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Bring on the Questions!

By Rabbi Jonathan Tawil

A little boy once returned home from Cheder and his father asked, “What did you learn today?”

He answered, “The Rabbi told us how Moshe led the children of Israel out of Egypt.”

“Excellent, tell me how?” asked the father.

The boy said “Moshe was a big strong man and he beat Pharaoh up. Then while he was down, he got all the people together and ran towards the sea. When he got there, he has the Corps of Engineers build a huge pontoon bridge. Once they got on the other side, they blew up the bridge while the Egyptians were trying to cross.”

The father was shocked. “Is that what the Rabbi taught you?”

The boy replied, “No. But you’d never believe the story he DID tell us!

It seems that the younger generation are getting more intelligent in this technological age.

Do you remember when you were a child at home?

Were you the inquisitive type? Most of us as kids loved to ask questions. Sometimes in the most awkward of situations we would approach our parents and stump them. At others we would repeat the same question the whole week, seemingly oblivious to our parents answer.

Times have moved on and recently research has termed our children’s generation as having a ‘Creativity Crisis’. Research showed that preschool kids ask their parents an average of 100 questions a day! By middle school, they’ve basically stopped asking questions. It is at this point in life that, student motivation and engagement plummets. Which raises an interesting question: Have the kids stopped asking questions because they’ve lost interest? Or have they lost interest because the rote answers-driven school system doesn’t allow them to ask enough questions

In school, we’re rewarded for having the answer, not for asking a good question. Which may explain why kids—who start off asking endless “why” and “what if” questions—gradually ask fewer and fewer of them as they progress through grade school.

It is important for children to ask questions, offer ideas and suggestions because it gives them a feeling of belonging and responsibility. It also helps them to learn and be independent and confident in what they are doing or saying. The children are also given a chance to give their own opinions and views.

Which brings us on to Pesach – the festival of freedom and ….questions!?!

At the Seder night we celebrate like Kings and Queens with the best dining set, most lavish meal and wine, all in honour of our G-d given freedom. Yet it seems that if you are the inquisitive type then Pesach is the festival for you! The whole evening is surrounded by unusual actions and encouragement towards the children to ask questions. Why is this so?

The Torah states: “And when your children ask you, “what do you mean by this rite (Pesach)?’” you shall say, “It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.” (Shemot 12:26-27)

During the very first Pesach, as the Israelites were about to leave Egypt, Hashem commanded that certain symbolic rituals be performed year after year. The Torah imagines that these symbols – the Matza, Bitter Herbs, and Paschal offering – will pique the curiosity of children, who will ask about their meaning and provide occasion for the telling of the Jewish Master Story.

It would appear that, in the Torah’s view, the child’s questioning is secondary and the telling of the Exodus story is primary. But the Rabbis later elevated the questioning itself to a level of primary importance (Pesachim 117a). Anyone who has attended a Seder knows this.

Consider: We begin the Seder as we do all Jewish festive meals with Kiddush. We then wash our hands, again as traditional Jews commonly do. But next, instead of reciting Hamotzi and breaking bread, we dip greens (Karpas), we break the Matza without a blessing and without eating, and we pour another cup of wine – as though we are about to recite Kiddush again! All this time, the child is gazing on, inquisitively thinking; What’s happening here? Why is everything out of its normal order? Ma Nishtana – Why is this night different?

People may not realise, but the child sees everything. They are watching us 24/7. They see our discrepancies and bring them out into the open.

The Rabbis instituted several ‘out of the norm’ practices in order to teach us two things.

  1. Action speaks louder than words. The best way to teach a child is through your own actions. Telling a child to behave is one thing, but when the child sees his/her parents behaving, then they have a role model to follow.
  2. Encourage wisdom through questioning. Motivate the child’s imagination and encourage them to ask. This will only make them wiser.

There is a further importance to the question at Seder night.

The question itself highlights an important point of the Seder.

Picture being a slave in Egypt. It’s tough times, there is no coming home at 6pm to your children and asking them about their day and homework. There are no choices when it comes to different dinners and vacations. Every choice is made by the Egyptian King, whatever he says must go.  Days are long and hard, and there is no room for questioning and understanding.

Slaves are not permitted to ask questions.

Freedom, on the other hand is distinguished by one’s ability to question. Without questions, what is called freedom would be meaningless.

Thus, at the Seder, we live our freedom by doing what free people must do – ask questions!

Indeed, the Jewish sense of the centrality of questioning to a free people extends far beyond its symbolic presence at the Seder. The Talmud, the greatest of all classical rabbinic works, is distinguished, above all, by its commitment to questions and challenges. The Mishnah gives the law; the Talmud asks, “Why?” “For what reason?” “Maybe there is an alternative?”

These questions challenge. We are a people of questions. By continuing to ask questions, we guarantee our freedom.

This Seder Night, let’s make an effort to boost our children’s participation, wet their taste buds through encouraging questioning.

Remember: He who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how.

Chag Sameach!

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