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Jewish Journal

We’re Really the People of the Question

by Jane Ulman

April 5, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Question "The Passover Table"  From "Illuminations: Arthur Szyk's Haggadah" (Library of Congress)

Question "The Passover Table" From "Illuminations: Arthur Szyk's Haggadah" (Library of Congress)

Why are we the People of the Book? Why aren't we the People of the Question?

After all, before Moses receives the Torah on Mt. Sinai, like Abraham earlier, he answers God's call to service with a question. In Exodus 3:11, he says, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?"

I empathize completely. For who am I that I should host the seder every year, moving all the furniture out of the living room and moving in a couple dozen relatives, friends and folding chairs as well as the requisite stranger or two?

Why am I burdened with standing upright in the kitchen while all those people sit relaxed and reclining at the seder? Really, I'll take 603,550 whining Israelites and a 40-year hike any day.

But long before sundown on April 7, the night of the first seder, I'll be having my own culinary crisis and vowing to spend next year not in Jerusalem but at my sister Ellen's new condo. Yep, next year I call dibs on hosting the family Sukkot celebration -- a potluck, paper plate, alfresco affair.

But the point is not to match Moses' tsuris-ridden trek through the wilderness with complaints of our own. Rather, the point is to regard ourselves as if we personally went out of Egypt and to do this by asking as many questions as possible. We begin with the proverbial "Why is this night different from all other nights?" and end, hours later, with an exasperated, "Why does 'Chad Gadya' have so many verses?"

Why so many questions?

For one reason, the Torah commands us, no less than four times, to tell our children the story of the Exodus. Never mind that after all these years and all those tuition payments to Jewish day schools, they should already know it.

Conveniently, the haggadah guides us in this evening of questioning and answering, which results in effectively recounting the story.

But we must tell the story in four distinct ways, for the rabbis remind us that there are four kinds of children, each asking a different question and each requiring a different approach.

The Wise Son asks, "What are the decrees, statutes and laws that God has commanded concerning Passover?" He can easily grasp the complex and profound teachings of Judaism.

The Wicked Son asks, "What does the service mean to you?" He is scornful, an outsider. We are told to reprimand him.

The Simple Son asks, "What does this all mean?" For him, we need to start at the beginning of the story, explaining slowly and carefully.

And the Fourth Son does not know how to ask a question. Not even, "Can I go to the mall?"

I too have a set of Four Sons, currently 17, 13, 11 and 9, each claiming to be the resident Wise Son and each accusing another brother of being the Wicked Son.

I explain that the Wicked Son, surprisingly, is not the problem. For he, at least, is engaged enough to pose a question and potentially can be coaxed back to Judaism. This is probably not best accomplished, however, by "blunting his teeth," as the haggadah recommends.

The challenge is the Fourth Son, who cannot even formulate a question, who cannot even begin to understand the world around him.

And perhaps this is the second reason for this quintessential night of questions, to demonstrate that just as God leads us out of bondage in Egypt, so the act of questioning leads us out of the bondage of ignorance.

"Ask and learn," the Apocrypha tell us.

And so we do, spending our lives firing questions. From "Where did I come from?" to "Where am I going?" From "What is life?" to "What is love?" to "What makes the world go 'round?"

And in this pedagogic process, we invent the wheel, eradicate smallpox and split the atom. We fly to the moon and delve into our subconscious. And most important, we come closer to comprehending how this huge, daunting and marvelous world works -- and where we fit in.

When my son Zack was 4 and riding in the car with my husband, Larry, and me, he asked, "If Mom wants the window shut, and Dad wants the window open, what do you do?"

"It depends," my husband answered.

"No," Zack repeated intently, "If Mom wants the window shut, and Dad wants the window open, what do you do?" He wasn't asking about automobile etiquette; he was asking, "Hey, who's really in charge here?"

Now, at 17, he raises and lowers his own windows.

But he still asks plenty of questions. And that's exactly what Passover teaches us to do -- to ask wise, wicked and simple questions, difficult and chutzpadik ones. And to teach this critical skill to our children.

As the German Jewish inventor Charles Steinmetz said, "No man really becomes a fool until he stops asking questions."

And who wants that to happen?

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