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What Color Is 2 + 2?


Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov

One of the causes for frustration that leads to anxiety and distress is when one cannot find answers to important questions.

It’s most frustrating when you can’t find the answer because the question itself is flawed. How can you find an answer to a question that doesn’t exist?

If you were to look for the answer to the question “what color is 2 + 2?” how would you fare?

So before attempting to answer a question —your own or someone else’s— it is crucial to evaluate the merit of the question itself and its structure; otherwise you will be engaging in nothing more than an exercise in futility.

If your Professor asks you why you were absent yesterday from his lecture and you answer that you were in bed with a fever, that is a valid answer to a legitimate question. But there is another scenario: when queried about his absence from class, the student replies that he was indeed in the classroom and the teacher did not see him. In that case, it is not that the student answered the question, but rather the question was proven to be baseless. He demonstrated that the question was unfounded, not legitimate and not worthy of an answer. Answering a question is not the same as showing that the question is non existent.

In this week’s reading, Vaetchanan [1], we read, among many important subjects, about the “wise” son [2], one of the four prototypical sons about whom the Torah speaks and who are spoken about at the Pesach Seder: the Wise, the Wicked [3], the Simple [4], and the One who does not know how to ask [5]. Each one of them and their specific question are mentioned in the Torah. In the Passover Haggadah we are instructed as to how to respond to each one according to their specific question and concern.

A general rule:

Before considering an answer to a question, you must understand the motive behind it. You must answer the person and not just the question as it sounds and looks. There are questions that have answers and there are questions that have no answers. The question asked in order to understand may have an answer; the question asked because one does not want to know has no answer.

There are questions whose only valid “answer” is the one that demonstrates their systemic flaws; that they are based on erroneous premises and make no sense.

The son that “does not know how to ask” is not necessarily ignorant regarding Judaism; he may be a very intelligent individual, well versed, who wants to know more and therefore asks many questions The problem is that he “does not know how to ask”. He errs in the formulation of the questions he asks in his attempt to better understand life, its origin and purpose and the best way to help him is to teach him how to ask.

It is important to be aware of this both when formulating your own questions as well as when trying to help others find answers to their questions. You must first ascertain the reason for the question and what is really being asked as well as the logic of its structure.

In closing, I would like to share an answer that the Rebbe —may his merit protect us— gave to a young woman who was very distressed by questions she was being asked about evidence regarding the authenticity of Judaism, Torah and Mitzvos for which she did not have adequate answers:

“Obviously, you need not be depressed by this, since even older people who devote their whole lives to the study of the Torah cannot answer all questions.

“Is it any wonder that a created human being cannot fully understand G-d’s wisdom as revealed in His Torah?!

“Certainly this need not affect at all the fulfillment of mitzvot.

“If you think about it, you will realize that most people who ask the questions are not doing so motivated by a quest for truth, but by their desire to justify (to others as well as to their own conscience) their abandonment of the way of life of their parents and ancestors, among whom there were those who gave up their lives for the sake of Judaism, and nevertheless, they [the questioners] abandoned the yoke of the Torah and mitzvot for the sake of a more comfortable material life.”

So the tool of this week is: "The question of a wise person is half the answer" [6]. Before you go looking for an answer, make sure the question is indeed a question and not merely an excuse..


1. Deuteronomy, 3:23-7:11

2. Deuteronomy, 6:20

3. Exodus, 12:26

4. Exodus, 13:14

5. Exodus, 13:8

6. Migdal Oz, Hilchot Teshuvah Chapter 5.


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