Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Power of Asking Questions

(With thanks to the Frumteens Moderator, who wrote about this here)

In one of the most pivotal scenes in all of Tanakh, described in Genesis 32, Jacob fights with a mysterious man, whom the Midrash and commentaries term an angel. Nor is this any angel, but the angel of Esau, there to watch over Esau, guard him and protect him. In a famous dialogue between Jacob and the angel, the angel declares, "Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed."

At this point, Jacob inquires of the angel, "What is your name?"

To which the angel offers the mysterious reply, "'Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?" and blesses Jacob.

Enter Rabbi Yehuda Leib Chasman, z"tl, author of the Ohr Yahel.

Here, Rabbi Chasman explains that the angel truly did answer Jacob's question. The name of the angel was "Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?" or in other words, the name of the angel was, "Why do you ask?"

Now, this seems rather peculiar, but Rabbi Chasman has an absolutely beautiful interpretation of why this is so. Firstly, Rabbi Chasman identifies this angel, not only with the guardian of Esau, but also with the Satan, with the Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination), with all things evil and misguided in man. Explains Rabbi Chasman, our evil inclination, the Satan within us, is able to rule us through use of this very fact- for this is its essence. The essence of the Satan is the idea of "Why do you ask?" with the suggestion being- you should not ask! Questions should be forbidden, and people should not ask.

But, explains Rabbi Chasman, when you truly do ask, and grow, and learn, and probe deeper and deeper in your quest to find the truth and to develop yourself, that is the way in which you dispel the yetzer hara's grasp upon you, and dissipate his darkness. In the same way that the angel had to disappear at the first light of dawn, so too, when you shine a candle, as it were, upon the dissembling Satan, you penetrate his smoke and shadow and see through to the essence of him, which is nothingness. The light dispels the darkness, and asking questions brings one closer to the truth, and to understanding.

The Frumteens Moderator adds his own, very beautiful, interpretation to Chasman's idea. He explains:
    We should also ask why on the other hand did Yaakov care so much to know the Malach’s name? The answer is because Yaakov wanted to know what ‘Yisroel’ means. He knew that he was granted that new, glorious name Yisroel because he defeated this malach. So he wanted to know what was the essence of the name, since the essence of a malach is its name, and he wanted to know the essence of the malach was that you have to defeat in order to be called Yisroel. What power is it that you have to defeat in order to be called Yisroel? What hurdle does one have to overcome in order to merit the great name Yisroel?

    Who are you, Malach, that by beating you, one is called Yisroel?

    And the malach answered, The obstacle that you have to defeat in order to be called Yisroel is lamah ze tishal. The Satan that says why are you asking questions is what has to be defeated in order to be called Yisroel.

    Jews ask questions. We proactively seek the truth. We love questions, because ain habayshan lomed, without questions you cannot learn anything. We are not scared of questions the way other religions are. We do not blindly accept what we are told, by society, by the newspapers, by anyone! In schools of other religions, when a student stumps his Galach with a question, he is reprimanded for asking. In Yeshiva, when a student stumps his Rebbi with a hard kashya, he is a hero! Questions bring out the truth, and when the truth is brought out we rejoice.
The essence of the name "Israel" lies in comprehending who it was that "Israel" defeated. "Israel" defeated the angel entitled "Why do you ask?" That is the essence of the Satan, and Jacob triumphed over it. It is through asking questions that one defeats the Satan, who would rather one did not learn and did not ask.


nmf #7 said...

WOW- loved this one! Thank you so much, Chana- given me inspiration for the week!

suleiman said...

a very nice vort. while we're on the topic of questioning already, may i point out that there are some cases where it is the right thing to just accept and not ask. some would say that this applies in cases of emunah, assuming you believe emunah peshutah is the right way to go. in these cases, one might even say that the yetzer hara drops his alternate name, 'ask'.

Anonymous said...

ah there we go some chumash wow thanks chana good to know i'm not alone check my blog if you want Yesod Shel limud be not strict on grammar be strict if you wish on contern thnx
any case yosher koach have a great night talk later bye now bw atb tl b

Ben Rosenfeld

Elster said...

I remmeber the frumteens moderator. Chana - ask him about his opinion on the State of Israel - before you give him his big ups.

Elster said...

Not to mention Modern Orthodoxy of which, ye Stern student, you are a part.

Charlie Hall said...

Nice post. (I'm someone who can't stop asking questions. Now I'm a professor.)

And it was wonderful to finally meet you in person!

Anonymous said...

>In Yeshiva, when a student stumps his Rebbi with a hard kashya, he is a hero! Questions bring out the truth, and when the truth is brought out we rejoice.<

What a joke! You can ask questions re how many malachim can dance on the head of a needle, but Heaven help you if you question an 'ikkur'!

G said...


that's a keeper