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A Night of Questions

A Night of Questions

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Isidore Rabi, winner of a Nobel Prize in physics, was once asked why he became a scientist. He replied, “My mother made me a scientist without even knowing it. Every other child would come home from school and be asked, ‘What did you learn today?’ But my mother used to ask a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she always used to say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That made the difference.”


The Seder plate is often thought to be the centerpiece of the Passover Eve celebration.

Correction: The children are.

The name of the feast's script, the Haggadah, which means "to tell" or instruct the children, makes its purpose clear. The Seder is more a forum for education than it is a festival of commemoration.

On this night the main characters are curious children with questions, not sagacious men with answers. The Four Sons are the feature story, not our Fore Fathers.

But I've gotten ahead of myself. Allow me to elaborate.

I've personally never observed the Seder from the outside, as a newcomer, but if I had, I'd have lots more than four questions to ask.

The main characters are curious children with questions, not sagacious men with answersAn intriguing pattern, or a pattern of intrigue, makes its silent way through the program.

It starts on the afternoon preceding the Seder, a hectic time if ever there was one. Yet, despite the rush-hour, according to the Code of Jewish Law,1 setting the table to completion (sans the Seder plate) is of paramount importance. This ensures the Seder's prompt commencement, which assures that the children will be present and alert.

Then, after securing the attendance of our guests of honor, we pander to them. Before the Seder even begins, to the incredulity of all youngsters present, almonds and nuts, considered treats in ancient times, are handed out to them,2 breaking all dinner protocol!

All paradise breaks loose.

In the private confines of their brains, the children likely wonder: Why is this night different than all others? If indeed that's what they wonder, this distribution has achieved its intended purpose: to snap all young minds present to attention.

Moving right along, past the Kiddush ceremony which was extended on this night to include children3 (on grape-juice, of course), we approach the karpas ceremony: we dip a vegetable in saltwater. "What's the religious significance in this?" the juveniles must be thinking.

If indeed they were, our mission was accomplished. The youth of our flock are engaged.

Fast forward to the recitation of the Haggadah,and our fight for tomorrow's minds continues. We uncover the matzahs in the Seder plate and start telling their story—only to push the plate aside, immediately upon concluding the first paragraph (the Hey Lachma Anya). "Why collect the plates before we're done – or have even begun – eating?" the minors are bound to ask.

If they do, we still have them by the brains.

It's at this point of the evening, after we've carefully orchestrated and cultivated a spirit of inquisitiveness in the juniors, that their questions are given voice, and the Mah Nishtanah blitz begins.

We've successfully generated questions, but what about the answers?!At any other time, a kid singing "Why?" off-the-hook is asking for trouble, but on this night, why-chanting elicits proud looks from kvelling parents.

Here's my question: We've successfully generated questions, but what about the answers? Do you happen to know the answer to the first4 of the four questions: "Why do we dip karpas in saltwater?"

I should hope not.

"We dip the vegetable in saltwater and eat it in order to arouse the interest of the children, since it isn't something we do throughout the rest of the year."5

In other words, this ritual, as well as some of the others mentioned earlier, was established not as a means to communicate vital information to the next generation, but in order to capture their imagination.6

Or in different words, the unique Passover learning experience is less about periods than question marks, for on this night we celebrate questions not answers.7

Holy Q's!

In addition to celebrating the freedom to ask, in itself one of Judaism's revolutionary contributions to religion, on this night we focus on the importance of inquiry. In Judaism, not only are questions tolerated, they are encouraged.

It is fascinating to note that the requirement to recite a blessing before studying Torah8 applies even if one studies only an "incorrect" presumption, question, or opinion in a Torah text, even if one never reached the final conclusion.

Furthermore, even after studying the final answer, we still go back and learn the questions and presumptions, since they too form part of the sacred Torah text. Not only does Judaism tolerate and encourage questions, it sanctifies them!

As the Mishna teaches, "Who is wise? One who [continues to9] learn from everyone."10

A wise man is not someone who knows, but someone who wants to know. The will to learn – and the love of learning – as embodied by questions, is as important to the process of knowledge as knowledge itself is.

Quite appropriately, the word philosophy, born "philisoph" in ancient Greece, does not denote learning, but the love thereof.

Might that explain the paradoxical title of a Jewish scholar, called a talmid chacham, or a student-sage?

But isn't he either student or sage?

Not unless they are one and the same.


What's in It for Me?

A wise once man said that our generation seeks knowledge, not understanding. "Why" takes backseat to "what" and "how."

As children get older, they are taught, by word and example, to do less asking and more acceptingChildren are naturally creative and curious. Studies show that children's brains are more active than the brains of adults. A 3-year-old's brain is twice as active as an adult's.

