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Pirkei Avot 5:7 The Right Questions

There are seven things that characterize the imbecile, and seven that characterize the wise man: His questions are on the issue at hand, and he responds to the point….

And the reverse characterizes the imbecile. (Pirkei Avot 5:7)

The wise man is characterized in the mishnah as someone whose “questions are on the subject at hand” meaning that the wise man is not easily distracted; he keeps his focus and whenever he asks a question, it is clearly regarding the topic being discussed.[1] On a deeper level, we can say that every individual has a primary subject or issue around which he finds himself engaged throughout his life. This primary issue is best described as the purpose for which he came to the world. It then follows that asking questions that are “on the issue at hand” means to ask questions that pertain to one’s essence, to one’s purpose in life, questions such as, Am I focused on my life’s purpose? What more should I be doing to advance my objective?

In Hebrew, the word for “question” (שְׁאֵלָה) derives from the same root as the word for Gehenom, or “purgatory” (שְׁאוֹל).[2] On the surface, a question and purgatory do not seem to be particularly connected. However, when considering the Torah’s inner dimension, they certainly are intertwined. When a person is oblivious to his purpose in life and does not question his progress toward fulfilling that purpose, but rather digresses and resorts to irrelevant questions (sometimes even out of despair or anger), he may find himself on a surprising descent into a living Gehenom. A case in point is the famous Korach, who challenged Moses with all sorts of mocking questions. Korach was ostensibly acting “for the sake of Torah,” and yet, much to his surprise, he descended “alive into the abyss.”[3]

True, “a bulwark was erected in the abyss” for Korach’s sons,[4] for they had done teshuvah, and from this we take a lesson that even if an individual finds himself falling into the abyss, even into Gehenom, because of his disingenuous questions, he can still repent[5] and emerge from the depth of his delusion).[6] To become wise, we have to ask ourselves the most relevant question—the same question that God asked Adam: “Where are you?”[7] During his first arrest, the Alter Rebbe explained that this is the question that we are each being asked to consider, individually, every day of our lives. Where are we relative to where we should be? If we ask ourselves this question and answer it honestly, we can attain genuine life, as the verse says about Mashiach, “He asked life of You [God], You gave it to him.”[8]


[1]. See Bartenura and other commentaries on the mishnah.

[2]. See Machberet Menachem and Sefer Hashorashim of the Radak.

[3]. Numbers 16:33; Tanchuma, beginning of Korach; Bamidbar Rabbah 18.

[4]. Megillah 14a and elsewhere.

[5]. See Hayom Yom for 26 Sivan.

[6]. As we see when Isaiah turns to King Ahaz and informs him of his impending victory over the allied kings of Israel and of Aram. To give more credibility to his words, he suggests “Ask for a sign from Havayah your God, [anywhere] down to the abyss or up to the sky” (Isaiah 7:11). The expression to “down to the abyss” can be understood as either “ask a question” or as “down to the abyss” (Rashi on the verse).

[7]. See Sefer Hasichot 5698, pp. 249ff.

[8]. Psalms 21:5 and Metzudat David ibid..

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