by Daniel R. Weiss
Daniel R. Weiss is the Head of School at Bornblum Jewish Community School in Memphis, Tennessee.
There is an old joke that asks “Why do Jews always answer a question with a question? How should they answer?”
It is in our nature to ask a lot of questions. In Judaism, we pride ourselves on the four questions asked during the Passover Seder by the youngest person in attendance. Asking questions, leads to answers. The more we ask, the more we learn. Paul Sloane for InnovationManagment.se, writes that “Questions are the best way to gain deeper insights and develop more innovative solutions.” I have often pushed my students to keep a running list of questions, knowing that each level of question sharpens the next.” Sloane points out that the great TV detective, Columbo solves his mysteries by asking questions.
Several questions in this week’s Torah portion, Breisheet, stick out as means for self-discovery. The first question asked in the Bible comes from God to Adam (Genesis, 3:9), “Where are you?” This is a question that we must continually ask ourselves. Where are we? Where are we going? And How did we get here? It is God’s follow-up question to Adam that reveals the true nature of the question, “Who told you that you were naked?”
A chapter later when Cain feels as though his sacrifice was less pleasing, (4:6), God asks Cain, “Why are you distressed, and why is your face fallen?” This question, followed by a reminder that “sin couches at the door, its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master” is not heeded by Cain, who in turn kills Abel, his brother. It is the next two questions that are most telling. God asks Cain, “Where is Abel, your brother?” To which, Cain replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The questions from each of these stories are intertwined. “Where are you? Why are you distressed? Where is your brother? Who told you that you were naked? Am I my brother’s keeper?” The meaning of these questions – What is your emotional state and what is your responsibility?
Terry Heick in an article Why Questions Are More Important Than Answers, suggests “Questions are links to other questions, and that’s it. Little fragments of curiosity that get at the marrow of important issues that resonate and thrum and linger.”
Questions, while important must be followed by listening. Joan Cheverie, in an article for EDUCAUSE Review, suggests that “it slowly dawned on (her) that (she) was learning by asking questions and listening. The more (she) listened, the better (her) questions became and the more (she) learned.” Cheverie goes on to explain that asking questions is important because it “helps you uncover the challenges you’re facing and generate better solutions to solve those problems.” This follows very closely with the ideals of “Design Thinking” and the idea of “Fail Forward Fast.” In Design Thinking, we may try many different iterations of a project before we come up with a completed design. Each of the iterations may have a flaw, causing us to fail and ask questions, before ultimately coming up with a solution that works.
Brene Brown explains that the notion of failing forward helps us learn to become “shame-resilient.” Shame is found in nakedness. Adam was naked and afraid. He was unable to own up to his mistake and use it as an opportunity to fail forward. God was not asking Adam why he was naked. He was asking Adam why he was ashamed of his failure. Both Adam and Cain failed. They were each given a temptation, and both chose the wrong path. Yet, as Brown suggests, “Failure’s just another word for education.”
Cheverie sums it up very nicely by writing, when we fail, when we ask questions, “we create an ‘aha’ moment, which can lead to innovation and growth.”
Our children like to ask a lot of questions. Sometimes those questions are one word, such as, why? or how? Other times, those questions are deeper and require us as parents and teachers to pause, listen, reflect and perhaps ask questions in return.
Finally, Inga Stasiulionyte, identifies 6 underlying benefits of asking questions. (1) We learn about life through questions. (2) The more we question, the better the answers we get. (3) The quality of our lives depends on questions we ask. (4) Questioning makes you open. (5) Questioning makes you wiser. (6) Asking the right questions creates happiness.
So, when our children ask questions, what they are really asking is “where am I?” What do I know and what do I need to know? And “am I vulnerable?” Am I willing to put myself out there, admit that I have failed, that I don’t know the answer. And finally, “am I willing to listen?”