Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Gut Ge-fregt! - The Question/Answer Dynamic
Hear the word of Hashem, O House of Jacob and all families of the House of
Israel. So says Hashem: What wrong did your forefathers find in Me, that
they distanced themselves from Me, and pursued futility, becoming empty?
Yet they did not say, "Where is Hashem, Who brought us out of Egypt..." The
Kohanim did not say, "Where is Hashem?' Those charged with teaching the
Torah did not know me! (Yirmiyahu/Jeremiah 2:6-8)
The above passage, found in this week's Haftorah reading, is critical of
the Jews for not asking, "Where is Hashem?" It is likewise critical of the
Kohanim, Israel's teachers, for not asking, "Where is Hashem?" Upon
consideration, this critique requires clarification. That Israel is
chastised for not asking seems reasonable. The role of a "student" is to
ask, not to have the answers. Were they at least to have tried to seek out
Hashem, to give voice to the questions that perplexed them, and have
sincerely looked for meaning in their lives - then they would be free of
blame. What more can Hashem ask but that a Jew seek him out with a serious
and earnest desire to come close, as we say each day in our prayers, "Seek
Hashem and His might, desire His Presence always! (Divrei Ha-
But why is the Prophet critical of the Kohanim, the "teachers," for not
asking? The role of a teacher is to provide the answers - to allay the
doubts of an anxious student and clarify the subject matter - in this case
the word of Hashem. The Kohanim should be telling people where Hashem is,
In the Haggada shel Pesach we read:
Rabban Gamliel used to say: Whoever doesn't recite the following three
things on Pesach has not fulfilled his obligation: Pesach, matzah, and
maror... What is the meaning of Pesach?... What is the meaning of
matzah?... What is the meaning of maror?
Why does the author of the Haggada not simply explain what Pesach, matzah,
and maror are, instead of introducing each one by questioning its meaning?
R' Yitzchak Elchanan Waldshein zt"l explains that both the Haggada and the
verse in the Haftorah are teaching us a fundamental lesson about education.
The Kohanim are not criticised for not lecturing the people about Hashem,
Torah, and mitzvos. Indeed, they most likely did lecture and propound. But
lecturing is not sufficient. Questions open the mind and cause people to
think. Thus, the answer that follows a deeply pondered question stays with
the listener longer and engrains itself deeply into his mind and his heart.
It is precisely because Pesach, matzah, and maror are so crucial to the
Seder message that they are presented as questions and answers. Similarly,
the Kohanim are blamed not for not lecturing, but for not stimulating their
students with questions. They taught, but not in a way that made a lasting
impression on their students. (Haggada shel Pesach Baranovitch p. 137 -
quoted by R' Shlomo Katz in HaMayan, Matos/Masei 5760)
According to this, it seems that when we reach the critical stage of the
"three items that must be explained at the Seder," the idea is not simply
to recite, "Why do we eat the korban Pesach? Why do we eat matzah? etc."
but rather to actually pose the question to our children and families, and
allow them a chance to answer themselves, before we proceed to explain the
ba'al Haggadah's answer. By doing so, we challenge them intellectually, and
after having voiced their opinion and understanding, they are far more
likely to actually pay attention to the precise answer the Haggadah gives.
It would be interesting next year at the Seder to tell everyone to close up
their Haggadahs and go around the table soliciting answers to the
questions. If an argument breaks out - all the better! Once you give the
command to "open up your Haggadahs," you can be sure their interest level
will have been piqued, and everyone will want to know just who succeeded in
portraying the most accurate answer.
I was recently learning with my class (grade 8) the laws of netilas yadayim
(washing one's hands) in the morning. I was quite astonished to discover
that more than half of the class mistakenly thought that one recited the
beracha of Asher yatzar twice in the morning, once after using the
washroom, and a second time together with Birkas Ha-Torah. I explained to
them that in fact you only say it once - either immediately after using the
washroom, or together with Birkas Ha-Torah, but not twice (unless, of
course, you have used the washroom in between).
Feeling I had come across a major misconception here, I felt I should make
other Rebbeim in the Yeshiva aware of the mistake. They acknowledged that
it was likely many of their students had the same misunderstanding. "But,"
one colleague asked, "what should I do to correct it? Even if I tell them
the right way of doing it, I doubt they'll pay enough attention to what I'm
saying to realize they haven't been doing it right until now!"
Gut ge-fregt (Well asked!). I answered him like this: "Go into your class
and ask them: 'You get up in the morning and use the washroom. You wash
your hands and make Asher Yatzar. Then you come to Yeshiva, open up your
siddur, and begin saying berachos with your class. Should you say Asher
Yatzar again?' I guarantee you an argument will break out; some will say
yes, others no. Open up a Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) and show them
the answer, and you'll have a class full of students who will never forget
Does anyone besides myself find his dvar-Torah at the Shabbos table has a
sedating effect on his family and guests? Here's a suggestion: Instead of
delivering a sermon (think for a moment of how captive an audience you are
when you hear the word 'speech'), try challenging your family and guests
with questions relating to the weekly parsha, the time of year, or even
just general Torah trivia. Once you've got everyone's attention, you might
try pushing in a few words of your own, a dvar-Torah, etc. Or perhaps
you'll find that, when following the question-and-answer strategy, the
discussion begins to take on a life of its own.
So critical was the process of question/answer to Chazal, our Sages, that
(again referencing the Haggadah) they begin the Seder with the Four
Questions. "Even two learned scholars," say Chazal, "and even a person
conducting a Seder on his own must still ask the four questions."
At times, questions make a teacher - or anyone who finds himself expected
to know the answer - uncomfortable. This can cause us to avoid or shun
questions, especially when we're not confident that we have a satisfactory
answer. I recently met a young man who, as a young yeshiva bachur, had an
inquisitive mind, and often asked questions which made his teachers
uncomfortable. He felt their discomfort, and was in turn made to feel wrong
for even having asked such questions. Most boys didn't ask - they accepted
unquestioningly. He couldn't accept without some level of comprehension -
and he couldn't find anyone willing to help him understand the answers to
questions that bothered him. Ultimately, he left yeshiva and abandoned a
While there are most certainly two sides to every story, and I am by no
means casting aspersions on the conduct of his rebbeim etc. (nor do I know
who they were), this example still serves as a reminder of how important it
is for every adult (especially those in education) to know that questions
and inquisitiveness should generally be encouraged. If you don't know the
answer, be honest and say, "I really don't know, but that's a great
question. Why don't we look into it together!" Perhaps you'll gain
something from the process too!
Have a good Shabbos.
This week's publication is sponsored by R' Zalman
HaCohen Deutsch, in honour of the Yortzeit of the holy Yismach
Moshe, R' Moshe Teitelbaum of Siget zy"a. And in honour
of the Yortzeit of the holy Rebbe of Bobov, R' Shlomo
Halberstam zy"a. And of Aaron HaCohen, oheiv shalom
Text Copyright © 2003 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.