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An angel came to me and told me that all the great questions are short. There are more guarded ways of saying this, but that is the way it happened. I asked the angel, “What do you mean, all the great questions are short?” and the angel said, “Look in the Torah.” That was it.

Now every year, in anticipation of the High Holy Days, I read the Torah again anyway to see which of the words I have read a thousand times still speak to me with an urgency worthy of the season, but this year I returned to collect the questions in the Torah. On doing so, I realized how few questions there really are. There is, after all, not much dialogue in the Torah, and questions come only from dialogue. As I searched these relatively few questions, I came to the further realization that the best questions in the Torah are the shortest ones. In fact, the shortest questions are, I believe, the greatest not just in that text but in life.

The shortest question in the Torah is, remarkably, God’s first question in the Torah. It is a question asked in Genesis 3:9. Adam and Eve had just eaten some fruit from the forbidden tree and, sensing God’s presence in the Garden of Eden, they hid among the trees. While they were hiding, God asked Adam a one-word question. In Hebrew that word is ayeka? In English it means, “Where are you?” It is a really great, really short question, but in order to apprehend its greatness we must first get beyond the initial and justified reaction that this is a stupid question. How, we have every right to ask, is it that the omniscient Lord of the universe, the One who spoke and the world came into being, the One who set the stars in their places and the sun in its course, the One who said to the ocean, this shall be your boundary, the God of all vision—how could it be that such a God had to ask Adam where he was?

Our sages, the rabbis, taught in their midrashim that God asked this question of Adam so that he would have an opportunity to confess his sin and repent before God spoke again and pronounced punishment. It is like the way your parents called you by your middle name when they were angry with you. Indeed the only reason for middle names is to give your parents a way of letting you know that your life as you have known and lived it up to that moment is over because of something you broke, or said, or did, or hit. When you heard your parents call you by your middle name it was a sign to every smart child to confess everything immediately.

For another, deeper, reason for God’s question to Adam, we must go to a story told by Martin Buber. Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the Hasidic Rav of Northern White Russia, was put in jail because the opponents of the Hasidim had betrayed him to the Tsarist police. The great Rav was asked by an inquisitive and biblically literate jailer, “How are we to understand that God, the all-knowing, said to Adam: ‘Where are you?’“ The Rav answered the jailer, “Do you believe that the Scriptures are eternal and that every era, every generation, and every man is included in them?” “I believe this,” answered the jailer. “Well then,” said Rav Shneur Zalman, “in every era, God asks every person, ‘Where are you in your world? So many years and days of those allotted to you have passed, and how far have you gotten in your world?’ God says something like this, ‘You have lived forty-six years. How far along are you?’“ When the chief jailer heard his exact age mentioned by the Rav he stood up shaken, placed his hand on the Rav’s shoulder, and cried.

Rav Shneur Zalman understood what we must now understand. God did not need to ask Adam where he was, it was Adam who needed to be asked; and God does not need to ask each one of us ayeka, it is we who need to be asked. The High Holy Days are the season of ayeka, the time when we are asked by God together and alone to admit for good and ill where we are, to render a spiritual accounting not of our careers but our compassion, not of our wealth but our wisdom, not of our gains but our gifts, not of our physical fitness but of the fitness of our souls.

A ship cannot make its way through the seas without a compass, and we cannot make our way through life without being asked at the turn of each and every year, ayeka, “Where are you?” That question, and our answer, create the moral agenda for our work in the year ahead. That question and our answer are meant to puncture the hidings, evasions, and self-deceptions that blind us both to the ways we have made progress and also to the ways we have fallen short. The main danger in this yearly questioning is our desire, like Adam and Eve our ancestors, to hide rather than answer, to flee rather than face, to evade rather than accept responsibility for what we have done and for what we have left undone. Our lesson to be learned is the same lesson learned by Adam and Eve: hiding does not work .

Adam answers ayeka in a truly pitiful way: “I heard your voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and so I hid myself.” Adam’s answer is just another evasion. He does not admit to eating the forbidden fruit, only to being afraid of appearing before God naked (something that had never troubled him before). After Adam’s cowardly answer, God gives him yet another chance to confess and repent. God asks Adam, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree whereof I commanded you that you should not eat?” Surely we could expect Adam to confess now”the jig is up, God knows”but Adam still does not accept responsibility for his sin. He answers God, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree and I did eat.” This answer is even worse. Confronted with direct evidence of his sin, Adam indirectly blames God for giving him the woman, and directly blames Eve for giving him the forbidden fruit to eat. Adam seems incapable of accepting responsibility for his actions. He insists on portraying himself as a victim of choices made by others rather than as a guilty party who has made bad choices for himself as the result of his own free will. The question to Adam was, “Where are you?” All he could offer as his insipid answer was, “Where was everybody else?”

