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Pesah VII 5783 - More than Four Questions

April 12, 2023 - 21 Nisan, 5783

In the Jewish parenting book, Mamaleh Knows Best, Marjorie Ingalls writes:

We want kids to question existing paradigms, enjoy the process of learning, and understand the value of discussion and debate. That’s how they’ll develop their own independent skills in how to reason and think and build and experiment, and how they’ll cope with the disappointment of sometimes getting it wrong. [...] Remember the words of Nobel-winning scientist Isidor Rabi: “Did you ask a good question today?” Ask your kid questions regularly, and listen to the answers. Don’t let them get away with facile reasoning. Gently point out flaws and contradictions in their argument. Talk about the questions you yourself are struggling with, and ask for your kid’s opinions (76).

Whether questioning is for the simple sake of learning more or for the more serious sake of digging deeper when something is off, the future of the Jewish people and our world depends on that vital skill.

Maggid, the story-telling section of our Pesah seder, derives its energy from children’s questions. According to Mishnah Pesahim, after the second cup of wine, the children in the room have a chance to ask any question they have. Only if the children do not know or notice enough to ask, the adults present our canonical Four Questions, demonstrating how to ask questions about what in the room seems different or out of place. 

The Haggadah’s Four Questions and Four Children come from four Toraitic commandments that should sound familiar:

  1. And if your children should ask you, “What is this rite you perform?” you shall say, “It is a Pesah offering for Adonai, for God passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt while God struck the Egyptians, but saved those in our houses” (Ex. 26:-27).
  2. And you shall tell your child on that day, “It is because of what Adonai did for me when I went out of Egypt” (Ex. 13:8)
  3. If in that time your child should ask you, “What is this?” you shall say to him, “With a strong hand Adonai brought us out of Egypt, from the grip of slavery” (Ex. 13:14)
  4. When, in time to come, your children ask you, “What are the testimonies, statutes, and laws that Adonai our God commanded you?” You shall say to your child, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and Adonai brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand” (Deut. 6:20-21).


Our Torah presumes that children will ask questions and that those questions should be answered with respect and reverence. Even if children do not answer questions, the Torah promotes storytelling to provoke questions. Our ancient and modern seders both revolve around foods and practices that are strange enough to promote such questions from everyone at the table, especially the children. We celebrate Pesah both to acknowledge the freedom we enjoy now and to encourage inquisitive children to build a world of even more freedom through their active curiosity.

In his Pesah Haggadah, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks presents three conditions for “asking a Jewish question” that can help guide how we teach ourselves and our children to ask and challenge. First, Rabbi Sacks teaches that one should “seek genuinely to learn - not to doubt, ridicule, dismiss, or reject.” When we come across something that irks us or even just peaks our interest, we must take a deep breath before we react and approach the person to whom we speak with an attitude of curiosity. From that place of curiosity, we better perform Rabbi Sacks’ second guideline…

“Accept the limits of our understanding.” As we learned in a dvar Torah just a few weeks ago, we might be wrong, even very wrong. The only way for us to deepen our understanding is to dig deeper, to ask in a way that inspires the other to want to share more, to want to engage in productive conversation and to learn more themselves. 

In Mamaleh Knows Best, Marjorie Ingalls advises her readers not to, “...fetishize the teacher as the ruler of the classroom and the font of all knowledge; we encourage kids to be polite in class, but never to stop asking questions and never to sit with answers that don’t feel right” (81). We teach our children, then, the balance between deep respect and a healthy dose of skepticism. We demonstrate asking questions by asking our children and grandchildren about their day, and we answer their questions to show the kind of reverence the act of questioning holds. When we notice a question with a hostile tone, rather than shutting our children down, we teach them how to arrange their words differently so that they, too, can experience civil conversations with those with whom they disagree. 

We encourage positive learning experiences, but also, we encourage challenge, sometimes even failure, so that, as one Talmudic rabbi teaches in Masekhet Brakhot (4a), they should “accustom [their] tongue to say I do not know, lest [they] become entangled in deceit.” When we and our children ask questions, we must do so with the respectful curiosity that comes from not knowing the whole picture.

Finally, Rabbi Sacks teaches a third guideline to Jewish questioning: “We learn by living and understand by doing.” We don’t ask questions or challenge simply to show off or to argue; we ask so that we and our neighbors can learn enough to act on the answers. While those answers sometimes often teach us facts - who to contact to get the job done, scientific data that informs us on how to take care of ourselves  - they may just teach us about how to better communicate with the person sitting across from us. As the dominant voice of the Talmud Bavli Masekhet Kiddushin (40b) teaches, between study and action, study is greater, for it leads to action. We not only learn by asking, but we teach our children how to most effectively ask questions that will lead to their greatest future.

By asking probing questions, we and our children follow the tradition of Abraham when he asks God, “Won’t the judge of the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:25). We echo the words of Moshe when he asks, “Adonai, why have you delt ill with these people? Why have you sent me?” (Ex. 5:22). And we build from Jeremiah’s questions: “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are the workers of treachery at ease?” (Jer. 12:1). As we mentioned last week, the Passover seder thrives on the certainty that tomorrow will be better, that Elijah the prophet will come; we probe and we argue because of our belief that we can gain enough knowledge to reach our best possible future. We nudge and we challenge because of our belief that what we have now is not enough. Through demonstrating the power of questioning to our next generation, we ensure that their children will continue to both revel in their freedom and make the effort to gain even more freedom for themselves, their greater community, and their wider world. Hag Sameah.

Wed, June 19 2024 13 Sivan 5784