by Daniel R. Weiss
Daniel R. Weiss is the Head of School at Bornblum Jewish Community School in Memphis, Tennessee.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks once said, “In Judaism to be without questions is not a sign of faith, but a lack of depth.” We ask questions to search for answers and we answer questions to help solve someone else’s desire for answers. Claude Levi-Strauss wrote that, “the wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resilient Teenagers. In her lecture, Dr. Mogel asked, “How many of you got straight A’s? How many of you didn’t make stupid choices?” No one raised his or her hand.
While we want perfection from our children, we need to be realistic in our expectations. We need to allow our kids to be excellent…in the areas in which they excel.
As Dr. Mogel shares, “…demonstrate empathy while avoiding entanglement in their disappointments. Be curious and kind, but alarmed… If you are asked for help directly, use leading questions that suggest your faith in [their] ability to mobilize [their] resources… Do your best to let [your child] provide the answers on [their] own.”
A few years ago, my wife Jessica and I were blown away by a lesson that our then sixth grade son taught us. He began by telling us that a question might not actually really be about what the question seems to be asking. There might be something deeper in the question than what appears on the surface. He started by explaining that the word Yetzirah means we can find or create from what we have learned. He then told us two stories (as told in his words).
The first story is about two people. One person says to the other, can you help me study for this test? The person who was asked the question thought to himself for a second, “oh he wants me to help him study, but what he might also want is for me to be his friend.”
In the second story, he went on, there is an old lady who goes to the town rabbi and says to him, “Rabbi, on Pesach, instead of having four cups of wine, can I have four cups of milk?” The rabbi thought for a minute and replied, “let me check in my books and when I find an answer, I will come and tell you.” The lady left the rabbi who went to look into his books. But instead of looking in his books, he thought deeply about the question he was asked. He wondered, “if on Pesach you need a shank bone to symbolize that we have to eat meat, and if milk is dairy and she wants milk, that means that she can’t provide money for meat and therefore she must be poor.” The rabbi tells his student to go to the store and buy meat for the Passover Seder and leave it on the lady’s doorstep. While he is at the store, the lady returns to the rabbi. The rabbi tells her that he does not yet have an answer, but he will tell her when he does. The lady goes home and finds the basket of food on her doorstep. The student who returned to the rabbi asked him how he knew that she was in fact a poor lady. The rabbi responded, “On Pesach we must eat meat, but milk is dairy. So, if she wasn’t going to be able to have meat, she must in fact be poor.”
Midrash, which is an elucidation of the text through stories, is not just an ancient art form. It is a storytelling skill that continues to this very day. It is something that we teach our students to do daily. We teach them to find meaning in what they are learning.
In his commentary on this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, the Ramban (Nachmanides) focuses on the words “Lamah Zeh Anochi,” “Why am I like this,” or more literally “Why did I [pray to God to become pregnant].” Rebecca asked this of the women in her village, as the babies within her womb would kick and fight depending on whether she passed a building of idol worship or a building of Torah study. The women in the village could not answer her because none had experienced similar pains in carrying a child. It was only when Rebecca asked G-d (the Hebrew word used is lidrosh which means to inquire and is related to Midrash, commentary), that Rebecca is given an answer. In this case, she needed a deeper understanding of her own question.
Ramban focuses on the idea that lidrosh, inquiry, can only be done in relation to God. I don’t agree. Lidrosh allows us to create, yetzirah, as my son illustrated in his story. As modern commentators, it is our responsibility lidrosh, to inquire.
Each of us needs to use our ability to create our own modern commentary, to come to our own conclusions, to look deeper in the questions we are asked and the questions that we are asking. We must search for the answers, for a complete understanding, even if it is only revealed in small, sometimes secret pieces, hidden deep inside of a question.