The genius of the Torah is that the picture of the world it presents often correlates with current ideas. For instance, since the pioneering work of Donald Winnicott at the beginning of the twentieth century, psychologists have come to accept as true the notion that only human beings ask “why” questions, accounting for the differentiation between human animals and non-human animals. All animals survive on the basis of being able to answer questions regarding their environment like: ‘What was that sound?,’ ‘Where do I go for shelter?,’ ‘Which is my pack?,’ ‘How will I find food?,’ ‘When and where do I find a mate?’ Only human beings, however, reflect on why.
Celebrated educator and Doctor of Psychology, Rebecca Palacios, explains that “why” questions are essential for early childhood development. For children, “why” questions “help them make sense of the world around them that they are just beginning to learn about. These “why” questions also help spur and accelerate learning.” They are the building blocks of deep thinking that will prepare them for the future. Even for adults, “why” questions are directed at many things outside our control.
It is not until the age of Abraham that any “why” question is recorded as being asked. Primeval humanity was preoccupied with survival: how to make it’s way in a complex and threatening world. It was later on that people began to look for reasons, particularly for human conduct. People evolved from animals to children. At its child-like stage people began to explore notions of right and wrong and the justifications for each. Pharaoh is the first person in the Torah to pose a “why” question. “Why didn’t you tell me that Sarah was your wife,” he asks Abraham incredulously (Genesis 12:18). Having this information would have dramatically affected his behaviour towards her. Denying Pharaoh this information exposed him to the possibility of committing an act of adultery. More deeply, Pharaoh wants to understand human deception.
As much as the Genesis narrative is the story of the Patriarchs, it is also the story of humanity groping for answers, trying to make sense of a world in which people fail to live up to their higher selves, the selves that distinguish human beings from animals.