At the Passover Seder, we read about the four sons and the questions they ask.
- the wise child
- the wicked child
- the simple child
- the child who does not know how to ask
The four sons represent four archetypes, and also four stages of learning.
Each of the four children is necessary for the retelling of the story at the Seder. For the first three children, the liturgy details the question asked by that child, and what we should answer in response.
Regarding the one who does not know how to ask, the instruction is strange. The Haggadah says, “aht petach lo.” which translates to “and you shall open for him.”
The Hebrew word פתח — petach — means “open.”
The literal translation is “and you shall open for him.”
We can understand this in three ways.
(1) Open the Conversation
The common inference is “and you shall open the conversation for him.” In other words, if a child doesn’t know how to ask, it’s your obligation to initiate and tell the story.
Telling the story of the Exodus is a one of the most important commandments in the Torah; it’s foundational to the identity of the Jewish people.
The lesson from this is that when you have information that is of crucial importance to someone, you can open a path to learning by proactively sharing the information, rather than waiting for the person to ask about it.
(2) Open the Questions
Asking questions is perhaps the most important ritual of the Seder. The telling of the story of the Exodus begins with the child asking the Four Questions. Throughout the evening, we ask and answer other questions.
The process of asking questions helps us engage more deeply in learning. This premise is the basis of the Talmud, which is constructed as a series of dialogues that begin with questions. Questions are also at the heart of the Socratic method.
One belief behind the Socratic method is that asking one question will lead to other questions.
The lesson we learn here is that if someone doesn’t know enough to ask a question, we should open the path to learning by asking the first question. By initiating with a question, we model the process and open the door to other questions that flow from the initial question.
(3) Open the Child
The third way to understand this is as “you shall open the child.”
But what needs to be opened within the child?
Someone who asks a question indicates a desire and an openness to learn. You don’t ask questions if you don’t want to know the answer.
Some people say there is a fifth child; the child who does not even show up at the Seder.
The child who does not know how to ask is closed off to new knowledge, but at least he is at the table. His presence indicates his desire to learn, even if he isn’t fully conscious of that desire.
The lesson here is that when someone shows up — at a class, a seminar, a lecture, a meeting — that person has a desire to learn, even if he says otherwise. It’s our responsibility to engage with that person and open him to the process.
Here are five things that we must open for the one who doesn’t know how to ask:
Open-minded people ask questions and are willing to entertain views divergent from their own. A close-minded person doesn’t ask questions because he doesn’t want to hear other viewpoints.
We must open a path to learning by helping the student open his mind to new ideas.
A person whose heart is closed is contracted in fear. An open hearted person is able to trust others and hold space for opposing viewpoints without feeling threatened in his position.
We must open a path to learning by helping the student open her heart to receive new wisdom.
We see what we seek. A person who is blind to any experience other than his own is unlikely to see issues beyond his own life. When we open our eyes and look around, we see what is happening in the world and can ask questions that may expose injustice and inequity.
We must open a path to learning by helping the student open his eyes to other perspectives.
If you’re going to ask a question, it helps to have your ears open to listen to the answer. Otherwise, what’s the point?
We must open a path to learning by helping the student open her ears to hear new ideas.
Sometimes children are afraid to ask questions because they don’t believe it’s safe to do so. They start to believe that some questions are “dumb” or that they will be judged harshly for asking certain questions. Opening a safe space for questions gives a person freedom to explore without fear of repercussions. Creating this space also opens the person to have an experience, which is the highest form of learning.
We must open a path to learning by creating a safe space for the student to ask questions without fear of negative consequences.
The child who does not know how to ask still shows up. This is enough to trigger our requirement to open the path to learning by engaging the child in the proces.