“Any teacher concerned with the development of the student’s mind must be concerned with the role of questions in teaching and learning, for it is through our questions that we understand the world and everything in it.” - Richard Paul and Linda Elder
As teachers, parents or students, we are all of aware of the power of questions in eliciting deep, meaningful learning and understanding. When something bothers us, we are more interested in learning and more likely to internalize the answer. We live in a community that does not punish its children for questioning. We are encouraged to think critically about the ideas we learn and experiences we have. Nevertheless, allowing for questions and critique can easily lead to a cynical distrust of authority. The advent of blogs and social networking has opened a world in which people feel comfortable saying anything they want, about anyone they want, in any way that they want. Therefore, it is important to learn and teach how to ask questions. A fascinating debate in the Midrash on this week’s Parashah provides us with crucial guidelines in this area.
Following Bnei Yisrael’s complaint for meat, Hashem responds by telling Moshe that He will, indeed, provide meat for the people in response to their requests. With a sense of disappointment, Moshe responds by seemingly criticizing Hashem’s decision, saying (BeMidbar 11:22), “HaTzon UVakar Yishacheit Lahem UMatza Lahem Im Et Kol Degei HaYam Yei’aseif Lahem UMatza Lahem,” “Can flock and cattle be slaughtered for them and suffice for them? If all the fish of the sea were gathered for them, would it suffice for them?” In the Midrash quoted by Rashi (11:22 s.v. HaTzon UVakar Yishacheit VeGomeir), Rabi Akiva understands the question “KeMashma’o,” in its literal sense. In a cynical tone, Moshe is questioning whether and how Hashem will be able to provide meat for a nation of 600,000 plus. Rabi Shimon chastises Rabi Akiva for placing such a complaint in the mouth of a Tzaddik like Moshe. Rabi Shimon argues, “Chas VeShalom! Lo Aleta Al Daato Shel Oto Tzaddik Kach,” “Heaven forbid! Such a thing did not enter the mind of that righteous one.” For Rabi Shimon, questioning Hashem’s abilities is inconsistent with the description of Moshe at the end of our Parasha – “BeChol Beiti Ne’eman Hu,” “He is the most loyal in My (Hashem’s) home” (12:7).
How would Rabi Akiva respond to Rabi Shimon’s critique? Apparently, Rabi Akiva believes that questioning Hashem does not necessarily undermine one’s loyalty and commitment to Him. Questioning is a natural and healthy part of any relationship, and occasionally expressing doubts about someone’s capabilities is acceptable.
While Rabi Akiva does not view questioning as an inherent contradiction to faith, he does not understand this to be an open invitation for critique of any kind. Rabi Akiva initially wonders why this question did not lead to a severe punishment while Moshe’s questioning Hashem’s abilities at Mei Merivah prevented him from entering the land. He posits that this critique was acceptable because it was done in a private setting. Standing in front of the entire nation, Moshe’s raising questions about Hashem could be misconstrued by the masses as a challenge to His authority. Thus, context plays a crucial role in determining a question’s acceptability. Challenging a parent’s position at the Shabbat table in front of guests is more likely to insult them than asking the same question in a private, one-on-one conversation.
Just as Rabi Akiva does not provide a blanket allowance, Rabi Shimon is not really arguing that all forms of questioning and doubt inherently undermine faith. Even he is faced with interpreting the question in the Pesukim in some way. To Rabi Shimon, therefore, Moshe trusted that Hashem could provide meat if he so desired. He questioned only how Hashem would appear to the people if He provided them with food only to kill them afterwards. According to Rabi Shimon, Moshe asks, “VeChi Shivchacha Hu Zeh,” “Is this going to lead to your praise?” Moshe is challenging Hashem’s plan but is doing so in a way that makes his objectives and interest clear. He is not challenging for the sake of undermining Hashem’s authority; on the contrary, he is doing so to ensure that Hashem’s authority is maintained. Critique is encouraged only when the objective of the critique is not simply to challenge, to be cynical or to undermine someone else’s position, but instead is aimed at clarifying, understanding or helping someone else achieve their goals.
Finally, extrapolating from Moshe’s relationship with Hashem to our relationship with friends, family or rabbis must be carefully considered. The Torah concludes our Parashah reminding us that as much as Moshe’s humanity is exposed to us more than ever before – he is tired, frustrated, asking for help and asking questions – Moshe is still different from anyone other human being. When Miriam and Aharon criticize one of Moshe’s decisions, Hashem tells them, “Lo Chein Avdi Moshe,” “Not so (like other human Nevi’im) is My servant Moshe” (12:7). Miriam and Aharon must learn that Moshe’s asking questions does not mean that they can question and criticize Moshe’s activities in the same way they talk about anyone else. Besides being the Adon HaNevi’im, the “master” of all Nevi’im, the questions of an “Anav MiKol Adam,” “One humbler than all men” (cf. 12:3), are inherently more acceptable than all of us, whose egos always play some role in the criticism we level against others.
Context, objectives and humility. Keeping these criteria in mind, we can learn to think critically without becoming critics and to ask our questions while remaining trusting, faithful and committed.