(Bereishit) Where Are You is a Very Good Question
In the face of questionable or annoying behavior, we often make the mistake of asking, “Why?” For the most part, asking someone “why” questions, such as, “Why are you so disorganized? Why did you leave your wet towel on the floor? Why did you forget to take your lunch to school? Why did you leave on all the lights? Why did you blah blah blah ... ” is pointless and non-constructive. How so?
“Why” questions are often less of a genuine inquiry into the truth of the matter and more like veiled accusations and criticism. When your spouse comes into the kitchen in the middle of the night craving that last bit of beef with broccoli, for example, and finds the empty Chinese-food container surreptitiously buried in the trash, there are no really “good” answers to the interrogation that is sure to follow.
One of the communication styles that kills relationships is “defensiveness.” When we feel unjustly accused of something, we defend ourselves by denying, fishing for excuses, blaming and turning the tables on the accuser to make it his or her fault.
Sometimes, however, we can get triggered, and process an otherwise innocent or good question as being a verbal attack when it wasn’t. We’re all familiar with the story of Adam eating the forbidden fruit and then hiding from G‑d. G‑d never asked Adam why he ate the forbidden fruit; G‑d simply asked, “Where are you?”
The Existential Inquiry
Obviously, this wasn’t a literal question, with G‑d playing “hide-and-go seek,” peering at the bushes saying, “Come out, come out wherever you are.” It was an existential inquiry. In asking, “Where are you?” G‑d was probing the internal mechanism whereby Adam made it OK to disobey G‑d. No matter how destructive the behavior, there is always an inner voice that convinces us that it’s OK, justifiable or even a moral imperative. No one, I dare say, eats chocolate-frosted donuts or is unfaithful to a partner by accident; the mind can distort any reality and excuse any behavior. G‑d wanted Adam to contemplate the grave consequences of his behavior because if Adam was hiding from G‑d, and thus disconnected from his very Creator, where then could he possibly be?
The 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 G‑d for providing him a wife to begin with.
Even worse, Adam failed to show remorse. The sages point out that in the Hebrew text, the verb “ate” is in the future tense. Incredibly, Adam was in effect admitting that even if he had the chance for a do-over, he would commit the same sin again—that for all time, Adam will eat that fruit because he is not capable of or interested in changing. He’s just that fruit-eating guy. Having rejected G‑d’s overture and bid to repair the relationship, is it any wonder that at that point, G‑d responded, “You’re outta here!”
Who Are You?
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the famous 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 trials and tribulations of life, as well as its joys and delights, we can imagine that embedded in each situation is G‑d’s question to us: “Where/who are you now ... and now ... and here ... and here ... with this ordeal or even that triumph? Are you in relationship with Me? Are you connected?”
The Hebrew word for “sin” is cheit. It means “to miss the mark,” and so we are to understand that it is the very nature of transgressions to take us off-course. As anyone who uses GPS knows, we often miss a turn, but the first thing that happens when the system re-routes is to pinpoint our location. Unlike the first man, we must be willing to re-calibrate our assumptions—to take responsibility for our actions and respond appropriately.
As Viktor Frankl so famously said: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
“Where are you?” is a very powerful question. May our answers be powerful in turn, may our way be clear, and let’s not ever be “that guy,” unable to come out from behind the bushes, bitter at life and who doesn’t know where he’s going.
Internalize & Actualize:
- Based on your life today, write down five ways of defining “where are you?”
- Look at your list above. Is where you are, where you want to be? How and how not?
- What can you start doing today, practically, to work on changing where you are to where you want to be, and write down a list of five ways you want to answer “Where are you?” five years from today.