By Rabbi Paul Kerbel
The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Isidore Rabi once explained how he became a scientist. When he would come home from school, his mother did not ask him, “What did you learn today?” but, rather, “Izzy, did you ask a good question today?”
To be a Jew is to ask questions. Our rabbinic tradition was based on asking questions about a word or verse in the Torah or debating an aspect of law with pointed questioning. To be Jewish really means that we are a religion that encourages us to struggle with our beliefs, to act on our passions, and to strive to understand our relationship with God and our tradition.
Where does this passion for questions come from? Ultimately, it may come from our celebration and observance of Passover. In the Book of Exodus, the Torah describes a number of situations where children may come and ask us (the parents) to explain Jewish ritual and customs to them. Based on these verses, the haggadah presents to us “the Four Questions” and “the Four Children.” The central focus of the Passover seder is to explain our traditions and history by encouraging our children to participate by asking questions.
The Four Questions is one of the most special moments of our seder. For some of us, our children or grandchildren are reciting them for the first time. In other homes, there may not be any young children, and teenage or college students are often embarrassed that they still have to recite the questions. But a number of scholars have pointed out that we have been misinterpreting the idea behind the Four Questions.
It is not the mastery of these questions that is so important. These questions were meant to be examples of the types of questions we can ask at the seder. In fact, the Mishnah, our first code of Jewish law (c. 200), states that if children are too young to ask (spontaneous) questions, it is the father who teaches (questions like) the Four Questions, which are not really formulated as questions but as statements of wonder encouraging the children to ask even more questions.
And the Talmud indicates that those at the seder can ask any question that stimulates discussion and allows us to act as free people.
So this year I would like to assign to all of us a “homework assignment.” Let us prepare in advance four additional questions that we would like to ask or to discuss after we recite the traditional Four Questions. The secular kibbutz haggadot of the 1930s in Palestine give us some examples: “Why do people all over the world hate the Jews?” “When will there be peace and brotherhood the world over?”
Let’s go around the table. Let’s linger a bit. Let’s ask new questions — questions about Passover, questions about the Exodus, questions about the Torah or Jewish tradition, questions about Jewish survival and Jewish continuity.
Like Isidore Rabi, let us ask, “Did I ask a good question today?” Questioning is truly a sign of freedom and crucial to re-enacting the Passover experience.
Rabbi Paul Kerbel is one of the spiritual leaders of Congregation Etz Chaim in East Cobb.