The last month has been a blur, as I have been touring Jewish communities to sell my new commentary on the Passover recital of the Exodus, known as Haggadah. At the very least, with the Passover Seder gatherings on Monday and Tuesday night of this week, I can weigh in with these words, culled from the preface of my book.
“So how is the new job working out?”
“Honey, will you marry me?”
“I thought you would never ask!”
Some questions are welcomed in life; others are dismissed or ignored or belittled or answered half-heartedly.
Or how about these questions? “Daddy, why is the sky blue? Mommy, why is the grass green? Did God paint the grass with a brush? Why don’t the birds come falling out of the sky? How does the car go so fast? How can Grandma talk to me through the telephone if she does not even live in this city?”
We all chuckle when we hear young children express their wonderment at all the ways of the world. The marvels of nature itself fascinate them as much as the great machinery of industry and the shiny screens of technology. History is an even remoter mystery to them, one they associate with the gray hairs of their grandparents. Everything we are used to and we take for granted is to them an object of curiosity.
As parents, we are often busy and under stress. It is not easy to greet all these youthful questions with patience and encouragement. Yet we know it is so important for us to be open with our children, to guide them to the truth. Heaven forbid they should ever stop asking!
If only we had the time to really listen to those questions carefully and answer them thoughtfully….
There is one time especially devoted to our parental role as arbiter of all that is real in the child’s world, as the address where all those questions should be delivered for inspection and response. It is the beginning of the Passover holiday, the night of the Seder.
All day prior to the Seder, Jewish tradition teaches us to do odd things as we prepare for the evening, things that will prompt the children to ask questions, wondering what is afoot. This is an unusual setup, where our goal is not merely to generate excitement and anticipation before a holiday, but specifically to stimulate curiosity.
We need to do everything we can to make sure the children and grandchildren in the home are scratching their heads, trying to figure things out, eager to ask the adults for clarification.
This teaches us an amazing lesson. We know the Seder is the anniversary of the night our people became a nation and our religion became a way of life. Seven weeks later the official Torah was given at Sinai but already this night we were getting a preview of what a life of mitzvoth would be like, with a lot of detail and rules of just how the Paschal offering must be eaten. We celebrate the memory of this beginning in a fascinating way, by needling our kids into asking what happened that night. Only then are we ready to share with them the exciting stories and histories.
So many belief systems in the world create a culture that looks down at people who ask questions. Children are taught to repeat back what they hear and to suppress the queries that come to mind. Here we see the sharp contrast between the Torah system and that kind of approach. The Torah makes the child’s question the starting point. We need him or her to notice things. We need him or her to be curious. We need him or her to feel comfortable in putting their questions to us and to trust in the honesty of our answers.
Why do we invite questions more than other cultures? Because we are confident we are teaching the truth. There is no reason to fear the question when we are free to answer truthfully.
We also know the truth is often hidden at first. People can form habits and patterns in life without looking for the inner meaning of things. We need to develop children who are not satisfied to live that way. They have to keep wondering and keep asking and keep learning and keep growing. This can only happen if they trust us to encourage their thirst for knowledge and to teach them what we know to be true.
Their question expresses their quest. We need to endorse the question in order to support the quest.
This is our very important job on this very special night. To get our children, our relatives, our students, all our fellow members of the great tribe of humankind, asking the big questions… and to answer them happily.