The Art of Asking

The Art of Asking (Rosh Hashanah 5779)

There was a recent best seller –The Art of Asking.  The book was written by Amanda Palmer, part of the music group The Dresden Dolls – yeah, I never heard of them either. Amanda Palmer did a TED talk and that got a lot of attention for the book.  Her theory was that there is an art of asking.  Asking creates opportunity.

Upon closer consideration, I thought about the corollary.  What about when we don’t ask. Our reluctance to ask or even our failure to ask may be about our own insecurities or reticence.  What if we came to see that there is something greater, even spiritual, about the art of asking?  And in reviewing the Torah stories of Abraham and Sarah, I found some insights.

We have the juxtaposition in this story of faith and despair.  Sarah has little faith that she will be a mother in her old age. (Footnote that thought – how our perceptions change as we age.)  When over-hearing Abraham’s conversation with God she laughs and questions: 

וַתִּצְחַ֥ק שָׂרָ֖ה בְּקִרְבָּ֣הּ לֵאמֹ֑ר אַחֲרֵ֤י בְלֹתִי֙ הָֽיְתָה־לִּ֣י עֶדְנָ֔ה וַֽאדֹנִ֖י זָקֵֽן׃

And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?”

Then the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’

הֲיִפָּלֵ֥א מֵיְהוָ֖ה דָּבָ֑ר לַמּוֹעֵ֞ד אָשׁ֥וּב אֵלֶ֛יךָ כָּעֵ֥ת חַיָּ֖ה וּלְשָׂרָ֥ה בֵֽן׃

Is anything too wondrous for the LORD? 

Sarah questions and God answers with questions.  Now, that’s our Jewish tradition! Notice Sarah’s question was not a request for help or relief but a question of mocking and disbelief.  She’s been asking for a child for decades and she has lost hope. Then comes God’s response. God answers with a question as a reminder. God says know before whom you stand and have a little faith.  Despite her lack of hope, despite her doubt and questioning and disbelief, Sarah gives birth to Isaac.

The next set of questions in the Torah is Abraham arguing with God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah – God, if there are 50 righteous will you save the city? If there are 40? Even if there are 10?  Holy questioning worthy of a God conversation.

And yet, despite Abraham’s pleading, not even 10 good people can be found in Sodom and Gomorra.

Today, on Rosh Hashanah we read the story where Sarah demands that Ishmael and his mother Hagar be sent out from the camp.  Abraham is reassured by God to do as Sarah says.   

What I find missing is the art of asking. Sarah and Abraham are certainly adept at asking questions. But in this fateful instance, no questions are asked. In fact, there is a valuable lesson in what happens when asking and questioning is missing from our discourse.

Notice that Abraham who could ask questions of God about saving Sodom and Gomorra did not question God about the welfare of his son Ishmael.  Sarah who could ask for a child and question her own ability to give birth relies upon her own judgment to expel Ishmael.  And Hagar, powerless as a servant, does not ask anything of Abraham, not even mercy. What I see lacking from this story is that there is no questioning.  These people forgot how to ask a question.  And the failure to ask questions leads to troubling decision-making and conflicts.

I want to offer various aspects of asking – to encourage us to practice the art of asking and how the art of asking can improve this world and our lives.

The first art of asking we can consider is in the realm of relevancy.  Does the expulsion of Haggar remind you of the refugee crisis in Myanmar? Does the separation of Ishmael make you think of the asylum seekers separated from their children?  Does this ripping apart of a family make you think of abusive relationships within our society? Or the mistreatment of women of lower status or darker skin color?  Are we hearing the stories of Torah and asking of them how does this apply to us today? So the first art of asking I want to suggest for you in this year is asking how our tradition and our texts work for us today and guide us forward.

The second art of asking is about respectful engagement in a time of polarization. How about asking questions before forming or expressing opinions. The art of asking is the first step before advocacy.  The process of formulating questions helps us to figure out the truth of a matter. Intellectual curiosity, spiritual seeking and emotional pursuits are not merely worthy, they are necessary.  In formulating questions we test our own knowledge and we open ourselves to refining our preconceived notions and conclusions.

And asking questions of another is Godly.  God and Abraham question one another.  It is a defining characteristic of a loving relationship.  Asking a question is a way of showing respect to a fellow human being, demonstrating your interest in their ideas and walking with them on a path of discovery. 

The third art of asking is potent and productive.  Asking is compelling.  It is human nature to want to engage through questions.  What do you know? What is your experience?  Can you help me?  Without the questions of our friends and family, we get lost inside our own head-scape and internal wandering.  When asked to engage, when asked to be present, when asked to be of assistance, we are given the opportunity to be our best and fullest selves. 

Fourth, there is the art of asking as the key to forming deep connections and real community.  Earlier this year when my mom was facing some health problems, I thought to ask a few friends to check on her while Jodi and I took a much-needed break.  I felt badly asking – every one of us is so preoccupied and so busy.  But my asking was met with an outpouring of love from the community. In asking, we discovered loving-kindness and healing that was disposed to be expressed! When asking for help in a time of need, we give others the opportunity to do a mitzvah, and to express their caring in ways that are as necessary for the giver as for those receiving.

And I learned a corollary lesson about the art of asking.  As we age, asking is an admission of our human frailties. Asking can be seen as an admission that our own powers of cognition or physical strength have diminished.  So sometimes we need to invite questions of those who may not be able or eager to ask.  Inviting questions is also an example of loving kindness, and Godlinesss. There is a refined art of asking -  asking how can we be of help to one another.

And, finally, with regard to the art of asking, I recently learned this insight.  At the Passover seder when we speak of the four children, one of whom does not even know how to ask a question – what if that child has a cognitive challenge or other disability?  From that question I learned that the simple ability to ask a question is in itself a blessing that we take sometimes for granted.

In our prayers, in our tradition, we ask a lot of God.  Today we ask for a year of peace, a year of good health, a year of joy. With this model  it seems to me that the best we can do is to engage in holy conversations that begin with asking.  When someone has an opinion other than yours, ask him or her about it before disagreeing.  When you have a need that others can provide, ask for help and give them the opportunity to do a mitzvah.  And when someone does not have the strength to ask or so much pride that they dare not ask for assistance, be eager to ask how you can help.

I want to make 5779 the year of asking.  Before we offer our opinions, ask what others think.  Before we despair of our situations, ask for help.  And always be eager to ask how we can be of help to others.  With these guideposts, we can bring hopefulness back to our lives and God into our days. 

Rabbi Evan Krame