In case you didn’t get enough questions at your Passover Seder, I have one more: What’s the purpose of all the questions?
Last night was the start of Passover. Passover is my favorite of the Jewish holidays, perhaps because the Seder combines two of my favorite things: rituals and questions.
At our Seder last night, my 7-year-old nephew shared the four different names for Passover:
- The Festival of Passover
- The Festival of Matzah
- The Festival of Spring
- The Festival of Freedom
Passover is all about the 4’s: 4 cups of wine at the Seder, the 4 sons, the 4 questions. And to these four names, I would add a fifth:
The Festival of Questions.
Questions at the Seder
On Passover, we don’t just entertain questions; we encourage them. The Seder, with its specific and seemingly-strange rituals, is specifically designed to provoke questions.
Rituals and questions. Two of my favorite practices. It’s no surprise that I love this holiday.
Questions are a central aspect of the reading of the Haggadah, the book that contains the liturgy for the Seder (Haggadah comes from the Hebrew word meaning “to tell”). The main part of the telling of the story begins with the Ma Nishtana, the series of four questions in which children ask: “why this night is different from all other nights?” Later, we recount the questions asked by the four sons: the wise, the wicked, the simple and the one who does not know how to ask.
The focus on questions at the Seder begs the question:
What’s the purpose of all the questions?
Specifically, why do we need to ask questions to prompt us to tell the story? Why not simply tell the story without the questions?
The primary answer is based in the core purpose of the Seder: to teach the children about the Exodus.
If we are to successfully teach the children, then the children must learn. I realize this sounds like an obvious flow of logic, but unfortunately many “teachers” miss this point. Good teachers know that questions are fundamental to the learning process.
From Talmudic scholars to Socrates, the ancient sages and philosophers understood that questions and inquiries are an essential component of learning. It’s not enough to deliver information in a lecture format. True learning involves a process of asking questions and seeking answers, posing inquiries and receiving wisdom.
In the spirit of Passover’s theme of fours, here are four ways that questions facilitate the learning process, and how they are reflected in the descriptions of the Four Sons.
How Questions Facilitate the Learning Process
(1) Questions open our mind and heart to receive wisdom
To learn, we must want to learn. The act of asking questions opens our minds to receive the wisdom.
Built into how we teach children is the very first step in learning: learning how to ask questions. Consider how we teach a child the names of objects.
We don’t say This is a ball or command the child, Say ‘ball.’
Instead, we ask: what is this? and Can you say ‘ball’?
We model this practice for children to teach them how to ask questions, so that they can eventually ask questions for themselves.
This approach is reflected in the instructions regarding the child Who Does Not Know How to Ask. We are instructed to “open the story” for this child; in other words, to teach the child how to ask questions, to foster the child’s natural curiosity.
(2) Questions keep us engaged us in the process
Have you ever tried to teach something to a child who didn’t want to learn? It’s very different from teaching a child who is curious.
When a child — or adult — asks a question rooted in a genuine curiosity, that person hangs on every word of the answer. When we ask a question, we want to know the answer. Our curiosity keeps us engaged in the process. This helps us retain what we learn so that we can integrate it.
Knowledge that isn’t sought isn’t retained.
The Simple Child asks “What is this?” It’s an expression of curiosity, which we meet by telling the story of the exodus.
(3) Questions illuminate the boundaries of our understanding
When we learn new information, we “try it on” — the way we would try on a pair of shoes. We test which parts fit into our existing frameworks and mental models, and which parts don’t seem to fit. The new information might challenge or conflict with our current belief systems, but we can’t see that from where we are. Whether we need a better explanation or we must resolve a conflict between existing frameworks and the new information, asking questions helps us see exactly where we are stuck. We aren’t always able to articulate directly the parts that we don’t yet understand, but our questions illuminate this for us.
Often, the questions we ask in the process of integration can feel to others like challenges to the teachings. Teachers and parents may lose patience with a student or child who keeps asking questions. But a question that illuminates a hole in the student’s understanding is an opportunity to approach the topic from a different angle. Sometimes, the problem begins with an ineffective teacher rather than a problem student.
We interpret the Wicked Child’s questions — “what is this service to you?” — as a challenge to the core beliefs of the people; as though he is removing himself from the community. But it’s a natural part of the learning process to challenge what you’ve learned.
(4) Questions help us create new distinctions that deepen our understanding
Each time we revisit a concept, we bring a new awareness and a new version of ourselves, which has been created through new experiences and knowledge. Armed with more tools in our mental and emotional toolbelt, we ask questions to clarify the topic, which help us create new distinctions and deepen our understanding.
The Wise Child asks “What are the testimonies, the statutes and laws that the Lord our God has commanded you?” This is a more sophisticated version of “What is this.” It shows that the Wise Child is ready to dig deeper, to understand the distinctions between these different types of commandments.
Questions are fundamental to the learning process. They pave the road for learning in four ways:
Questions open our minds and hearts to receive wisdom and teachings.
Questions display curiosity, which keeps us engaged in the process.
Questions help us define the limits of our understanding.
Questions help us create new distinctions, which deepens our understanding.
How can you use this insight to help your learning process?
I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Please share in the comments, and look out for part 2, in which I will share some further insights.