The Nature of Questions

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28 Feb 2008

Holy and Secular – “Tamar Goldstein,” the loud voice of the history teacher thundered in the classroom, “perhaps you can tell me why you did not do your homework. We have spoken about this over and over again. Why don’t you prepare your homework? Why is this so complicated for you? Please explain it to me.”

“Come on, now,” Tamar thought to herself. “She knows very well why I did not do my homework. I was lazy. What does she expect me to tell her?”

* * * * * *

When the rabbi quickly gazed at the seats in the classroom, he was shocked and upset. In spite of all the promises, Yitzchak Hershel had not come to participate in the morning prayers. “Yitzchak Hershel,” the teacher reprimanded him later, “Can you please tell the class why you did not get up in time to come to the morning prayers? We have spoken about this many times. Only the day before yesterday you promised that from now on you will be on time. Why didn’t you get up this morning?”

“Come on, now,” Yitzchak Hershel thought to himself. “Why didn’t I get up for the prayers? I was tired. What a silly question, what am I supposed to say?”

* * * * * *

“Avigdor and Kohellet, come here immediately,” the weary father said. “How many times have I told you to be quiet? Why can’t you stop fighting? Why were you fighting now?! Only half an hour ago I gave you ice cream and you promised to stop your arguments. Why don’t you keep your promises to me?”

“How can we answer this question,” Avigdor wondered to himself. “I don’t know why I can’t manage to keep my promises. I really wish I could. I really tried, but it didn’t work. I don’t know myself why I keep on with these silly arguments. What does my father expect me to answer?”

* * * * * *

When something goes wrong, we tend to center our attention on the past. We wonder why the problem occurred and who is guilty. When a plate falls and breaks, we are angry at the person who left the rug rolled up in the middle of the floor. When the bus does not wait for us, we blame the irritating traffic light. If we slam into an electric pole, the local authorities are in for a shouting fit about why they chose to scatter the poles all around the street.

When our child or student fails and we try to decide who is guilty and why it happened (which of course usually has a very clear answer), we tend to concentrate on the past and ask ourselves and the child what happened. We may become angry and concentrate our anger on the specific event. We will almost always try to clarify for the child in what way he or she is guilty and how serious the situation is.

Unfortunately, we cannot turn time back. Whatever happened is already in the past. A thousand investigative commissions will not return the shattered plate to its former status, and a thousand rebukes will not be able to change anything about what has already happened. The only possible result of focusing on the past is to generate anger and guilt feelings.

It is indeed very difficult to leave the past behind and look to the future. It is hard and sometimes almost impossible. But there is no alternative, this is often the best way to achieve results. The question that we must ask a child who did not wake up in time for prayers is not why he didn’t get up the day before but rather what can be done so that he will get up earlier the next day. Don’t ask why they are fighting all the time, ask what can be done so that they will not fight the next time. Do not assign guilt but demand results in the future. Don’t fret about the past, rather demand a better future.

It should be clear that focusing on the future does not mean that we are giving in. The level of our demands remains as high as it was. The fact that our energies are aimed at future results and not at releasing our anger does not have any effect on the level of our demands. It is possible to be tough and serious without accusing the other side and without centering all of our intention on the past.

* * * * * *

It goes without saying that the above points are valid not only with respect to our demands on others but also – and this is the most important point – with respect to our own demands of ourselves.

Reprinted with permission from Zomet Institute ( Translated from the Hebrew by Moshe Goldberg. To subscribe to receive the complete version of Shabbat BeShabbato please write to

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.