Gaps, Redundancies, and Asking the Right Question

How many moments in your life would have been drastically altered if only you’d known what questions to ask before moving forward, making a decision, or taking an action? Asking the right question is both a science and an art, and I’m grateful that it is one of the core tools with which we arm our children when we expose them to the deep study of Jewish texts.

In this week’s Torah Portion, VaYigash, we read one of the most poignant moments in all the stories of Genesis – Joseph’s revelation of his true identity to his brothers. The brothers have traveled to Egypt to find food during a harsh famine, and have no idea that Pharoah’s 2nd is Joseph, the brother they sold into slavery many years before. In what may well be intentional irony, brotherly deception was also a major theme in Jacob’s life, as he received his father Isaac’s blessing by pretending to be someone else (his brother Esav). Jacob’s own sons deceive him later by claiming that Joseph is dead, and now Joseph is engaging in yet another deception by hiding his identity.

In a dramatic moment, after clearing the room of all servants and officers all the deception finally ends, as a weeping Joseph declares, “I’m Joseph. Is my father still alive?” (Genesis 45:3)

A careful reader will notice something unusual here: This question follows a prolonged conversation Joseph has just had with the brothers about Jacob – why would he need to ask if his father is alive?

Major commentaries ignore this question. Rashi and Rambam are silent. Well, not the Gesher students – we are teaching them to ask questions, and this week they asked this one. We discussed several possible answers, including the powerful idea that Joseph doesn’t trust that his brothers are telling him the truth, particularly before they know his identity. Whatever the answer may be, coming up with a question like this demonstrates a level of critical thinking that is quite powerful.

Again, when you consider moments in your own life when knowing what question to ask could have had a major impact on you, aren’t you glad that your children are learning and practicing this crucial science and art?

As my first mentor teacher taught me – statements close conversations; questions lead us to explore.

This Shabbat, I encourage you to talk with your children about your own questions as well as theirs. What do you wonder about? What do you want to know more about?

Shabbat Shalom,