Three Stories- Nine Questions

There are times that I turn to certain stories almost as talismans that contain much needed guidance, and that help me keep my bearing.  This is one of those times and so I recently reread Leon Tolstoy’s short story- The Three Questions.  It concerns a King who turns to a hermit for answers to three pressing questions, questions that the King believes will help him know just what to do in every situation.

Who are the most important people?
What is the right thing to do?
When is the right time to act?

Here’s a link to a translation.
There is also a wonderful adaptation by children’s author and illustrator Jon Muth.

I was a very curious child, full of my own questions.  Luckily I had a father who was a scientist, and I was sure that he had answers for all I wanted and needed to know.  Here’s how he handled his eager young son.

“ Dad, why is the sky blue?”

“Hmnn…I’m not really sure about that.”

“Dad, where does the firefly’s light come from?

“I wonder about that myself.”

“Dad, what happens to us after we die?”

“After we die?  It’s a mystery. I wish I could tell you. But keep asking questions son, it’s the only way you’re going to learn anything!  Now go study.”

Years later, that exchange became a kind of running joke between us.  I eventually found an opportunity to thank him for his teaching story with this story from the Hasidic tradition.

A Yeshiva student so consumed with the desire for knowledge, that his health began to suffer. His studies left no time for friends, for exercise, and finally no time to even bother eating. He burned the the candles and both ends and if there had been a third end he would have burned that one too. He burned not only with a…. fever, but a physical one as well It came to the point where his parents feared for his  very life. Desperate, his parents sent him off to the  capital city and to a wonder working rabbi.  The Rabbi met the boy with a gentle gaze.

“Tell me my son, what brings you here and how can I help”
Encouraged, the young man explained his earnest quest for knowledge and truth, and within a few minutes had asked a number of penetrating and insightful questions about difficult Torah passages.  The rabbi listened intently and then without warning he smacked the earnest seeker across the back of the head.   The boy was naturally  shocked and bewildered.

“Rabbi, Rabbi, why did you strike me?

“ My son,” the Rabbi replies, “ You have such marvelous questions.  Why would you want to ruin them with answers?”

Now I must live up to the title of the blog post.  Only six questions have been asked, and so I’ll conclude with three more questions that my father often returned to. Questions posed by Rabbi Hillel around 110 BC and as relevant today as they were then.

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
“If I am only for myself, what am ‘I’?
“If not now, then when?”

Now, go study!  And keep asking questions.  It’s the only way you are going to learn anything!



  1. As a teacher and storyteller, I honour such questions and have tried to encourage others to reflect on them. Thanks for reminding me of them, Bob, and thanks too for the three stories. I love the Rabbi’s response, “You have such marvelous questions. Why would you want to ruin them with answers.” Beautiful!

  2. Bob: Thanks for reminding me why I have committed so much to give my kids an education of open inquiry. It too reminds me not to feel too unenlightened as I struggle myself for answers these days. Keep sharing!

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