The Questions of Passover

By Rabbi Joshua Franklin

Though she is only 2 1/2 years old, my daughter, Lilah, has begun to master the art of questioning. I never expected the depth of her curiosity. She has proven to be able to see even the most mundane parts of the world as worthy of inquiry. Picking up a dead crab at the beach, she’ll stare inquisitively at me and ask, “What is this?” My paternal instinct kicks in with the response, “Don’t touch that, it’s disgusting!” It takes me a few moments to catch myself before realizing the importance of the mere act of her asking a question. 

Judaism encourages the asking of questions, and each year on Passover, Jews are, in fact, required to ask questions. The overarching query that frames all of our questions on Passover is: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” There are, of course, trivial answers to the famous quiz-like four questions that act as a guide for children to ask their parents. But questions aren’t always meant to be answered. The emphasis in the Jewish tradition lies in the simple act of asking. 

There is a famous discussion in the Talmud (an ancient compendium of Jewish stories and laws) that emphasizes the value of questions over their answers. While traditionally the youngest child has the responsibility of asking questions at the Passover Seder, the rabbis remind us that children may not always be present. 

“What should you do,” the rabbis ask, “if you are by yourself?” They respond by saying, “You should ask yourself questions.” 

They then imagine a scenario in which there are only two wise sages at the table, and they already know everything there is to know about Passover and its laws. What should they do? “They must still ask each other questions” (Pesachim 116b).

On Passover, when we are instructed to demonstrate our freedom from slavery, asking questions serves as a reminder of our freedom. Slaves, after all, are never permitted to ask questions. But asking questions that we need not answer also reminds us that thoughtful questions are more important than smart answers. 

The reason Jews love questions, I believe, is that life is better with a question mark. The advice column “Dear Abby” once jokingly asked, “Why do Jews always answer a question with a question? . . . How else should they answer?” I’m also reminded of a famous saying that exclaims, “Don’t trust people who claim to have all the answers; rather trust people who are always searching for them.” 

Life is better when we live to chase the question mark. Even in a scientifically advanced world, we need to be comfortable with the reality that there are many more questions than answers. 

This might seem disconcerting, until we begin to realize that questions drive us to create amazing things. Before any scientific hypothesis, there is a question. Driving every thesis, there is a question. Great minds are driven by asking questions. The Nobel laureate Isidor Rabi attributed his becoming a scientist (rather than a doctor or a lawyer, like most other immigrant Jews) to his mother’s unusual way of greeting him after school. While most mothers asked their children, “Did you learn anything today?” Rabi’s mother instead greeted him with “Did you ask any good questions today?” 

Children who are encouraged to ask good questions develop into the adults who solve the world’s problems. In this light, as my daughter dangles the corpse of a crab from her tiny toddler fingers and inquires about this strange creature, she is developing one of the most sacred Jewish habits — questioning.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells the story of a famous Holocaust historian who was interviewing a Hasidic rebbe (the name given by Hasidic Jews to their leader) who survived Auschwitz. The rebbe emerged from the death camp still a faithful and practicing Jew. The historian asked, “Seeing what you saw, did you have any questions about God?” 

“Yes,” responded the rebbe, “of course I had questions. So powerful were those questions, I had no doubt were I to ask them, God would personally invite me to heaven to tell me the answers. I prefer to be down here with the questions than up in heaven with the answers.” 

Such a story reflects the paradigm of the Jewish value of questioning. That is, while we ask a lot of questions, we’re not always that interested in concrete answers. 

We all instinctually want resolution and clarity. When people ask unanswerable questions, or perhaps questions to which we simply don’t know the answer, something holds people back from admitting “I don’t know!” Instead, we find ourselves trying to fake an answer. We are prone to think that having the best answer is the ultimate mark of wisdom. It’s not! Passover is the Jewish reminder to refrain from answering and to sit with a question mark.

Rabbi Joshua Franklin leads the Jewish Center of the Hamptons. He lives in East Hampton.