Curiosity is a powerful relationship tool. We think we know someone else, we think we understand their motives, and we would like to believe we are right and know better. Yet, if we maintain a more curious attitude, especially when we feel frustrated or angry instead of becoming judgmental and indignant, we can turn difficult moments into learning and growth.
After Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, the scripture tells us they hid from Gd out of shame. When Gd’s presence seeks them out, He queries, “Where are you?”, and “Did you eat from the forbidden tree?” Rashi notes (Genesis 3:9) that of course Gd knew where Adam and Eve were and what they did. Gd simply engaged them in this manner to open dialogue without overwhelming them. Rashi (ibid 16:8) notes a similar rhetorical process in regard to the angel who encountered Hagar; he engaged Hagar in conversation and asked where she came from and where she was going — even though he knew full well what was going on. After all, he was an Angel sent on a mission to intercept her, so how could he not know?
Aside from teaching the value of engaging people in conversation so they not be overwhelmed, there may be an additional insight into the importance of curiosity. Scripture offers many examples whereby if not for curiosity, opportunities would have been missed. Moses saw a burning bush and wonders what it is and decides to turn toward it and find out more. If he was too busy tending his flock he might have ignored and missed his calling. Joseph asks his prison mates why they seem to be upset. It is only then that they relate their dreams. In both situations, curiosity led to redemption and salvation.
The Talmud (Nedarim 66b) tells a story about a Palestinian “Amelia Bedelia”. As she was a simple but devout woman, she had difficulty comprehending the difference between her husband’s dialect and hers leading to numerous frustrating encounters. One time her husband asked for botzina (melon) and she gave him lamps, which is what botzina meant in her Palestinian dialect of Aramaic. Her husband became furious and declared that she should smash the lamps on the bava (doorpost). As fate would have it, a prominent sage was passing through town who was named Bava son of Buta. She promptly smashed the lamps on his head.
You could imagine this scene. A great sage, publicly humiliated with oil and ash from the lamp dripping down his head and clothes in front of his entourage of students and followers. Bava ben Buta calmly inquires, “What’s this about?” The woman proceeds to tell him her story, and Bava ben Buta, realizing she was a simple, devout woman merely trying to follow her husband’s bidding. He then blesses her and sends her on her way. The Talmud tells us that as a result of this blessing she merited to have two sons who became great sages and tzaddikim. Bava ben Buta had every right to be furious, but instead he was curious.
Especially when we are angered, and especially in relationships, if we can learn to adopt curiosity as our first reaction instead of fury, we can grow and understand, instead of punish and humiliate.