The Three Questions, Pandemic Edition

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”

Rabbi Hillel (Pirke Avot 1:14)

I got the idea from Rabbi Hillel, who lived at about the same time as Jesus. The three questions at the head of this essay seem to me intended as a guide in the form of inquiry. If you wanted to reduce them further (I don’t, actually), they might be summed up this way: “How shall I live?” Hillel’s guidance appears universal and general. Anyone could pose his questions and profit from the insight granted by our own answers. I wanted to zoom in to the particular.

I suggested to friends as one long-ago Rosh HaShanah approached that it would be a good idea to find our own three questions, the ones that when triangulated pointed precisely to our individual desires. In preparing for the High Holy Days, we are advised to do a soul inventory (cheshbon hanefesh), identifying where we had missed the mark in the year past. That might lead to seeking or offering forgiveness; to prayer and righteous action to heal ourselves and the world; to reorientation toward our deepest values and aims.

I thought it might also lead to refreshing our three questions. The idea turned out to be better than I imagined.

The first time we tried it, back in the Seventies, my questions were terribly serious, all about how I could have the most impact, be sure to do the right thing, feel at home in this world. I discovered that not everyone took life quite so seriously. I can’t remember my precise language, but I’m certain I will recall my friend Tom’s questions forever:

Is this fun?
How long will it last?
When can I do it again?

When I wrote my book The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists & The Future, I included three questions that I had been proposing for some time as a guide to humane, loving, and just public policy:

Who are we as a people?
What do we stand for?
How do we want to be remembered?

I think we could use a booster shot. I’m definitely going to start sharing them again.

Rosh HaShanah 5781 begins tonight. Everything will be online, and therefore compressed. We are hoping that the power of intention and the sweetness of the occasion will overcome the sadness of not being together in the flesh to repeat the ancient prayers and practices, knowing that Jews around the world are doing their own t’shuvah (repentance, reorientation, turning) at the same time.

Last Saturday night we took to Zoom with a group of friends to do Selichot, a practice of forgiveness traditionally done on the Shabbat before Rosh HaShanah. My contribution was to lead us in formulating our three questions as they are at this moment. Here are mine:

Will I have enough time?
Will I be able to have a positive influence in the great awakening?
Will I be able to quiet my mind?

“Enough time” is about COVID, the pervasive fear of time running out, but it’s also about one of my chief obsessions at this time of life. Now that I have finally gotten the hang of living, now that love lives here, now that I see my work ahead, will I be granted the time to enjoy it, to see it through?

A “positive influence” is another familiar obsession. I am gratified when people tell me that they have been touched or moved to action by my writing, talks, paintings. I have put myself out in the world for many decades now, and I know what I have offered has mattered to some people. But I also see how great is the need for a turning, an awakening — how determined are the forces of darkness — and how small one voice is in comparison. Nowadays, when one’s first thought upon reading the news is that it beggars imagination, that the economy of lies is so hyperinflated it threatens to lift the planet off course, this question has more force than ever.

Will I be able to quiet my mind? Meditation, prayer, breathing, distraction, walking, creating, reaching out: my days in this unmoored time are peppered with practices that promise some type of peace. But in this pandemic, my monkey mind is busy, determined, desperate to think and think again. During Selichot, I told my friends that I was often tired of being me, of the characteristic thoughts, the habituted feelings, the internal experiences that make me say, “Please, not that again!”

What are your three questions? If you feel like sending them to me, I’d love to know. But whether you keep them private or share them, do try to discover them. I promise it will be worthwhile.

Blessings for the new year, one in which your heart’s desires for the good are fulfilled. May we not only survive to see the great awakening, but to next year discover new questions that fill us with promise and possibility!

Blackbird,” from the new album by my beloved Bettye Lavette.