“Why didn’t you tell me we were out of milk?” I ask my daughter. “Why didn’t you wash your dirty dishes?” I ask my husband. In each case I make the mistake of asking, “Why?”
Especially when it is essentially rhetorical, “Why” is a pointless and counterproductive question. It can (thinly) veil an accusation or criticism rather than pose a genuine inquiry into the truth of a matter. So, whenever we ask “why” we risk causing people to feel set up for interrogation, to feel defensive. And when we’re on the receiving end, feeling unjustly accused can trigger our processing an otherwise innocent question as a verbal attack. Then we defend ourselves by denying, finding an excuse, even going as far as blaming and accusing the other. Truly, the “why” question is a communication style that can wreak havoc with relationships.
In this week’s parashah, after eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve become aware of their own nakedness and try to cover up. Then they hide from God. Interestingly God doesn’t ask Adam and Eve why they ate the forbidden fruit; God simply asks, “Ayeka?” (“Where are you?”)
God is not asking a literal question. Clearly God knows where Adam and Eve are “hiding.” Rather, God is asking an existential question. In asking, “Where are you?” God was probing the internal mechanism whereby Adam and Eve made it okay to disobey God. No matter how destructive the behavior, there is always an inner voice that convinces us that it’s okay, justifiable, or even a moral imperative. No one shoots dope or smokes meth by accident. But the mind is powerful: it can distort any reality and excuse any behavior.
God wanted Adam and Eve to contemplate the grave consequences of their behavior, because if they were hiding from G0d they were also hiding from themselves. If they were disconnected from their Creator and themselves, where, then, could Adam and Eve be?
Hanna Perlberger in her article “Where are You is a Very Good Question” notes:
[T]he “where” question as an antidote for defensiveness is simple; own your stuff. Take responsibility for your part, however big or small, in creating the issue. G-d was hoping that the first man would “man up,” learn from his mistake and reconnect. Adam’s disobedience, however, had created in him such a deep sense of shame that he processed G-d’s inquiry as a “why” question, as a verbal attack, and thus he engaged in typical defensive behaviors. Adam blamed his wife for giving him the fruit of which he ate, and then he doubled down by blaming God for providing him a wife to begin with.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (a Chassidic rabbi known as the Alter Rebbe), explains that “Where are you?” really means “Who are you at this moment of your life?” For as we go through the challenges in life, we can imagine that embedded in each situation is God’s question to us: “Where/who are you now? Are you in relationship with Me? Are you connected?”
The Hebrew word for “sin” is cheit. It means “to miss the mark.” We at BTS are familiar with the word cheit, and every week we spend some time thinking about and discussing how we missed the mark (and also how we hit the mark). Thinking of ourselves as the arrow rather than the archer, we can understand that it is the very nature of transgressions to take us off-course, to cause us to miss the mark. To use the Waze analogy, when we miss a turn, the first thing that Waze does is to recalculate our route. Unlike the first man, we must be willing to recalibrate our assumptions—to take responsibility for our actions and respond appropriately.
“Ayeka?” is a very powerful question. May we be able to stand tall and take responsibility for our actions. May we be curious enough to ask ourselves where we are in our relationship with God.