Asking Good Questions

April 21, 2023 / 30 Nissan 5783

The text in this week’s double Torah portion of Tazria-Metzora is some of the most difficult and directly unrelatable language in the Torah. Ask any bar or bat mitzvah child who is confronted with having their celebratory weekend at this time of year, and you will see their face squirm coupled with an almost embarrassing discomfort about the content of their Torah reading, ritual impurity, leprosy, bodily discharge, and other nightmarish topics for the adolescent teen.

Consequently, the sermons for this week’s parshah often revolve around the topics of evil speech, slander, and gossip, all of which have been identified by our great sages as the causes of these supranatural plagues. Oddly, however, the actual commandment against evil speech does not appear in the Torah for another two weeks, in Leviticus 19:16, where we read that one is “not to go about as a talebearer.”

Unfortunately, we do not know why the consequences and treatments for these ailments occur in the Torah before the revelation of the commandment itself, but what we do know is that the Torah often intentionally generates opportunities to ask questions, sometimes even providing an answer before the query is even posed.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l said it best, “Judaism is a religion of questions. Abraham Twerski, the American psychiatrist, remembers how, when he was young, his teacher would welcome questions, the more demanding, the better. When faced with a particularly tough challenge, he would say, in his broken English: ‘You right! You hundred prozent right! Now I show you where you wrong.’ The Nobel prize-winning Jewish physicist Isidore Rabi once explained that his mother taught him how to be a scientist. ‘Every other child would come back from school and be asked, “What did you learn today?” But my mother used to ask, instead, “Izzy, did you ask a good question today?”’ In the yeshiva, the home of traditional Talmudic learning, the highest compliment a teacher can give a student is Du fregst a gutte kasha, ‘You raise a good objection.’”

So here is a seemingly non sequitur question for you… Have you ever thought about the rooms in your home and their original purpose? Once upon a time, houses contained parlors and libraries, rooms where families and friends gathered to speak to one another. In fact, “parler” in French literally means “to speak” or “talk,” and libraries were spaces for people to interact around shared information. Over time many of these rooms transformed into “living rooms,” and from there, have morphed into television rooms, game rooms, studies, and offices. Even dining rooms slowly moved into kitchen dinettes, and now these are moving to counter spaces and single-person seating.

I often hear older generations lament over the poor social skills of our youth, “always on their phones or iPads, playing games and isolated from the real world.” Well, whatever that “real world” is, I venture to say that we started to depart from it years before today’s technology ever settled in our children’s hands.

“Real” relationships are based on healthy communication and healthy communication comes from experience. As children, we stumbled through our rules of grammar and language. We heard our elders’ voices reminding us of proper etiquette and behaviors in front of others. We even learned how to agree to disagree BUT to still hear another’s thoughts.

If there is a lesson to be learned from the supranatural plague that is mentioned in this week’s Torah portions, a plague that affects the mortal being as well as the physical home, it is that questions are forms of communication that require others to participate in the conversation. And sincere questions are posed with genuine intent to hear another’s ideas, position, and perspective, which might differ from our own.  We grow when we converse. We become better human beings when we ask questions and gain insight from others. We maintain a healthy persona when we do not isolate ourselves from the community.

This weekend let us all practice what our tradition has been teaching us for thousands of years, let us ask someone a question and be ready to genuinely, sincerely, and openly, hear their response. It does not mean that we must agree with them, but it does mean that we must respect what they have to say. Because we are…



Shabbat Shalom,