Voltaire may not have got it right about God, but he did when it came to questions. He said “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.”
In Jewish life we’ve always valued a good question above a mediocre and even a good answer. It’s questions that open the human mind, that allow it to grow. A curious mind is a growing mind. The Torah is filled with questions, the Talmud probably doesn’t have a page without a question.
“תיקו” is not an uncommon Talmudic conclusion which follows a debate. “תיקו” means this is an unanswerable argument and we’ll have to want for Elijah the Prophet to return one day with the answer. “תיקו” is a mnemonic for תשבי יתרץ קושיית ושאלות or ‘Tishbi [i.e. Elijah] will answer the questions and quandaries.’
A good student is one who has the boldness to constantly question; as the Mishna in Avot reminds us: “The shy one doesn’t learn.” In fact, the very word for wisdom in Hebrew, חכמה, has been understood (by using the four letter of the words) as כח מה, the power of “what.” There’s a great power to what and when, why and how…
The Book of Bereshit or Genesis, which we started reading last week, poses some of the most elemental and essential questions. Two of them, similar in nature, but different in their direction, leap out to me: the first is the query posed to Adam and Eve after they have sinned and are hiding their shame and guilt. God seeks them out asking: “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:8) The second is after Cain has callously killed his brother, God enquires: “Where is Abel your brother?” (Genesis 4:9) Now in both circumstances God knows exactly where the protagonists were. The intent is to flash out their consciousness, to force them to confront their guilt, to take responsibility for their actions.
The questions are however different; the first is an individual quizzing, the second relates to others. The interrogation of Adam and Eve is a probing existential one; it asks them to consider just where they are in terms of their conscience and personal morality. The second is aimed at getting Cain to consider his responsibility to others, to his brother, to recognize that he is indeed his sibling’s custodian and protector.
In a wider sense these two questions are relevant to every one of us: the first relates to where are you at as an individual; are you fulfilling your potential, are you being true to your own self? The second concerns our capacity to reach out to others, to support not only those closest, but also those furthest, for they are ultimately our brothers and sisters, fellow human beings trying to find their own way on our shared planet. Are you doing enough for the vulnerable, the lost, the struggling and the newcomers?
The great rabbi philosopher of the past century, Abraham Joshua Heschel once said “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire good people.” I would add: When we are young we seek the approval of others, when we are older we seek the recognition or our own authenticity. We hopefully realise life is not about popularity but principle. It’s about being true to one’s own self. It takes courage and determination to ask the right questions as it does to be true to your own convictions. It also takes strength and conviction to reach out to those in need, especially the less glamourous members of our society; the mentally challenged, the physically disabled, the homeless and the refugee.
The great first century rabbi, the storied Hillel the Elder, is known for his wisdom and witty aphorisms. In the Mishna (Avot 1:14) he famously poses questions which mirror our two from Genesis and it is possible the Genesis questions are the actual source of his saying:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?
Hillel did ask a third trenchant enquiry: “If not now, when?”
It’s great to be able to frame the correct question, more powerful to articulate it at the right moment…
May we always ask curly questions; may we always frame engaging queries; may we bravely interrogate our souls and compassionately enquire of other souls…