Sunday, December 27, 2009

The power of questions

There is a frequently quoted story related by Isadore Rabi, the Jewish Nobel prize winner. When he was asked why he became a scientist, he replied:

"My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: 'So? Did you learn anything today?' But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. 'Izzy,' she would say, 'did you ask a good question today?' That difference - asking good questions -made me become a scientist!''

In other words, it is asking good questions that makes a good scientist - a curious relentless mind.

Well, we might ask, what character trait, what action or disposition creates a good Rabbi? This is an interesting question, and I am sure that many people will offer an entire range of answers. However, last night I witnessed something that deeply impressed me, which to my mind, shows the making of one excellent Rabbi.

I was at a symposium yesterday; a panel discussion about Pesak Halakha. There were a number of speakers, and the audience were encouraged to offer questions to the panel in writing, via the chairman. Many people wrote their questions on slips of paper, and by the evening's end, there was a pile of 30 or so questions on the dais, in front of the moderator of the discussion.

At the end of the evening, the hall was pretty empty and I saw a young man, a prospective semikha student, sitting at the dais and copying out the notes, the questions. I was rather curious as to what he was doing and so I asked him. He responded:

"If I am going to be a Rabbi, I have to know what issues are really bothering people. Those issues are in these questions."

This young Yeshiva student had come to hear the answers given by the panel, but he was ultimately interested in the questions, the dilemmas and concerns that were bothering the rest of the audience. I was really impressed.

So what quality makes a Rabbi? The ability to understand what is bothering the people. Not to ask your questions, but to be attentive to the questions of others! That sense of caring, that empathy, that attention to the problems and worries, to the needs and hopes of Am Yisrael, will prove to be a winning trait to at least one young aspiring Rav. I am sure he will succeed beyond all expectations.

We can all learn a lesson from his example.

לשמוע ללמוד וללמד
before we learn and teach, we need to listen. To whom? To God? To He who gives the Torah at Sinai? Yes, maybe. But equally possible, is that we have to listen to the heart of human beings. The first stage is to be sensitive and attentive to the emotions and sensitivities that surround us. Then, with great wisdom and insights, compassion and love, we may understand their lives, hopes and dreams. Then we learn, and we will begin to comprehend how the Torah that we study and analyze can apply, can interface with the people. That is when "learning" transforms itself into "teaching."