Keep Asking Why: How questions lead to curiosity and breakthrough

by Aliza Kline

This article was originally posted by Aliza Kline on e-jewishphilanthropy.com on May 1, 2014.

Aliza Kline is a member of JOIN for Justice’s board.

This is the season for asking questions – often in groups of four (though my father, and my seven year-old daughter will both argue that at the Seder we ask one question and then offer four responses). Let’s not stop just because the holiday has past. What if we keep asking why? What would that look like as a daily practice? What do we have to acknowledge before we can make space for learning something new?

Moses got his starring role in our exodus because he gained empathy for the Hebrew slaves, he bared witness and was ultimately overcome with emotion, understanding the struggle and desire for freedom. But the real test was his encounter with the burning bush. Rabbi Noa Kushner reminded me of the Exodus verse when Moses passes by the bush, and rather than writing it off as a mirage in the desert heat, he stops, and according to Rabbi Simeon ben Levi, twisted his neck and asks, “Madua? Why?” He wonders, with childlike curiosity why this bush is burning but not being consumed. This was the response God was looking for, “You went to trouble to see – as you live, you are worthy that I should reveal myself to you.” (Tanchuma Shemot 9) Where everyone else could see only impassable darkness, Moses’ curiosity led him to imagine another way. He could see a way out of the narrow place.

So here’s our challenge, grandiose as it may seem: to be like Moses. To ask why? To start our efforts whether they be engaging millennials in Shabbat dinner, teaching Hebrew to 4th graders, developing a new summer program for teens, honing an adult education series for boomers or crafting an early childhood activity for families, with questions. Simple ones (let’s go with four – just for the sake of the season):

  1. What do you need?
  2. What do you value?
  3. Where do you go to get those needs or values met now?
  4. What happens when those needs are not met? (Hint – filling this void is the sweet spot for engaging people meaningfully.)

Before raising money, hiring staff, piloting a program, hiring evaluators…  start with these questions. Ask a few people, see what insights you glean.

Moses was not asking cynically, he was filled with wonder. Wonder can be energizing. Think of a child’s smile and glee at learning something new. You can get that too. And, what’s more, the people you ask questions of will be happy too.

I just recorded an ELI Talk, “Why Ask Why?” In it, I dig a bit deeper, share some stories about how asking questions can lead to breakthroughs and how hard it’s been for me to truly set aside my assumptions and practice curiosity. What questions have you asked? What have you been surprised by?

Go on; give it a try. Why not?

Aliza Kline is executive director of a new national initiative supported by The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life and The Paul E. Singer Foundation that invites post-college adults to create an enduring Shabbat dinner practice. Aliza served as the founding executive director of Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center in Newton, MA.
Aliza@klinesolmsen.com @alizakline

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