate. May we give these gifts to others and be granted them in return. And when we roll around this planet of ours seeking life—real, connected, meaningful, close-up life—may we be blessed to find it. Amen.