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Passover Questioning

On Monday evening we will gather around our Seder tables to celebrate Passover. One of the hallmarks of this occasion is the Four Questions. Usually the youngest child sings the words “Mah nishtanah—why is this night different from all other nights?” This ritual is based on the Talmudic dictum, in Pesachim 116a, that a son must ask his father questions about the Passover Seder. The Talmud then asks, what happens if the child is not intelligent enough to ask questions. It counsels that parents must then teach their children the questions to ask. Still concerned, and uncomfortable leaving anything to chance, the Talmud provides the questions with which we are familiar, or at least three of them. The third question about reclining was substituted by the medieval thinker Moses Maimonides in place of a Talmudic question about sacrifices.

And now in our own day and age we are left with this ritualized asking of questions rather than our tradition’s original intent. We sing the questions rather than asking our own. But our children’s hearts are supposed to be filled with questions. The Seder is meant to prompt them to ask many questions, the first of which is why is this night different? Instead we attempt to fill them with answers. We prepare them for all manners of tests with the admonition that this will prepare you for college and that will prepare you for a career. Answers do not prepare you for life. The foundation of a Jewish religious life is the asking of questions. Encourage them to ask. Urge them to question. The future depends on new answers to questions we do not even know to ask.

Once I learned about Isidor Isaac Rabi, the Nobel laureate in physics, who is credited for not only his work on the Manhattan Project but for also laying the groundwork for magnetic resonance imagery and the microwave oven with which you will soon use to heat up your Passover leftovers. He was once asked, “Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in the neighborhood?” He answered, “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘Nu? 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.”

That in a nutshell is the essence of a Jewish life. You can know all the answers to the myriad of tests we take throughout our lives and become quite expert at filling in the correct bubbles with pencils but still not be able to tackle the most fundamental questions. Why am I different? What is my purpose in this world? What meaning can I bring to this life and the lives surrounding me? Asking these questions does not mean that answers are always discovered. A lifetime sitting around Seder tables discussing, and sometimes debating, such questions can still leave us without answers and perhaps sometimes even more questions. Still the effort must never be neglected.

You can sing the Four Questions on Monday evening or you can also ask questions that really matter. How is this night going to make me better? How is this night going to make my world better? Just because the answers to such questions appear unquantifiable and perhaps even unknowable does not mean we should stop asking or just keep singing yesterday’s questions.

The essence of our life’s quest is sometimes lost in singing questions that we were given to us. The meaning of our life is discovered in asking, and asking again, our own questions.