A student asked the rabbi, “Why do you answer so many questions with a question?” To which the rabbi replied, “How should I answer?”
Having experienced the transformational holiday of Passover last week, I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of questions and questioning–especially since questions play such a central role in the seder. The tradition invites the youngest person at the table to read or sing the beloved “Four Questions.” Each of the four asks why and how the Passover seder differs from all the other nights of the year. So (a question here), why ask? Why not just provide the answers right away?
Aha–and therein lies the point… which is that it’s the asking, not the telling, that matters most!
Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said, “We have learned from history that people are united by questions. The answers [are what] divide them.” To question is human nature. Being inquisitive is baked into our DNA and is expressed from the moment we can translate our curiosity into words. A toddler will ask, “What’s this? What’s that?” all day long, and eventually, the whats will become an endless stream of whys. And that may seem annoying at times, but we know it’s a great sign. It indicates a natural desire to understand. To know. When we witness that in a child, we hope it will begin a love affair with learning that will never end.
But the older we get, the more we’re taught to accept more and ask less. We may learn through the modeling around us that it’s the answers, not the questions, that matter most. We memorize definitions and facts. We label diagrams, solve equations, and sometimes lose points if our views don’t align with what we’ve been taught. We hear quotes such as “Knowledge is Power” and take that literally–assuming that to know more means to BE more in the world.
And rote knowledge has real value–don’t get me wrong. But if we’re really lucky, we are also encouraged to keep asking. Because if we’re to continually evolve in the ways we’re meant to, the inquiry will never cease!
It is through our questions–whether they’re answered or not–that we come to understand not only the external world, but the internal one as well. We learn what sparks our own curiosity… what excites us… what makes us wonder, and what brings us meaning.
Back when Socrates was holding court for young thinkers in ancient Greece, he probably had no idea how ahead of his time he was. His belief that thoughtful questioning was at the heart of true learning sparked a movement still employed in universities everywhere. The Socratic method is about challenging our assumptions and biases and inspiring deeper exploration on a topic. As Michael and I discussed at length in one of our Spiritually Hungry podcasts (Episode 108, in case you’re curious!), mistaking an assumption for a valid answer can lead us down a dangerous path. And this is another reason why we need to ask rather than assume we know an answer.
On that note, here is another question to consider: Is there a “right” way to question? And are some questions inherently better than others?
Many rabbis, including Rav Berg, have explored the idea of negative versus positive questions. “Negative” questions lead the answerer to doubt or negative thinking: How bad will this be? Am I (or are you) really worthy of this? Am I smart or capable enough? Notice how easily the answers to such questions could lead to uncertainty or pessimism. An inquiry should never put down, upset, or embarrass the one being asked (and that includes those internal questions we pose to ourselves!).
Meanwhile, “positive” questions align us with the Light: Where am I in my consciousness? Why is [anything] the way it is? What do I (or you) think of this? Light-aligned questions stir up curiosity, excitement, and authentic sharing. They help us connect with ourselves and others in mutually illuminating ways. And they encourage even more expansion and exploration!
In her article, “Questions That Could Change Your Life,” Oprah suggested that self-inquiry can be a catalyst for personal evolution. Here are two great questions she posed that we can ask ourselves each day:
● How do I want the world to be different because I lived in it?
● How do I want to be different because I lived in this world?
When you think you’ve deciphered the answers, turn those answers into more questions. Dig deep within yourself, and see what happens! And then write some great questions for someone else in your life to answer. Remember, great questions create great connections!
As Passover teaches, there’s value in continuing to question–in this case, year after year–even if we believe we know the answers. And the answers we thought we knew will always take on a different hue depending on where we are in our lives.
In a way, we are all just children inthe face of an immense Universe full of far more questions than answers. That epic voyage all the myths and movies explore is happening every day! And it’s our curiosity that powers the journey. Our questions are what help us continue to become. And isn’t that, after all, why we’re here?