Teaching Our Children to Seek Wisdom
Yael Eckstein | April 14, 2020
As Yael celebrates the sacred season of Passover with her family, we offer you this message excerpted from her new book, Generation to Generation: Passing on a Legacy of Faith to Our Children. In it, Yael reflects on the Jewish tradition of asking questions – and how this tradition is an essential part of Passover observance.
“We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers.”
— Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, (1907-1972), Polish-American rabbi and leading Jewish theologian of the 20th century
Judaism is a religion of questions. On one hand, we are called to believe God’s promises and trust His providence. On the other, we have a tradition of questioning God’s ways, asking the weighty questions in life, and seeking the answers. Asking questions is not at odds with faith; rather, it is the means by which we deepen our faith and express our desire to know God. This is why Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel contended that asking questions brings us closer to God; indeed, it is part of our divine service and duty.
The first Jewish patriarch, Abraham, had questions. When God informed him that He intended to destroy the entire city of Sodom, Abraham replied, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). Moses questioned God, as well. When Pharaoh increased the labor of the Israelites in response to Moses’ demands, Moses asked God, “Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people?” (Exodus 5:22).
The prophet Jeremiah did not hold back his questions, either. He asked God possibly one of the most pressing questions for all people of faith through the ages:
You are always righteous, Lord,
when I bring a case before you.
Yet I would speak with you about your justice:
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why do all the faithless live at ease? — Jeremiah 12:1
Clearly, we see from this exchange that Jeremiah was completely comfortable in bringing his questions before God, no matter how difficult the subject.
Perhaps most famously, the book of Job is filled with man’s questions for God, and God’s answers are filled with more questions for man. And in the Christian Bible, one of the earliest records of Jesus is as a 12-year-old boy, in the Temple, asking questions of the rabbis: “After three days they found him [Jesus] in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46).
The Essence of Passover
Passover is one of the most celebrated and widely observed holidays for Jewish people around the world. It is at the heart of the nation of Israel, bringing together family and friends of multiple generations and diverse backgrounds to commemorate the seminal event in Jewish history, the Exodus. At the core of Passover is the seder, the ritual meal held on the first night. The focus of the seder is retelling the Exodus narrative and hearing the story as if for the first time.
Seder literally means “order,” and the Passover seder is a deliberately designed experience containing 15 steps placed in a specific order. The main part of the seder is the fifth step, the maggid, which means “telling,” as in telling the story. This is the heart of the seder and the essence of Passover. It is here that we tell the story of the Exodus through biblical scriptures, songs, rituals, and commentary.
Yet, when we tell the story of the Exodus, we do not begin with a description of events. Instead, at every seder, the story begins not with answers and explanations, but with questions. In many communities, the leader dresses up as an Israelite slave leaving Egypt, and the guests ask, “Where are you coming from?” The leader replies, “I am coming from Egypt.” The guests continue, “And where are you going?” The leader responds, “I am going to Jerusalem.” This question-answer format, along with visual aids and audience participation, is intended to capture the imagination of children and sets the tone for the evening.
The Role of Children in the Seder
Indeed, our children are the most important guests at the table, and the seder revolves around them. “The Four Questions,” one of the most iconic and memorable Passover passages, is traditionally sung at the seder by the youngest child able to do so. Incidentally, if no children are present then one of the adults must recite the questions. Moreover, if a person is alone, he or she must ask themselves “The Four Questions.” Such is the value that Judaism places on asking before receiving answers.
The Four Questions highlight four unusual aspects of the seder that were instituted by the Jewish sages for the sole purpose of piquing a child’s curiosity. The text begins, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” and specifies four questions:
On all other nights, we eat leavened bread and unleavened bread. Why do we only eat matzah (unleavened bread) on this night?
On all other nights, we eat all kinds of vegetables. Why do we eat only bitter herbs on this night?
On all other nights, we need not dip our vegetables at all. Why do we dip vegetables twice on this night?
On all other nights, we can eat leaning or sitting up straight. Why on this night do we only eat reclining?
The reason that we begin our story with questions is because of the verse that says: “In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt…’” (Exodus 13:14). The Bible specifies that our children should ask first, and then we should answer. The Four Questions also provide the springboard to discuss with our children the fundamental ideas of the Jewish faith found in the Exodus story — that God is with us in our suffering, that He hears our prayers, that He cares about His people, and that He intervenes in human history to bring about salvation.
Faith Comes Through Asking Questions
As the old saying goes, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn.” The seder was intelligently designed to involve children to the greatest extent, mostly by way of eliciting questions, but also through other hands-on experiences.
While the seder is a powerful educational tool that we revisit every Passover, the overall objective is to encourage our children to ask questions all year long. “To be a Jewish child is to learn how to question,” explains Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who served as Chief Rabbi of Britain from 1991 to 2013. “Against cultures that see unquestioning obedience as the ideal behavior of a child, Jewish tradition, in the Haggadah (the written guide to the seder), regards the ‘child who has not learned to ask’ as the lowest, not the highest, stage of development.”
Judaism maintains that true faith can only come through asking questions, seeking answers, and choosing God as an act of freedom rather than an imposed state of being. Our goal is to ensure that our children will be seekers of God and the wisdom of the Bible for the rest of their lives.