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The Freedom to Ask

By Rabbi Kalman Topp

A central component of the Seder experience—as evidenced by the Mah Nishtana and the “four children”—is the asking of questions. In fact, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik explained that one of the requirements of “sippur” (relating the story of the Exodus) on Pesach night, which distinguishes it from the daily obligation of “zechirah” (remembering the Exodus) is that it be transmitted through questions and answers.

Here’s my question: Why the need for so many questions? I once learned that questions are emphasized at the Seder not only to keep the younger generation intrigued or to provoke discussion but also to serve as a demonstration of our freedom. Those who are oppressed by others are not permitted to question their situation. Even if they were permitted, slaves do not have the necessary peace of mind to freely ask about and contemplate the purpose of their existence. Freedom means that you not only have time to think about the meaning of life, but that you’re entitled to express your opinion and to pose your challenge. On Pesach we thus celebrate not only our physical freedom, but also our intellectual freedom which at its core, is the ability to ask.

A Jewish parent or educator should never be afraid of questions. On the contrary, it shows that the questioner cares enough to be bothered by an issue and wants to learn more. Questions often lead to healthy debate. Debate leads to further understanding as is evidenced by every page of the Talmud. Judaism has always celebrated the question because it reflects the uniquely human trait of curiosity. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has noted that angels don’t seem to have curiosity as they already know everything about their assigned tasks. And animals learn only what they need to live. So the only beings who are curious about anything are people. Ultimately, it is our curiosity which leads to the pursuit of knowledge, innovation, and open-mindedness to hear a different opinion, which all results in spiritual and intellectual growth.

Isidor Rabi, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1944, attributed his prize and great achievements to his parents. He explained that when he would come home from school, his parents never asked him what he learned. Rather, they wanted to know “Did you ask a good question today?”

On Pesach, let us all strive to ask good questions. This is a beautiful demonstration of our freedom. Thankfully we’re entitled to ask and we have people surrounding us whom we can engage in conversation to find some good answers. If we ask, and we respond thoughtfully to the questions of others, we can together reach a deeper understanding of G-d, Torah, our loved ones and ourselves

Shabbat starts Friday: 4:52PM
Shabbat ends Saturday: 5:53PM
Thu, January 17 2019 11 Shevat 5779