As they get older, however, they are taught, by word and example, to do less asking and more accepting, to think like others, not on their own.

Instead of celebrating our children's inquisitiveness we get annoyed by it. And then they grow up to do the same.

Which gets me thinking.

Perhaps the four sons we pay tribute to at the Seder are not four separate children, but one child who is all. And the Haggadah describes not four different minds, but the journey of one.

It tells the story of a child who embarks on life's journey full of innocence, marvel, and mystery, and whose questions are born from a place of purity and genuineness.

But if quieted or ignored, this child, dubbed the "wise one," sadly morphs into the "wicked one."

He also asks, but his questions are cynical, rebellious, and even scornful. He isn't interested in knowing, but in challenging. He is hurting and therefore seeks to hurt.

But at least he is still part of the conversation.

With time the hurt turns into apathy; he simply couldn't care less. This once bright and lively child has been reduced to dullness, seen by the world as a "simple one."

And then comes the greatest tragedy of all; his transition into a child "that doesn't even know how to ask."

As it turns out this passage from the Haggadah can be read as a forecast, more than a cast of four, whose point is to instruct parents more than children; parents with no time and patience for curiosities.

Who has time to be curious anyways?

Instead of "passing over" our children's (un-adult-erated) desire to know, the holiday of Pesach (Passover), formed from the words "peh" (mouth) and "sach" (speaks), teaches us to encourage and assist our children in expressing their wonder.

Rabbi Adin Even-Israel (Steinsaltz), a world-famous thinker and educator, is known to tell new teachers at his school: "I do not ask that you do wonders with the children. I hope and pray, however, that you refrain from destroying them..."

Moses was chosen by G‑d because of his curiosity and his will to act upon itI find the background of Moses' first encounter with G‑d so telling in this regard.

"Moses was grazing the sheep of his father-in-law…an angel of G‑d appeared to him in a flame of fire from within the thorn-bush. [Moses] saw and – behold! – the bush was burning in the fire but the bush was not consumed. Moses thought, 'Let me turn aside now and see this great sight—why will the bush not be burned?'

"G‑d saw that he turned aside to see and called out to him…"11

As the sequence of events and the selection of narrative suggest, Moses was chosen by G‑d not independent of, but because of, his curiosity and his will to act upon it.

Perhaps this epic of the burning bush was G‑d's way of testing whether there burned in Moses a desire to search, learn, and discover; whether he possessed the will to seek truth and to approach the mysterious; and whether he had the ability to imagine and dream.

And Moses, "our teacher," who was nearly eighty at the time, taught us by example on that day and thereafter, that as long as one is curious to know and willing to ask—the "fire burns" and the "bush – or tree of life – is not consumed."12

Footnotes
1.

Orach Chaim 472.

2.

Ibid.

3.

See Shevach HaMoadim pg. 214 and footnote 7.

4.

According to Chabad custom.

5.

Talmud, Pesachim 114a-b.

6.

In fact, in 1987, the Rebbe suggested that every child should have his or her own illustrated Haggadah, to capture his or her interest as much as possible at the Seder (see Hitvaduyot 5747, vol. 2 pg. 766).

7.

This might explain why, even after asking the Mah Nishtanah at the first Seder, the very same questions are asked at the second. It might also explain why, according to Chabad custom, adults also recite the Mah Nishtanah (after the children), before going on to answer its questions. But why ask a question whose answer one knows?
That's because on this night questions are a symbol of interest and engagement, rather than a tool to receive information.

9.

See Rabbeinu Yona.

10.

Ethics 4:1.

12.

Based on a talk by the Rebbe delivered on the eve of Simchat Torah 5736 (1975).

Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson is the rabbi of Beit Baruch and executive director of Chabad of Belgravia, London, where he lives with his wife, Chana, and children.
Mendel was an editor at the Judaism Website—Chabad.org, and is also the author of the popular books Seeds of Wisdom and A Time to Heal.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
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Ruth Elise Housman newton, MA March 26, 2010

in "cider" information not to pass over It's so about apples and honey, and yes! the children, and to question.

I enjoyed and appreciated this very "sweet" and true article which will certainly enhance my Passover, with its true focus on children, wisdom, and learning.

To teach our children to ask a question, well that's the first step, and to enjoy the uncovering of mysteries and matzah and a story so much about freedom from all kinds of slavery.

Beautiful! Reply

Inge Reisinger March 26, 2010

Moses was chosen by G-d because of his curiosity and his will to act upon it. in other words Moses had a deep wound in his heart (soul) and therefore he was open for G-d's will and this is shown by the burning bush and if he has the ability to imagine and to dream. Reply

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