Thursday, November 6, 2014

Vayera- Did You Ask a Good Question?

Va’Adonai amar ha’m’chaseh ani mei’avraham asher ani oseh?
And Adonai said, “Should I hide from Avraham that which I do?”  (Breishit 18:17)
Nobel Prize winning physicist, Isidor Rabi once said, “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending to. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school, "So? Did you learn anything today?" But not my mother. "Izzy," she would say, "did you ask a good question today?" That difference — asking good questions — made me become a scientist.”
The act of asking questions for the sake of questioning is a long-time Jewish tradition. We have never been a people to accept blindly that which is in front of us. This compulsion to ask, to delve deeper into the how’s and the why’s created generations of scholars, activists, and scientists. It is a likely contributor to the large numbers of Nobel Prizes and other accomplishments within the Jewish community, even in literature. After all, to ask so many questions a person must be creative.
Questioning is a learned response. Jewish children are taught from the start to wonder. From that first moment of learning, we encourage our children to ask and explore. We read to them; recite text- both religious and secular. We encourage them to be precocious. It’s like the old joke, “What’s the definition of a genius? A child with a Jewish grandparent.” But it really does make a difference. Not only do we encourage our children to learn, we learn. Scholarly pursuit does not end with a degree. Torah l’shma, learning for the sake of learning, is a treasured Jewish value. As a child I always knew I’d go to university, not as a means to an end, but as an end to itself.
As Jesse prepares to apply to university, I often find myself discussing my university years. It’s not the parties or the friends I am discussing, although they were plentiful and great. It’s the classes and the professors. I recently corresponded with one of my high school teachers. Mr Vought was the type of inspiring teacher everyone should have. He made us question and he made us think. Mr. Vought was a biology teacher, but taught so much more. He wanted us to learn from his actions. We called him Dad after he made us clean the lab one day. The nickname lasted the length of our schooling. He was a scientist, and like Dr. Rabi’s mother, felt questions and discussion were the road to learning. Nothing was off the table. A big news item at the time was whether creative design should be taught in science class. Ours was a school filled mostly with and Irish and Italian Catholics, although my bio class was half Jewish. Many of us went to synagogue or church at least once a month. Mr. Vought couldn’t teach this topic, and announced so. Then he leaned back, and left us to our own devices. The debate was wonderful. Mr. Vought wasn’t going to hide anything from us. We learned better, and became better people because of it.

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