Questions Worth Asking
Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16 )
We are commanded to commemorate the exodus from Egypt with a lively re-enactment and storytelling of how the Jewish people were enslaved and then liberated. We do this yearly at the night of the Passover Seder. What’s fascinating about the seder night is that it is designed specifically around the children, with a deep understanding that this night is not merely about rituals but about education. We educate the next generation that we were liberated to serve a higher purpose and achieve a greater goal.
Even more importantly, the seder night is designed to evoke questions from the children. In fact the entire seder night is built on the dialogue of questions and answers between parents, grandparents and their children. This way of conducting the seder is not just a cutting-edge didactical approach that stood the test of time, rather it is a fundamental principle as to what freedom is all about.
A slave is not allowed to ask questions. A challenging boss may manipulate his workers, “I don’t pay you to ask questions.” Being free is having the ability to ask questions, to inquire and even to protest.
The same is true with education. I was fortunate to have a good childhood education, however as teachers go, there are always some better than others. I remember having a teacher who wasn’t particularly fond of questions from students. As a young, curious child, I had a lot of questions, and not being allowed to ask them was very disheartening.
Everything changed the following year when my new Rebbi announced, “In my class, students can feel comfortable asking questions. But on one condition, that you are genuinely looking for the answers.” It was such a relief; we were finally allowed to ask about difficulties we were having in Judaism or in any subject, an approach that turned out to be liberating for us students.
Israel Issac Rabi was an American physicist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1944 for his discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance, and I think he put it best. He was once asked, ''Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, similar to the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?''
Dr. Rabi's answer, as reported by Donald Sheff in the New York Times on January 19, 1988, just a few days after his passing, was profound; ''My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: 'So? Did you learn anything today?' But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. 'Izzy,' she would say, “did you ask a good question today?' That difference – asking good questions – made me become a scientist!''
Being free is synonymous with the ability to ask questions. In fact, Jewish education is built around asking questions. This is the Jewish way of learning that is encouraged today, and is fundamental to our growth in Judaism. We must encourage children to ask questions, real questions, about meaning and purpose, about the world and ourselves. In doing so, we are eternally liberated as the Mishna (Pirkei Avot 6,2) teaches “For there is no free man but one that occupies himself with the study of the Torah.”