Very often unanswered questions eat away at you and cause you anxiety or depression. I am not just referring to a situation in which you have not yet found the answer to a particular question, but a situation where you are preoccupied by a question which —by definition— has no answer. And of course, since it has no answer, you can never find it and thus clear up your doubt and feel clarity and relief. Doubt continues to nag and you continue to suffer.
What do you do in a case like this?
“What?!” I can just hear the post-modern, millennial, GenXer or GenZer thinker scream.
“Just because you don’t have an answer means that my question is not valid? I have the right to ask any question I want!”
And, doesn’t that make sense? Why limit which question you can ask and which you can’t? Since when has Judaism been afraid of questions? The Talmud is full of questions and discussions! Even the Pesach Seder, in which we celebrate our national and personal freedom, begins with children asking the four questions…
The answer is that there are two kinds of questions: there are questions you ask because you want to know more and there are questions you ask because you don’t want to know. The former empower; the latter paralyze. Judaism is not afraid of either kind of question; it simply has two different approaches to dealing with them.
If one asks a question with the goal of learning, it deserves to be answered, even if it is with the answer of “I don’t know (yet)”. If it is a question that one asks in order to mock or cool off the process of understanding and progress, it deserves to be ignored as it is nothing more than a distraction and does not bring anything positive. Identifying and ignoring an illegitimate question sometimes requires as much or more intelligence and courage than it takes to find the right answer to a legitimate one.
We find a precedent for all of this in this week’s reading, Beshalach . It concludes with the story of the encounter with Amalek who came to attack the Jewish people after having —miraculously— left Egypt and crossed the sea. It was the first nation to attack the Israelites and thanks to that it earned a special place for all posterity as the archenemy of the Jewish people. In fact, one of the six things that the Torah tells us to constantly remember is what “Amalek did to us on the way out of Egypt. That he “cooled” you on the way…” .
Why does what Amalek did continue to be so relevant to us to this day, thousands of years later?
Our sages explain that Amalek does not only represent something that happened in the past, but something that happens in the present as well. The word Amalek has the same numerical value (240) as the word “Safek,” doubts, and the essence of Amalek’s objective was —and continues to be— “to cool us off” from our enthusiasm for G-d which resulted from experiencing the miraculous exodus from Egypt.
“Why so much enthusiasm for what G-d did for you?” Amalek asked. “Did not G-d create the whole universe? To part a sea —which He created to begin with— is nothing to be impressed by,” he argued.
Now, does that make sense or does it not? If G-d can create the Universe, why be impressed by a “little miracle” like splitting a sea?
The answer is in the “therefore”, the conclusion, of his reasoning. With his question did Amalek want to make them even more enthusiastic than they were or less enthusiastic? Did he intend for them to be inspired by nature —a constant miracle— as much or more than by a specific miracle or did he mean to convince them that the miracle of Exodus was nothing to be impressed by?
Since his aim was to cool them down, his argument was proven not to be a “question” but a mere “doubt”, probably even an excuse.
Perhaps one can synthesize what I am trying to say by paraphrasing a well-known mathematical rule: the product alters the value of factors. In other words: before trying to answer a question it is important to know what the objective “product” of the question is and what would be the implication in doing so. There are questions that are nothing more than predetermined subjective attitudes, disguised as honest and objective questions. They are not solved by objective honest “answers”.
This is so in all areas of life, not only in Judaism. It even has its own genre: “loaded questions”.
So this week’s tool is: doubt the doubt. When you have an important question, first make sure it’s worth your time to find the answer; maybe there isn’t even an answer to be found because it’s not really a question. A good question to ask yourself about the question is: will the answer to this question help me move forward or will it pull me back? Healthy questions help to grow; Amalekite doubts are designed to cool and paralyze. Take advantage of the former and ignore the latter.
Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
First published in English on my blog at Times of Israel, February 6, 2020