Rabbi Yirmiyah was well known for his outlandish questions that are recorded throughout shas. In Bava Basra 23 we find that he was even evicted from the beis midrash for asking a particularly peculiar question. Although he was surely laughed at, Rabbi Yirmiyah intrepidly asked many questions that superficially seem strange, and he was not deterred. We can learn the importance of asking all of one’s questions fearlessly from what Rav Chaim Vital, zt”l, teaches about Rabbi Yirmiyah. “All questions asked in the heavenly mesivta are posed by Rabbi Yirmiyah. Since Rabbi Yirmiyah always asked his questions from an honest desire to know the answer, he merited to sit at the opening to the heavenly mesivta and has the distinction of asking all inquiries there.”
Rabbeinu Yonah, zt”l, points out that the desire to seek out the truth is a prerequisite to success in Torah learning. “The verse states, ‘ אם תבקשנה ככסף ,’ one must seek out Torah like he pursues money. He must be careful to attain Torah specifically through toil. His labor to uncover what the Torah means should be sweet to him—like hunting precious gems is beloved to any successful prospector. This is the meaning of the verse, ‘ שש אנכיעל אמרתך כמוצא שלל רב — I rejoice over Your words like one who has found a great treasure.’ The more one feels this sweetness, the more his eyes are opened to understanding the Torah and the more Torah he is able to retain.
As our sages say on the verse, ‘ דעתלנפשך ינעם ’, a person should learn material that his heart desires to learn.”
-Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Seeking the Torah’s Truth”
If you’ve been reading my blog for very long, you know I’m a great one for asking questions. But giving answers, not so much. I don’t always find a lot of rock solid answers in theological realms. I’m not talking about doubt in basic faith particularly, but all of the little, annoying details we tend to argue about in the religious blogosphere. And then, there’s the problem of looking stupid.
At one point or another in our school experience, we’ve probably struggled with whether or not to ask a “dumb question.” You know what I mean. The teacher is talking about something. Everyone else in the room is nodding their heads up and down sagely in agreement with what the teacher is saying. You haven’t the faintest idea what the teacher is talking about.
Should you raise your hand and ask for clarification? Everyone else in the room seems to know what the topic is all about except you. If you ask the teacher to explain what he or she is saying, everyone will think you’re some kind of special moron and laugh. You’ll be embarrassed. You’ll be humiliated. You’ll look and feel like a fool.
Nevermind that more than a few people in class are probably feeling exactly the way you do and thinking the same thing you are. They may not know what the teacher is talking about either, but they’re too afraid to ask, just like you. They’re just better at faking it and acting like the subject is old news to them. If you summon the courage to raise your hand and ask “the question,” you’ll not only get the information you need, but you’ll be the hero to everyone who wants to ask but can’t work up the nerve (even though they’ll never admit it to you). And the teacher will congratulate you for being wise enough to ask the right question.
No one laughs when I ask questions here. Well, it is my blog so why shouldn’t I ask? On the other hand, I do sometimes get in trouble for delving into areas where I’m particularly ignorant. I don’t get laughed at exactly, but I do occasionally get a public or private chiding. Our story off the Daf paints a particularly meritorious picture of people who ask “stupid questions” but this is midrash, not real life.
We have Thomas Gray’s poem Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College to thank for the common expression, “if ignorance is bliss tis folly to be wise.” (not an exact quote). I think the statement is supposed to be ironic, but there’s a lot of truth in those words, especially in the 21st century where our public information sources are not exactly uncontrolled. And we like it that way.
Life, the economy, politics, health care, raising a family, and so on and so forth, are all terribly depressing, or they can be at times. Why do I need to know more than I already do, especially if I might have to think and feel as a result?
The same is true in some (most?) religious venues. Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so, or so the song lyrics go, but how do you really know? What does it mean? And what’s love got to do with it anyway? Aren’t we talking about obeying the will of God? Who is God? Is He judge, ruler, King, teacher, companion, and could He also be a man and a spirit?
I suppose that’s cynical, but I’m one of those people who can’t stop asking questions, especially the stupid ones. No, I never had to nerve to ask stupid questions when I was in school, so I’m making up for lost time now. But if God is the teacher then at once, no question can be stupid and all questions are stupid because no human being can know anything about God. If we don’t ask all these dumb questions, we die in ignorance.
Sometimes I ask questions and people get angry. Sometimes people ask questions about what I said and my own ignorance is exposed for the world to see. No wonder we argue and fuss with each other so much on the Internet. Half the time we’re offended and the other half, we’re embarrassed.
The nature of a human being is to simply react, to throw back at others the medicine they mete out to you.
This is what Rava, the Babylonian Jewish sage, would advise: Ignore the urge to return bad with bad, hurt with hurt, scorn with scorn—and the heavens will ignore your scorning, your hurting, your acts that were less than good.
G‑d shadows man. Go beyond your nature with others and He will do the same with you.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
But between the questions, the answers, and the audience of offended, embarrassed, and challenged human beings, there is a God and a teacher and a Father who watches and waits and hopes we’ll overlook each other’s faults as He chooses to overlook ours. He’s hoping that we will choose to be more like Him and display grace and forgiveness toward each other. If we call Jesus our Lord, Messiah, Savior and Rabbi (teacher) and we say we want to be more like him, then as his students, we should learn that the best answers to our questions aren’t just the words “mercy,” “grace,” “compassion,” and “forgiveness,” but living out the answers by showing people what the lesson really means.