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Bo(Exodus 10:1-13:16)

Asking Questions


We shouldn't be afraid or embarrassed to ask questions when there's something we don't understand. This week's Torah portion teaches how questions and answers are a great way to learn and even to pass down knowledge from generation to generation. Asking sincere questions doesn't show a lack of intelligence; it shows an intelligent desire to grow.

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In our story a kid discovers that sometimes the best way to learn is to admit we don't know.

"THE RIGHT CHEMISTRY"

      Rachel Sears enjoyed chemistry lab class. She wasn't much of a bookworm type and this was just the kind of hands-on class she could really relate to. Rachel fired up the jet-blue gas flame of her Bunsen burner, looked over the experiment directions that Mrs. Edwards, her teacher, had passed out and realized she had no idea what they were talking about.

      "Hey, Dana, can you help me out with this?" she asked, tapping her lab partner on the arm.

      "Huh?" The girl looked up.

      "What are we supposed to do for this experiment?"

      "Just follow the instructions..." she shrugged.

      "I don't get these instructions. I usually follow fine, but this one's more complicated than usual. All these big formulas and equations look like they're from some kind of blueprint for Frankenstein's brain or something."

      Dana leaned toward her and whispered. "I know what you mean. To tell you the truth, I can't make heads or tails out of it either."

      Just then the teacher stood up and announced, "Anyone who has questions about the experiment or needs help, please come to the front table now and I'll explain it to you."

      "Oh, good," said Rachel. "Come on, let's go over to the teacher and ask her to explain it."

      "No way!" Dana said. "I'm not asking anything. I don't want Mrs. Edwards to think I'm the class dunce, especially not today. I heard a rumor that she is about to pick a special lab assistant who will get to help her on some really cool experiments - and get to skip some other classes to do it. The last thing I want is for her to think that I don't know what's going on."

      "But you don't," insisted Rachel. "How else are we going to get it if we don't ask?"

      "Forget it." said Dana. "You can go ask if you want to look like a dummy. I'm not!"

      "But if we don't know how to do the experiment, what are we going to do for the next 45 minutes?"

      "I'm going to stir my beaker, look busy and hope the teacher doesn't come this way, and I suggest you do the same."

      Rachel realized she wasn't going to get anywhere with her friend. "Okay, be that way. I'll go ask by myself."

      Rachel turned off her Bunsen burner and was about to stand up and go to the teacher when she suddenly froze. She noticed that no one else had gone up, and no one was even making a move to do so. Some of the kids were looking at Rachel half standing, whispering to each other and giggling.

      Rachel quickly sat back down. 'It would be really embarrassing to be the only one in the class who needs help. Maybe Dana's right. Why should I be the one to make a fool out of myself in front of everyone?'

      She picked up the assignment and looked at it again. 'Maybe I can figure it out without asking after all. Let's see, that's 44 grams at a suspension of 2cc per...'

      But no matter how hard she tried, she just didn't get it. After a few frustrating minutes, Rachel thought, 'Boy this is dumb! Either I know what I'm doing or I don't. I'm not going to just stand here like a zombie and fake it. I don't care what people think. I'm going over and asking for help.'

      Rachel marched over to the front table, trying to ignore the eyes of Dana and her other classmates she felt staring at her. She asked all her questions to Mrs. Edwards, who patiently explained everything.

      "Thanks, Mrs. Edwards," Rachel said sheepishly and turned to walk away.

      "Just one moment, Rachel. I have something to discuss with you," the woman called her back.

      'Oh, no,' Rachel thought. 'Is she going to tell me how dumb I am?'

      "I'm looking for someone to help me with some advanced experiments this term as a lab assistant. Would you be interested in doing that?"

      Rachel stood shocked. "Um, yeah, of course...I'd love to," she stammered. "But why me of all people? I mean even after I came and asked you all these questions and everything..."

      The teacher smiled. "Rachel, it is exactly because you came and asked for help that I've decided to choose you. This is a very difficult experiment and I'm sure you aren't the only one with questions about it, yet you were the only one who came up to ask. A person who is not afraid to ask questions and to admit when she doesn't know something is someone with a real desire to understand. And it is just this type of person who could gain the most from the private lab assistant time. Come by after class and we'll arrange your schedule."

      Rachel floated back to her bench where Dana, who was still aimlessly stirring her beaker, waited for her.

      "Rachel I can't believe you went up there! I bet the teacher really gave it to you for not knowing what to do, huh?"

      "Gave it to me? Hmm, I guess you could say that!" Rachel laughed and felt grateful that she had been smart enough to admit she didn't know it all.

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Ages 3-5

Q. How did Rachel feel about asking her questions before she went up to the teacher?
A. She felt embarrassed and that people would think she was dumb for asking.

Q. How did she feel in the end?
A. She was glad she did it when she saw how her teacher and even her friend respected her for having the courage to ask.


Ages 6-9

Q. What did Rachel discover that day?
A. She found out that even though it can feel uncomfortable to ask questions and admit we don't know something, it is better than just pretending we know when we really don't. Admitting when we don't know something and asking to find out isn't being dumb - it's being smart and showing that we really want to learn.

Q. Why do you think people are sometimes afraid to ask questions?
A. Often we may feel that others will look down on us if we admit we don't understand something, especially when everyone else seems to understand. But it's almost always better to ask and get things clear and many times the people around us are just as confused, but they are also afraid to ask.

Spiritual exercise: The next time someone says something to you that you don't understand, ask him what he means.


Ages 10 and Up

Q. Our sages teach that an overly self-conscious person will never achieve their full learning potential. What do you think this means?
A. Learning by definition is a process of going from a state of not understanding to one of understanding. An essential step in this process is acknowledging when we don't understand something and asking clarifying questions. In fact, the classic method of learning Torah is through rigorous questioning of every point until full clarity is achieved. One who is overly self-conscious will be too concerned about how others will perceive his lack of understanding to ask these necessary questions.

Q. Is there ever such a thing as a bad question?
A. If a question is coming from a sincere and positively motivated desire to know or understand something, then no matter how simple or misguided the question seems, it is a good one. However, there is another type of question which is 'bad.' This type of question doesn't genuinely seek an answer, but rather seeks only to ridicule or put down the speaker or what is being said. This type of question actually isn't a question at all, but a verbal attack. The Torah way is not simply to accept things blindly, but to question everything - as long as our questions are sincerely based on a desire to discover truth.

Spiritual exercise: The next time someone says something to you that you don't understand, ask him what he means.


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Published: January 28, 2006

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