My business these days is questions. Big Questions, to be precise. At Ask Big Questions, we define a Big Question by two criteria: a) Everyone can answer it; b) It matters to everyone. We also say that because of these two criteria, Big Questions usually lead to sharing stories, rather than making statements.

Some folks like to claim that Ask Big Questions is inherently Jewish because “asking questions is Jewish.” And to this I usually respond, yes and no. Yes, Jewish intellectual tradition, and particularly the Talmud, is notorious for asking questions. But also no: after all, Socrates is probably the most famous question-asker in history.

There’s nothing inherently Jewish about asking questions. Human beings ask questions. But Jews have built a religious community out of asking questions. And in Parshat Bo, we find the seeds of perhaps the greatest institution in our religious tradition, the Passover seder.

When you enter the land which the LORD will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe this rite. And when your children say to you, ‘What does this rite mean to you?’ you shall say, ‘It is a Passover sacrifice to the LORD who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes.’” (Ex. 12:25-27)

The Passover seder is built on questions, questions that lead to stories. The mitzvah of the night is sipur yetziat mitzrayim, to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. And yet the story is not prescribed. Rather, in the words of Rabban Gamaliel, “in every generation each person is obligated to see him/herself as if s/he had personally left Egypt.” The story of Passover is to be told and retold, recreated anew every time by every person. The role of the question in this story-oriented view of the seder is to open up space, to usher the individual into an imaginative world in which their own story meets up with, partakes of, and contributes to the story of the Jewish people. Questioning here leads to identification, identity, continuity.

Yet this is a different understanding of what questions can do than we often think of. In much traditional modern discourse, the power of questions lies not in their potential for continuity, but in the fact that they cause discontinuity. In this line of thinking, to question is to not accept things as they are. It is the beginning of doubt. This is the kind of questioning we associate with the phrase, “Question authority.”

Interestingly, both of these forms of questioning are associated with the idea of freedom. In the latter, questioning leads to freedom from, or negative liberty. In the former, questioning leads to freedom for, or positive liberty. Not all questions are equal, just as not all types of freedom are the same. The power of question to unite or divide depends on its content and context.

The midrash Mechilta reads the verse we quoted above as follows: “At that moment, bad news was brought to the Israelites: that the Torah would be forgotten. Some say that good news was brought to them: that they would have children and children’s children!” (Mechilta Bo 12) As Avivah Zornberg writes on this passage, “The bittersweet nature of questions has to do with forgetting and the desire to know. Without forgetting, there would be no questions. Is this – the inevitability of forgetting – bad news? Or is it good news, implying the constant rebirth of narratives, responses to the questions of those in whom distance and forgetting create desire? The issue is not decided, as so many true questions are not decided” (The Particulars of Rapture, 181).

What does it mean to be free? Is it freedom to control our own destiny? Is it freedom to be able to wholly commit ourselves to something larger? How do we answer these questions for ourselves, and how do we answer them for our children while also allowing them to find their own answers? These are the Big Questions of education, of the seder, and of life.

Shabbat shalom.

 

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