Unfortunately, Adam would have fit right into our world. Ours is an age filled with Adams. We are becoming a nation of victims. Each of us is armed to the teeth with reasons why what we did was simply not our fault. We are codependent. We are recovering phobics. We are disadvantaged psychologically, damaged societally, abused addictively. What we will all admit to is that actions ought to have consequences. What we will all not admit to is that our actions ought to have consequences. We have created a culture where it is unbelievably easy to evade responsibility for anything we do. It is not that there are no real victims in this society, it is that there are so many perpetrators claiming to be victims that the real victims are lost in the stampede of moral evasion that is trampling our civic and personal virtue into dust.

At the heart of Adam’s self-deception as well as our national addiction to the cult of victimhood is the simple inability to feel shame. Shame is not embarrassment or humiliation or neurotic guilt—those debilitating emotions that do not generally lead to constructive change in our lives. Shame is the healthy response to sin that leads to repentance, reconciliation, and change. Shame is the basic moral feeling that we have done something very wrong and ought to do something to make things right. Shame is the engine of the moral life because it leads us to reconstruct our moral life after we have torn it down. Shame leads us back to God after we have strayed from God and God’s law. To have the courage of our shame is hard, very hard, but it is the only way to build character and virtue. It is the only way to live a decent life, a religious life, a Jewish life. You can light all the candles and bless all the wine and challah you want, but if you cannot feel shame you cannot be a good Jew.

It is depressing that our nation of victims is also a shameless nation. Consider: Mike Tyson gets out of jail for rape and receives a hero’s welcome in Harlem. Daryl Strawberry is convicted of tax evasion and drug abuse and is rewarded by a contract with the Yankees. Richie Parker, a high school basketball star, is convicted of rape but still offered a full basketball scholarship from Seton Hall University. Hugh Grant hires a hooker and his career takes off. Geraldo and Geraldo-wannabes compete with each other to recruit for their talk shows ever more shameless exhibitionists who will reveal things nobody has a right to know, and nobody ought to have the shamelessness to reveal. And the man who began our national slide into shamelessness, Richard Nixon, and who died never once expressing clear unmitigated shame about his actions in the Watergate scandal, was buried a hero by a bunch of other shameless politicians. From top to bottom, black to white, Wall Street to the Bowery, we have become a shameless nation. We sin but we do not cower, we transgress but we do not cringe, we trespass but we do not quail.

And do not believe that Geraldo and the mass media is the only cause of shamelessness in our culture. In elite colleges and universities across the country there is a systematic and conscious attempt to convince our kids that all moral judgments are culturally relative, which means that nothing is morally certain, which means that there is no reason to feel shame about anything. In my eight years at Northwestern University and in my continued academic activities, I have seen a hundred courses built on the intellectual foundations of deconstructionism and its presupposition that all codes of human conduct are relative and merely reflect transient cultural assumptions and economic arrangements that do not possess any real authority. I knew and I know a hundred professors who actually believe that there is no such thing as absolute right and absolute wrong. And we send our children to learn from these people, and we pay them lots of money to undermine and savage the values we have tried to teach at home.

Academia, of course, is not a complete moral desert. There are still old-fashioned professors trying to teach the moral virtues with the sharp cutting edge they once possessed. But academia is in the midst of a terrible drought and it needs a good soaking rain of common sense, moral virtue, and shame. For to feel shame we must be able to assert in the face of this tide of cultural nihilism that there is right and wrong, and that we should be ashamed of ourselves if we do not do what we know is right and do not try to correct what is wrong. To feel shame we must be able to defend the proposition that our behavior is not wholly determined by environment. To feel shame we must understand that imposing moral norms is not an arrogant and unwarrantable assumption of infallibility, but, on the contrary, is a necessary condition of human happiness, and even of human survival. To feel shame we must hear God’s great short question to Adam, ayeka, as a question addressed to us.

