Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Vayishlach
To dedicate this lesson

The question mark


Rabbi Stewart Weiss

The wrestling match of Yakov & the Angel (by tradition, the malevalent messenger of Esav) is among the most unique stories in all of Jewish (or any!) literature. One of the more perplexing aspects of this encounter is that after the angel bestows a new name upon Yakov ("Yisrael: He who struggles triumphantly with G-d & Man") Yakov then asks the angel what his name is! The angel seemingly perplexed, does not answer. He says only, "Why do you ask what my name is?!"

But the Hebrew of the phrase, "Lama zeh tish’al lishmi," is quite unusual. The word "zeh-this" seems superfluous here; the sentence would make much better sense without it if it simply said: "Lama tish’al lishmi?"

Now, we know that there are no punctuation marks in the Torah; in fact even the separation between words is subject to interpretation. So, if you read the last word ("lishmi") as two words instead of just one, you get the phrase, "lama zeh tish’al li: sh’mi," meaning, "‘Why Do You Ask Me This?" is, in fact, my actual name!"

To explain: Rashi identifies Yakov’s adversary as Esav’s guardian angel, a malevolent figure who means to do harm to Yakov & his (Torah) way of life. And so, his self-declared name, & essence, make a lot of sense. For the philosophy of, "Don’t ask me any questions!" is indeed a serious threat to Torah learning & the acquisition of spiritual knowledge. It is davka via the asking of probing & penetrating questions that we confront & challenge the subject at hand, & ultimately arrive at the truth.

Every Yeshiva student who has ever learned Gemara knows that the Rebbe gives you one point for a great answer, but two points for a great question!

Too often, students are told, "Why do you ask me this? Don’t ask me any questions! Accept whatever you are told, without any doubt or delay!" To question authority is deemed heresy, blasphemy, apikorsis! But that is a very wrong & dangerous attitude; the entire Talmud, in fact, is one long series of questions - & the search for answers.

After the Exodus from Egypt, Moshe tells Bnei Yisrael (Ex. 13:14): "V’haya ki yish’alcha bin’cha machar laymor: Mah Zot?" And it shall be, when your child asks you tomorrow what is this (the Pesach ritual), you shall tell him….etc." With a touch of Rabbinic license, we can read the phrase a bit creatively: "When your child asks you a question, then you know there will certainly be a tomorrow," a bright future for the Jewish People.

The mark of a Jew, no question, is the Question Mark.
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