The Thrill of a Good Question

Her eyes light up and she comes alive.  By the way her hand shoots up, a firework tail bursting into the flower of splayed fingers, I know it’s a good one.  I stop reading and crook an eyebrow in challenge, welcoming it.


Or, sometimes, it’s him and it’s a little different.  With him, it’s a little less explosive.  His mind moves slower, but deep, an ocean current compared to a geyser.  Sometimes, although older, he’s a little less sure of himself, a little more shy.  I soften and coax his words forth, smoothing the way for them so that they flow easier, encouraging him to let me into his inner world.

In either case, I may be biased, but I still think my kids ask the best questions.

Growing up, I had a different experience with questions.  Questions were not welcome, let alone coaxed.  Questions meant a lack of faith or a disrespect of authority.  The critical eye of Sister Mary Josette marked me soon as a troublemaker.  Once the label was affixed, I began to try to fit it.  I was a provocateur at age 5, my questions shots fired before I knew that they had any impact.  Why were they welcome at school but not here?  Wasn’t this called a class?  Didn’t they want us to learn or understand?  No, they wanted me quiet and moldable.  They wanted me to want to obey without knowing why.  Many years later, I realized they hated my questions because they didn’t know the answers and didn’t want to admit it or ask anyone else.

My children ask me plenty of questions I don’t know the answer to.  My own eyes light up when they do because it’s exciting to me that there is always more to learn and they’ve found the entrance to a hidden cave I didn’t know about.  Now we can explore together.  We go looking for the answer, seeking out the treasure map in books and online.  If that fails or we find several different trails to follow, we look for a guide to help us.

“That’s a good Rabbi question!” I say.

A good Rabbi question is one to which there may be several right answers or one to which the right answers might be buried in texts in languages I don’t understand or scattered amid Midrash.  A good Rabbi is one patient enough to tolerate good Rabbi questions that come from half-sized little people,  one who will stop and pause a moment, his eyes darting upward, as if his mind is flipping through a card catalogue, finding the right volume.  One who will then patiently explain the answer in terms at least I understand even if I have to do some translating.

One of the things I love most about Judaism is that it encourages questions and the pursuit of their answers.  The fact that they are not just tolerated, but enjoyed and that there so often are answers buried somewhere makes it easier for me to accept those times when there aren’t many answers beyond, “This is what we’re supposed to do,” or “This is just how it’s done.”  Those sorts of answers as a child would make me roll my eyes, but in the wider context of so many very deep, reasoned answers, they feel more like a vegetable I may not like mixed into a soup rather than an entire plate full of that.

Her eyes again shine and she grins when the Rabbi answers her question and I look at her hands pressed together happily and think how different this is than my sore knuckles bearing the redness of unanswered questions.  Her curiosity is fed a steady diet of encouragement rather than starved.  I love that she feels Torah is hers to explore and question and learn rather than something up on a shelf behind glass that should never be opened.  My children’s questions and the search for answers is an ongoing conversation, back and forth, between them and Torah, so different than the one way dictates of my youth.

I hope their eyes are never dulled and that, even as adults, they still experience the thrill of a good question.

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