In The Altruistic Personality, their book about Christians who saved Jews during the Holocaust, Samuel and Pearl Oliner asked what distinguished the rescuers from the majority who did nothing, or were complicit. Their conclusion was that they were not distinguished by educational level or by political views or even by attitudes towards Jews. They were, however, different in two critical respects: they were strongly connected to communities that had straightforward and unsophisticated understandings of right and wrong, and they had a powerful sense of moral agency and shame. They said over and over again in interviews that they could not have lived with themselves—and many said they could not have answered before God—if they had not done what they had done. The righteous gentiles of the Holocaust came from communities and families that had prepared the way for their courage by teaching them how to feel shame and therefore virtue and courage. In this country those same institutions are often preparing the way for moral relativism and cowardice by teaching that nobody really knows what is right and what is wrong, so what the hell.

The deep truth of the moral life is that alone we are lost. Perhaps that is why Adam could not answer God’s great short question, ayeka. He had no community to set him right. He had no one except his wife before whom he could feel shame and she was as implicated in the sin as he. Adam had no moral community to give him the courage to confess, and the impulse and locus to reconstruct the world he had wounded by his sin. Because it was just Adam and Eve, a snake, and a few monkeys in the garden, it was inevitable that they would lose Paradise, because in truth the garden was not Paradise, it was just like a very pretty and very private back yard. Since Eden every compelling description of Paradise has had lots of other people sharing it. Being together like this helps each of us to hear and to answer ayeka.

If you cannot give a good answer to the ayeka God is asking you now, don’t despair. Remember that God gives Adam several chances to give the right answer. Only tzadikim, saints, give the right answer right away. God does not expect us to know where we are instantly and unerringly. The important thing in answering ayeka is that we must each of us try to be really honest in giving our answer to God. If you find that you have given less than 10 percent of your income to charity and yet claim to be a charitable person, that you spend much more time watching television than reading books and yet claim to be learned, that you give time to clients you would never think of giving to your family and yet claim to be a good family man or woman, and if this is the first time you have been in shul since last yontif but you claim to be a very religious person, then you might want to try a little bigger dose of honesty before trying to answer ayeka. But do not be afraid to be honest in your answering God’s question. God knows your heart and your limits, your dreams and your nightmares, your real successes and your horrible failures.

My job is not to be your judge but your teacher, not your detractor but your advocate. I am just an umpire in the most important game you will ever play. Only God can judge you for eating forbidden fruit in your life, but only you can admit it. My advice as your teacher, rabbi, and umpire is to repent like you were the world’s worst sinner, and hope that you will be judged as one of the world’s great saints. Just as the time of day and night is perfectly equal at the time of the autumnal equinox, so may we view all our deeds up to this moment as balanced between good and evil, and hope our answer to ayeka will tip the balance in our favor among the accountants in charge of the book of life.

In this struggle for honesty and courage, for shame and repentance, you should remember that every single biblical hero from Adam to Moses was flawed. Abraham lied about Sarah being his wife, Jacob stole the birthright from his brother Esau, Moses rebelled against God at the waters of Meribah. For each of them shame was not an obstacle but an engine for their greatness. Answering ayeka brought them humility and courage, not humiliation and disgrace. In their fallibility we are taught that God will not judge us against some unattainable standard of saintliness. God does not consider us to have failed in our work as human beings if we are not utterly righteous. The tzadikim, the very few of us who are incapable of sin or shame, are more like miracles than role models. The moral possibility they have actualized is so remote from the lives most of us lead that it is not held up as an attainable goal. Indeed, as if to encourage us, the rabbis teach that in one respect a tzadik is actually lower than all of us beinonim who do sin. Because the tzadik cannot sin, the tzadik cannot do teshuvah (repentance), but we can.

If we just remember how Zusia answered God’s question we will be alright. The great Hasidic Rav Zusia was dying and all his students were gathered around him, praying and crying. Then Zusia began to cry and one of his students said, “Rav Zusia, why are you crying? You have lived a righteous life, you have raised up students, and you will be received into the world to come.” Rav Zusia answered his students, “I am crying because now I understand that God will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Abraham, or why were you not Moses?’ God will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusia?’ And I will not know what to say.”

So let us forget about being Moses or Abraham or Isaac or Jacob or Sarah or Rebekah or Rachel or Leah. Let us try to exalt and refine, atone and improve, not pretend to some remote and unattainable example of perfection. Let us just stand here together, and consider where we were last year, where we are this year, and where we could be next year. That is all we need to ask and that is all we need to answer and that is all we need to understand—except of course that all the great questions are short.

Marc Gellman is Rabbi of Temple Beth Torah in Dix Hills, New York and coauthor (with Monsignor Thomas Hartman) of How Do You Spell God? (Morrow). An earlier version of this essay was delivered as a sermon for the Jewish High Holy Days last fall.