Questions may facilitate learning, but they are also rituals in their own right. They play a starring role in connection with an event that celebrates freedom. What do the questions teach us about freedom? A whole lot.
The Passover Seder is an evening filled with rituals and questions. The common view is that the rituals are designed to provoke the questions.
This, of course, begs the most meta of questions: what’s the purpose of all the questions?
The common answer is that questions are essential to the outcome of teaching the children about the Exodus.
For more on this, read 4 Ways Questions Facilitate the Learning Process.
Another possibility is the questions are themselves a ritual. Like many of the other rituals we perform at the Seder, the questions are a sign of freedom.
Questions Are a Hallmark of Freedom
A slave must do as commanded. A free person may ask questions.
To be sure, slaves may be allowed to ask certain clarifying questions — where, what, how, who, when — necessary to performing their assigned tasks. But a slave has no rights to ask the most essential question:
Why? might be the most powerful word in the English language. It unlocks mystery and motive. It reveals purpose and potential. It elicits emotion and excuse.
Hidden in the simple act of asking questions at the Seder is this most important lesson about freedom:
Questions — both in the asking and in the allowing — are a hallmark of freedom.
Questions Are a Sign of Freedom
The ability to ask questions — specifically, to ask Why? — is a crucial ingredient to gaining freedom.
Questions and inquiries lead to understanding.
Understanding leads to choice.
When we understand the purpose and the ultimate outcome of a project, we open up the field of possibilities. We see other options that can lead us to our desired result.
When we understand, we empower ourselves to make informed choices.
Freedom lies in recognizing that we have options.
Freedom is the ability to choose.
At the Seder, we tend to focus on the process of asking questions. Equally as important in this context is the receiving of questions. The willingness to allow questions — to create space for them — is also a sign of freedom.
Consider this: what are the character traits of someone who doesn’t create space for questions?
A dictator. A tyrant. An autocrat. A Pharaoh.
This is a person who strives to control everything. A person who fears not having the answers. A person who is uncertain in his position on an issue. A person who fears being proven wrong. A person who fears being exposed as something other than what he claims to represent.
A person who tries to control everything becomes a slave; forced to do every task. A person who tries to control every aspect of his message is enslaved by the perceptions and opinions of others. A person who fears being wrong or not having the answers is not free to take risks. A person who is uncertain of his position is enslaved by a closed mind. A person who fears being exposed is not free to evolve and grow.
A person with any of these qualities is not free. A society with any of these qualities is not free.
Questions Are a Responsibility of Freedom
Every privilege carries with it a responsibility. The ability to ask questions and the willingness to allow questions are not simply a path to freedom or our right as free human beings. The Seder teaches us that these obligations go hand-in-hand with the privilege of freedom.
Questions are essential to the functioning of a free society.
Teach Your Children How to Ask Questions
The most revered prophets modeled this lesson by asking God questions.
We also learn this at the Seder from the description of the Four Sons. That even the Wicked Son is welcomed at the table teaches us that all questions are important, even those that appear to challenge the status quo or our belief structure.
And we also learn this from the instruction regarding the Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask:
Aht petach lo
We typically interpret this as “and you shall teach him.” But what are we to teach this child?
Teach your child how to ask questions.
This underscores the importance that we place on the role of questions: they are so important that if your child does not know how to ask questions, you must teach him.
If you want to gain your freedom, you must learn how to ask questions.
If you wish to preserve your freedom, you must continue to ask questions.
Allowing Questions: Open the Space
Judaism is not a dogmatic religion; it encourages questions. It insists on questions as the path to understanding and choice. We see this modeled by God and the prophets. God held space for questions from the prophets. The prophets held space for questions from the people.
In this we learn a crucial lesson of leadership: leaders hold space for questions. Real leaders — not just people with the title — do not shut down questions out of fear of being exposed. Real leaders know that questions may expose weaknesses, and see this as a way to improve. Real leaders accept the responsibility of their position to encourage questions.
The “leaders” who attempt to censor or stifle questions — who answer why? with “because I said so” or “because that’s how we do it” — are enslaved by tradition and old paradigms, by fear and uncertainty.
Again, we learn from the instruction regarding the Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask:
Aht petach lo
We may read it as “and you shall teach him,” but petach means “open.” Literally translated, this means “and you shall open for him.”
This is strange phrasing. Open what?
Open a space in which this child may come forward to ask questions. Open your heart to receive questions. Open your eyes to seeing a place where you might improve. Open yourself to realizing that maybe you don’t have all the answers. Open your mind to learning something new from the questions that are presented to you. Open your soul to the potential for growth that emerges from questions.
Lessons for Modern Times
When we view the Seder questions in this context, we learn that the purpose of the questions at the Passover Seder is not merely to provoke questions, but to teach us this lesson: never stop questioning.
Questions are a gateway to freedom, they are a right of a free human being, and they are a responsibility given to members of a free society.
A free society does not merely confer on its people the right to ask questions; it requires us to ask questions to preserve that freedom. We are obligated to question our leaders, our processes and our laws. We are commanded to question motive, purpose, and intention.
The Seder rituals might be confined to only one night, but asking and allowing questions is a daily responsibility. For without questions, there is no freedom.
I can think of no lesson more relevant to our modern times.