Isidor Isaac Rabi, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1944 for his development of MRI technology, was once asked what made him become a scientist rather than a doctor, lawyer or businessman, like all the other immigrant kids in his 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.’”
The entire Passover Seder is structured with one goal in mind: to elicit the asking of questions. We open the meal by washing our hands without reciting a blessing. We taste bitter herbs. We eat matzah. The Haggadah was written in fulfillment of the command to tell the story of our going out from Egypt. Central to this retelling is the asking of questions.
And yet in the vast majority of Jewish homes we simply turn the Haggadah from one page to the next. We look ahead to see when the meal might arrive. We even recite a formula of questions rather than asking ourselves: Why indeed is this night different from all other nights?
Long ago the rabbis began writing the Haggadah and developing the rituals that define our Seder meal. They were educators. They sought to teach. They understood that the asking of questions is how each generation remakes the tradition and refashions a Jewish life for their own age. But questioning makes us uncomfortable. We shy away from asking. We are so afraid that our children’s Judaism might look different than our own that we recite line after line. Instead we should be asking more questions. We might ask how we are still slaves.
Long ago there was a discussion about the meaning of slavery. “Which was worse,” our ancestors debated, “political enslavement to Pharaoh in Egypt or spiritual slavery to the idols Terah, Abraham’s father, once worshipped?” The argument continued until the early hours of the morning. Thus the commandment to retell the exodus was fulfilled. Later generations made this debate into our ritual. We recite: “In the beginning our ancestors were idol worshipers…” The debate is relegated to the past rather than brought to life in the present.
The Seder and its companion the Haggadah are meant as discussion starters rather than a detailed script. And yet now these words have achieved sacred status. We have grown afraid to ask. I am tempted to cast the words aside and argue, “Why is this night different? Indeed why are we different? What can we offer to humanity? How will these traditions help my children bring healing to our broken world?”
Questions are the essence of who we are. In every generation we have asked anew what kind of Judaism does the future require? The Seder suggests an educational philosophy that empowers our children, our students. It recognizes that our children will be different than ourselves. It insists that they are meant to be different. It reflects a thinking in which questions are the cornerstones of teaching.
We seek not to mold our children into carbon copies of ourselves but instead provide them with invitations to ask. The Seder imagines a child saying, “Mom, why did you forgot to say the blessing after you washed your hands?” I imagine then a discussion of blessings. Why do we wash? Why do we say blessings? Why should we pray?
Are there wicked questions? Can there be a wicked student? I don’t believe so. There are no limits to what may be asked when sitting around the table surrounded by friends and family. Do not be afraid. Be courageous.
Ask. Discuss. Question. Debate.
If we are open to our children’s why’s we invite a better, and more lasting, future.