Jews love asking questions. The most impactful teacher-student relationship begins with the student asking questions and wanting to know more. The same holds true if you are student of math, history or golf. If you want to learn more, you need to ask questions. No doctor, politician, dancer or accountant could learn their trade by simply reading books. In order to be truly good at what you do, you need to interact with people who have more experience – and ask them questions.
Imagine walking into a doctor’s office for the first time. You look up on the wall and see it covered in degrees and diplomas from top universities around the world. “Very impressive” you say, “you really studied in all of the schools and hospitals?” “Well not exactly” comes the response, “I studied online, read literature on the subject, and passed the written exams with flying colors. But I was too busy to actually walk into the hospital itself to meet any real doctors.”
You’d fly right out of that office! Sure, books can provide much knowledge, but actual communication and interaction with experts gives you much more. It gives you wisdom.
As a rabbi teaching college and working with Birthright alumni, I am inundated with questions via text, email, Facebook and Twitter. Working with the 20s and 30s age group, the majority of questions pertain to love, dating and marriage. However, I also get questions about Jewish history, Israel, Kabbalah and why we dip the challah into salt.
After 13 years of questions, I decided to collect the most common and interesting ones into a book called, “Jew Got Questions?”
The Power of “What”
Why not call the book “Jew Need Answers?” Because in many cases, the questions are better that the answers.
Hebrew has different words for knowledge: Chochmah, Bina and Da’at. Each connotes it’s own form of acquiring information.
Da’at is what you learn through information and reading with much studying.
Bina is intuition, the kind of stuff you know based on some inner thought or feeling.
Chochmah, best translated as wisdom, is made up of four letters – chet kaf mem, hey. By dividing the word chochmah in half and reversing the first two letters, it spells the words koach mah – the power of “what.” This reveals the root of all wisdom: the power of asking questions.
The Fourth Son
Why are questions so important? The Maharal of Prague explains that people generally feel satisfied with their view of life. Thus they are a bit complacent when it comes to assimilating new ideas. But when a person has a question, it is an admission of some lack. This creates an “empty space” to be filled.
It’s no coincidence that the Jewish family holiday which describes the beginning of our people, Passover, is the time we encourage our children and grandchildren to ask the Four Questions. For us, nothing means more than seeing our descendants stand in front of the entire family and sing Ma Nishtanah (even if they are singing off-key and reading from a prepared text).
The Four Sons are the wise son, wicked son, simple son, and the one who doesn’t know how to ask.
Traditionally we look at the wicked son as the worst of the bunch, his question both cynical and disrespectful. Yet we respond to him, to keep him engaged in the conversation. With the right approach, he can be turned around…
The worst of the four is last on the list: the son who has no questions. He sits alone, outside of the conversation, barely present except for his blank stare at the excitement of the Seder.
The desire for questions not only allows us to find answers, it brings us into the realm of wanting to be part of the Jewish family.
Seeking the Answer
The importance of asking questions is beautifully illustrated by the following story. The daughter of a very wealthy man wanted to get married, so he went out in search of the most suitable groom for this impressive young lady. In order to determine which boy would be best suited, he devised a difficult Torah question which required knowledge of a vast array of Jewish sources. Whichever young man knew the answer to the question would be the right choice to be his son-in-law.
The wealthy man journeyed to the best yeshiva to find a young genius who could answer this challenging Torah conundrum. The older and smarter students were quick to line up first, ready to impress the man with their erudite knowledge. Each, however, was sent away with a disappointing “No.”
Last in line was a small lad who hesitatingly came forward to offer his solution. “Sorry, the man said, that’s not the right answer.” The student walked away dejected.
The man put away his books and mounted his horse. He was already at a half gallop when he heard a voice shouting from behind him: “Wait! Come back!” The man reined his horse to a halt. The last student who attempted an answer stood next to him panting out of breath. The young man looked up with a quizzical face and said, “I couldn’t let you leave without telling me: What is the answer to the question?”
The man looked at him and said, “You are the young man I want in my family.”
So, if Jew got questions, check out my new book here.