Asking Questions

Bo By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jan 27, 1996 / 5756 | Torah Commentary

Isidor I. Rabi, who was born in Austria in 1898, won the Nobel prize in physics in 1944. He was still a venerable presence at Columbia when I joined the faculty in the late 1960s. Though I met him but a few times, he impressed me with his good humor, humanity and interest in things Jewish. After he died in January 1988, I learned that he had once been asked by an admiring friend, “Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?”

Rabi responded: “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference – asking good questions – made me a scientist.”

I love that story because it rings with truth. To frame the right question is a more demanding level of learning. It calls for a larger measure of engagement, skepticism and originality than answering the one put to us by someone else.

The story is also quintessentially Jewish. The Talmud places a premium on asking the right to question. Nearly every piece of gemara begins by asking for the scriptural basis of the specific mishna under discussion. To scrutinize conventional pieties and practices afresh is the ferment that drives the debate to new insights, keeping Judaism alive and responsive. No halakhic codification, no matter how great its author, ever escaped the critical eye of later commentators.

Our parasha anticipates this remarkable cultural trait by acknowledging the right of children to challenge their parents. Twice in the course of describing the ceremonial rites that Israel is to enact at the time of the Exodus from Egypt, and ever after, God envisions the inquiry of curious young onlookers. “And when your children ask you (after you have settled in the land), ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say…(Exodus 12:26, and again 13:14)”. In yet a third passage, reference to the question is omitted, though the text implies that the telling of the story (ve-higadeta) is in response to one: “And you shall explain to your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt (Exodus 13:8).'”

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it should. For these are the scriptural verses (plus one more in Deuteronomy 6:20) that gave rise to that most popular of all Jewish books, the Passover Haggada. Essentially it is a script for a bit of domestic theater, a dialogue between parents and children initiated by the asking of four questions. Ritual and art combine to stimulate the senses and elicit questions. Whatever the precise origin of the Haggada, which means “telling” and is the noun form of the verb “ve-higadeta” (and you shall tell), the book brilliantly captures the spirit of our parasha.

Indeed, the Mishna (edited about 200 C.E.) Already stipulates that after the pouring of the second cup (that is, after the recitation of the kiddush and the dipping and eating of some vegetables), a child is to ask four questions (slightly different from ours). And with a fine pedagogic touch, the Mishna adds that the father is to answer the child on his or her level. This is not a moment for dazzling, but for making contact.

What is missing at this early stage in the crystallization of the Haggada is the idea of four children, a pedagogic gem induced, at least partly, by the prevailing pattern of four cups of wine and four questions. More deeply, the reference to four types is an honest recognition of diversity in the human family. Though cast from the same mold, we are endowed with a vast range of emotional and intellectual inflections. The sensitive parent or teacher or leader intuits what the moment calls for. To misread our audience is to foreclose the possibility to communicate. And yet, the portrait of four diverse children does not imply that we have an equal obligation to reach out to all of them. Only three of the four – the wise, the simple and the child who knows not even how to ask – deserve our serious and modulated attention. The wicked, by the formulation of their questions and the tone of their voices, ask only to repudiate and draw away. For the time being they are beyond our reach, and the Haggada instructs us to rebuff them:

Since he [the evil son] removes himself from the community by denying God’s role in the Exodus, shake him by replying, “This is done because of what God did for me when I went out of Egypt (Exodus 13:8).” For me. Not for him. Had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.

Not all questions betray interest or identification. Without a scintilla of common ground, there is no chance of interaction. Our energy is limited. We are encouraged to invest it in those instances where we stand a chance of making a difference. But life is painfully impermanent. Yesterday’s outsider may become tomorrow’s seeker. The Haggada speaks of the moment and not forever. When the quality of the question changes, so must our response. We need to remain attentive for signs of growth and maturation.

In the interim, we need to get better at the telling of the story. Judaism is a glorious unbroken dialogue with God that encompasses four millennia and every manner of human expression. If the right question is our chance, the content and conviction of our narrative is the key to being heard. The power of a good story is irresistible. Yet our duty is not to answer every question fully or adequately that our children or friends might put to us about Judaism (some have none), but to cultivate the attitude that will keep the questions coming. And what better way is there than to set out and seek the answers together, to join in recounting the same epic?

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Bo has been made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.