DAY // WAY 31: Thoughts on Shabbat with Rabbi Stiefel

What questions will you ask this year?

by Rabbi Sharon Stiefel, Mayim Rabim Congregation Sharon S - AS cropped

One of my favorite Haggadah commentaries I found in recent years is this:

Isidor I. Rabi, the Nobel laureate in physics was once asked, “Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?”

“My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘Nu, Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always would ask me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘Did you ask a good question today?’ That difference—asking good questions—made me become a scientist.” (Donald Sheff, New York Times, Jan. 19, 1988)

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Pesach is built around questions.

Not only are there the Four Questions, the actions we do at the Seder and the items we put on the table are to inspire questions. It is a way to open our eyes to ask, “Why are we behaving so differently tonight?”

Last year, just prior to Pesach, I distributed a stack of cards with questions on them to use at the Seder.  (If you go on line you can purchase a “Passover Box of Questions” advertised to jump start conversation at your Seder.) There are numerous other ways to elicit questions at a Seder. Everyone attending a Seder can be asked to arrive with a question about Pesach or the Exodus. Or rewards can be given at the Seder to encourage questions. A former teacher of mine distributes Passover candy to every person who asks a question at his Seder. 

Teachers know the importance of encouraging questions to keep students absorbed in learning. The importance of questions is the underpinning of our tradition. The Talmud itself is a form of questions and dialogue.

100 days-01Questions are at the heart of being a liberated people.

In a slave’s world, there is no room for questions. Life is arbitrary. Things are the way they are and the slave has no role in changing their existence. Free people, on the other hand, want understanding. We are not automatons; rather, our role is to personalize the story of the Exodus so it is ever more meaningful to us every year.

Often when we study text together, we implicitly embrace that the questions are more important than the answers. We hold contradictions in our tradition, find ourselves at moments of cognitive dissonance, and wrestle with troubling texts. And when we ask our questions, we engage with in conversation that builds our relationships with one another and with our heritage. We share a common bond of valuing our questions.

May this upcoming Pesach be full of questions, as well as joyous and sweet for you and those you love.  

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