Why is a peculiar question, let me tell you why.

I have noticed a peculiar question that constantly comes up in my daily schedule. It is asked by my rabbis, peers, friends, and even the very books that I immerse myself in every day. That question is: why? Every time a statement is made, a question proposed, an answer supplied, a support provided, or an explanation expounded upon, we always ask why. Why was it given? Why in this way? Why at this time? Why here and not there? Why, why, why do we use this little word so much?

Well, I think, because it is the most powerful question you can ask.

It leads not to an understanding of the topic at hand, but to the underlying environment. It allows you to paint a bigger picture. Euclid said “A point has no existence by itself. It exists only as a part of the pattern of relationships which constitute the geometry” (Infinite in All Directions, “Butterflies and Superstrings”) when defining a point. To understand a part you need to question the whole, as the question provides the motivation behind a topic, which is immensely more important than the topic itself. To understand why something exists, includes how it exists, what it is, where it is, and when it came into being.

I have been drilled to ask why. And I didn’t even realize until now. True knowledge does not exist in the quantity of information known. Anyone can learn anything, it just requires the right explanation, but not everyone can connect ideas. “The totality is not, as it were, a mere heap, but the whole is something besides the parts” (Aristotle on Elements, Book I, Notion 5). To be able to create a tree of knowledge and a web of ideas is the sign of true genius, and the question ‘why’ is the engine to the making of connections. That little word shows the relationship between ideas, and that is why it is so powerful. 

Today a lot of people fail to ask themselves this question. Take any given moment of your day and ask yourself why you are doing whatever activity you are engaged in. Can you give an honest answer that is both meaningful and purposeful? Can you do so for every moment of your day, every moment of your life? Freidrich Neitzche said in Die Götzen-Dämmerung (Twilight of the Idols) that “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” If you never ask why then you have room for improvement. Yet, this is not meant to be a critique of how people live their lives, so there is no need to provide a ‘why’. This is simply an investigation into the value of our little question.

The greatest people I have ever met have been the ones who have asked the most questions. In fact, the people I have learned the most from have not taught me, they have questioned me. While I sit in my morning shiur (lecture) delivered by Rabbi Chaim Sabato, I often hear more questions than answers. The class does not end when I leave the room, I am often left thinking for hours after. It is no secret that the greatest opportunities for learning begin with a question. The most profound insights are prompted by great questions. The universal truths are responses to unanswerable questions. Every exploration is a product of our curiosities. So what prevents us from utilizing the most critical question of all?

I believe there are two reasons above all else. The first is that we are afraid that we will find no answer to our question.

The general trend seems to show that we would rather appear smarter than we are, than be smarter than we are. It is a sin more grave than any other. Our ignorance stifles our curiosity. It blocks our ability to learn and impedes the path to a greater understanding. This fear plagues every corner of society. In schools across the world, kids achieve only a superficial understanding of the material they cover, while teachers often don’t provide the tools for delving deeper into the topics at hand as they themselves are too scared to teach students beyond the scope of what they know. This is a failure on the part of the teachers as “spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.” (A Room with a View, E.M. Forster)

Any kid can probably recite handful of physics or mathematical formulas such as the Pythagorean theorem, but can they derive them from simpler ideas? Can they use them to solve a problem they have never encountered?

The question ‘why’ takes a collection of numbers and letters found in a textbook and turns them into powerful tools that can fix problems or aid in the understanding of the universe! Yet, we always stop short, the tools of engineers and mathematicians remain a jumbled alphabet mixed with a gracious dollop of numbers to everyone but the intellectual elite. The fear of our limitations prevent us from asking ‘why’ in the first place. Yet, this is only half the picture.

The second reason is that we are apprehensive about investing the work involved with finding an answer to our question.

Developing true knowledge is a task harder than any other. It involves comprehensive exploration of a given topic, its roots, and the surrounding subjects. It involves repetition and recitation despite what many say. It involves immense willpower to buckle down and dive into the ‘water’. There is a reason that getting a graduate’s degree takes such a long time; because there is a lot of work involved with mastering something.

Learning is no easy thing, it is more akin to exploring treacherous unknown terrain than the average image of someone sticking their nose in a book. There is so much to know that is can be quite scary to even start the process, and in fact it gets even scarier as you continue learning. For every lake you traverse, another ocean of information presents itself. In the Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton we find an amazing statement:

“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

(Volume II Chapter 27)

Even the master of classical physics was overcome with awe by how much there is to learn. So what right do we have to use our ignorance as an excuse? These two obstacles need to be overcome by every individual who hopes for any sense of familiarity in our complex and confusing world. The father of quantum physics, Albert Einstein himself, had a similar sentiment to his predecessor (Newton) and a way to cope:

“Don’t think about why you question, simply don’t stop questioning. Don’t worry about what you can’t answer, and don’t try to explain what you can’t know. Curiosity is its own reason. Aren’t you in awe when you contemplate the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure behind reality? And this is the miracle of the human mind—to use its constructions, concepts, and formulas as tools to explain what man sees, feels and touches. Try to comprehend a little more each day. Have holy curiosity.”

(Einstein and the Poet, Page 138)

What more can be said about the value of questioning? We know what question to ask, and how to overcome the obstacles that prevent us from asking. With a single question your entire life can be changed. It is like a key breaking the lock of monotony that holds us in our daily grind, like a surgery giving us back the gift of our sight. We can no longer ask why we cannot ask ‘why’, rather we must ask why are we not asking ‘why’?

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