I think maybe the most common question asked throughout a day might be: How are you? And the most common answer? Good! Fine. Okay. It’s almost a reflex. How are you? Good. Really? No. But we rarely ask the “really” part. The one who asks, though surely well-meaning, probably doesn’t have time for an actual response, and the one being asked didn’t necessarily expect to give their life story right there. Hey, how are you? Good. How are you? Great. This exchange is functionally just a greeting, not an inquisitive moment about how another person is really…DOING. FEELING. HOLDING UP. It’s kind of like a verbal high five.
These days, though, I wonder if we can do each other a little better every once in awhile. When I was in college, I took a class. Well, I took it once and I TA’d twice, because truly, it changed my life. It was taught by a man named Maurie Stein, who was the best friend and former co-teacher of Morrie Schwartz, of the famed book, Tuesdays with Morrie. The class was called The Sociology of Birth and Death, and really, it was about life. And the connections between all of us.
At the beginning of each class, we would meditate in a paired two-part meditation. The first part was called “Tell me who you are.” One person would say to their partner: Tell me who you are. And then just listen. And for five minutes, the other person would share who they were at that very moment. A person they had never been before and would never be again. You could talk about anything. What was in your heart, your fears, your hopes, your questions about life, your doubts, or your victories. Your love life or what you had for dinner the night before. The listener would practice a generous, small, half smile, sometimes nodding, mostly just listening, but never verbally responding.
And then a bell would ring, and Maurie would instruct us to close our eyes. To breathe deeply. To honor what we heard or said and then to just let it go. And when we opened our eyes, the second person would say to the first—tell me who you are. And the process would repeat.
Tell me who you are. It was a question I had never been asked before and certainly had never been expected to answer in this way. Not a perfunctory “How are you?” But an intentional desire to know what is real. And this week, in Torah, we find that this is the very first question that God asks the very first human being.
This week’s Torah portion, which is the first Torah portion, B’reishit, or Genesis, includes the creation of the world, and the first person, Adam, or Adam. He is then joined by a second person, Chava, or Eve. Adam and Eve find themselves in a beautiful garden known as Gan Eden, or the Garden of Eden. Oh it’s a long and fascinating story about what happens next in the garden, but here’s the part that I want us to think about tonight.
Adam and Eve were told not to eat the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden and, as you may know, they go ahead and do just that. Eve is duped by a serpent and eats the fruit, and then gives Adam to eat as well. Upon consuming it, lots of things happen, but one of those things is that—Vatipachna einei sh’neihem vayeidu ki arumeem hem—their eyes were opened, and they realize they are naked.
The text then tells us that they hear God moving around the Garden in the windy time of day. Which one could read as the sound of you know…wind. But they are really feeling this moment hard and really worried about what God is going to do. And so they hear this wind as God coming to yell at them or punish them. And so they hide behind a bush. A brilliant move—hiding from a so-far omnipotent and omniscient deity.
And then they hear God ask the world’s first question: Ayeka? The text is often translated as: Where are you? But if you know some Hebrew, you might know that a geographical way of asking: where are you? Is: Eifoh atah? Physically—where are you? Ayeka means something different. And Adam hears it. We know he hears this because he doesn’t answer God by jumping up and down, waving his hand in the air, saying “I’m right here behind this bush.” Instead, he answers—et kolcha shamati bagan va’ira …va’eichavei. I was afraid. And so I hid.
Ayeka does mean “Where are you?” in Hebrew. But not in terms of place. It means—where’s your head right now? Where’s your soul? How are you thinking about this moment? What’s going on for you? And Adam’s most honest answer is: I am afraid, God. So I acted fearfully, and I tried to hide. I’m hiding right now because I don’t know what else to do.
Ayeka is the most important question we can ask another human being to understand how they are actually doing, to wait around long enough for the answer, to show that we actually care what their answer to that question is.
Ayeka is the reason many of us belong to a sacred faith community. Because it’s here where this kind of question is asked most. It’s here and in communities like ours where your answer to this question matters. Sure, we sometimes verbally high five each other, but we also make room for “Ayeka—where are you? Where’s your head? How’s your soul? What’s going on for you right now?” The actual: “How are you” question. And sometimes—sometimes—we take a chance and answer that, knowing that the person on the other side of the question actually cares what the answer is.
And we don’t interrupt. And we don’t try to outdo each other or stop listening so we can say our thing. We don’t try to fix what we hear and we don’t judge it—ever. We just, with a generous small half smile, with gentle eyes, and an accepting countenance, receive each other’s answer. We often can’t fix what we hear, but, as Maurie taught me, as God teaches Adam, we can be present with what we hear. If we slow down long enough to ask, if we are patient enough to listen, if we are brave enough to answer.
This week, with the High Holy Days in our rearview mirror and our congregational vote just ahead, with a new year starting, maybe this is a good moment to check in and ask each other the most relational question in all of Torah, the very first question human beings are asked, and the question we come back to time and again: Ayeka—where are you, how are you really? And then to do some gentle and loving listening.
(At this time, Rabbi Kolin invited those present into breakout groups to participate in the following exercise. If you are reading this at home, you might ask yourself this question or find a time this week to ask it of one another in your family or friend group).
We’ll do that now as a gift to ourselves and one another—breaking into small groups just to check in. You can just begin in your group with the question: Ayeka—someone brave could actually ask it out loud. And then each take just two minutes and answer—something real. Not EVERYTHING—but one thing about where you are right now. Try not to answer each other or respond to what someone else says. After someone goes, you might say thank you and then ask the next person—Ayeka? Speak about something unrelated then—about where YOU are. Not you in relation to what that person said, but just your thing. Your Ayeka. We’ll break into small groups now for just a bit, just to check in with God’s first question to us.