They say the Haggadah never ends. That makes sense, because the Haggadah is the classic Jewish guide to education, and education never ends.
So now that we’ve done our Seder for the 3,329th year, and while it’s still Passover, I’d like to open a discussion on how we educate our kids. And I’d like to start by listening to what the Haggadah is telling us.
It seems it’s telling us we’re doing it all wrong.
Here’s evidence: How do we test, monitor and measure the success of our students? By asking questions, right? (Like I just did.)
And indeed, the average middle-grade teacher asks around 400 questions a day. That’s about two per minute. After 15 years, a teacher has asked at least one million questions. The student has asked if he can go to the bathroom.After 14 and a half years, that’s a million questions. The average student, however, generally only asks two or three questions a week—most commonly, “Can I go to the bathroom?” In high school, not much better, with about ten questions a day. Compare that to preschool kids, who ask an average of 100 questions a day.
Some will tell you that’s the Socratic method. We’re attempting to elicit intelligence from students by battering them with questions they never thought of asking.
But the Haggadah does the opposite. Rather than evaluating children by their ability to answer, it identifies them in four categories by their ability to ask.
Questions Are Rich
That turns everything around.
For one thing, from a child’s correct answers, you often know very little. Maybe he simply has a good memory. Maybe he’s good at guessing what you want to hear. At very best, a child’s answers only tell us what that child knows.
But theA child’s answers tells us what he knows. A child’s questions tell us who he is. child’s questions provide a window into the child’s mind and soul. A child’s questions tell us who that child is.
Every child is on a critical mission to make sense of things, to find the meaning behind everything, to put the pieces together. But each child sees a different world, through different eyes. So each child discovers that meaning in his or her particular way.
So that only once we know what this child is looking for, and how he is looking for it, only then we can assist him to find it. And that is education—assisting the child on his or her particular journey of discovering meaning.
Ask! Please Ask!
Let’s start from the beginning: The Haggadah is designed to incite questions.The Haggadah is designed to incite questions. How does it do that? By breaking the routine.
Generally, a festive Jewish meal begins with a blessing on the wine. We then all proceed to wash our hands, return to the table, and say a blessing on the bread.
On the Seder night, we also start with the wine. And then the hand-washing. And we return to the table. And then we take small vegetable and dip it in some sort of liquid, and eat it.
Why the change?
You’ll hear all sorts of reasons, but there’s one definitive answer cited in the Code of Jewish Law: We do it so that someone will ask a question.
And if they ask, what do we answer? We answer that they got it right. They asked a question.
Which means that the question is of prime value, even when there is no answer. As the ancient rabbis said, “Even though we have no answer for this question, once the child is asking, he will ask more questions.”
And why is that important? Because, to those ancient rabbis, it’s obvious that you can’t teach a child a thing until the child has a question.
Passing by a ninth grade classroom in a yeshiva, I hear the teacher lecturing: “Okay, so the ultimate reason for the creation of all things is…”
The diligent students take notes. The rest stare into empty space. The teacher may as well be speaking about the average rainfall in Indonesia.
You can’t teach a thing until you have first awakened a question.
A question creates a vacuum, a space in the brain to fit new knowledge. Just like a car is useless if you live in a big city where there’s no place to park it, and a meal goes in the trash if there’s no one to eat it, so the most satisfying answer in the world is meaningless to the child who never had the question. He has no place in his skull to store it. It’s just a distraction and confusion for his mind from its true quest—to find meaning.
Yes, in case the child has no questions, we provide some, in the form of the Ma Nishtana—”Why is this night different from all other nights?”
But that’s Plan B. Plan A is that the children will ask questions of their own. And you, the parent, will wrack your brains finding answers for them.
Answering the Children
That brings us to another vital lesson from the Haggadah: We don’t answer the question.Don’t answer the question. Answer the child. We answer the child.
“The wise child—what does he say?” Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitchwould point out that in Hebrew, with just a slight change in punctuation, those words can read quite differently: “The wise child—what is he? He says…”
Through the question, we see the child. And that is who we answer.
The wise child articulates his question. He’s obviously thought it through well and knows exactly what he’s looking for.
If he’s wise, why does he ask? Why doesn’t he just have faith, like a good religious boy, and accept all his parents and teachers tell him?
He asks because he has faith. Like a scientist who believes that there will always be an explanation if we will just dig a little further, he believes that there will always be meaning, and deeper meaning, and yet deeper. His mind is not fettered by faith, but driven by it. And his faith, in turn, is enriched by his questions.
Something neat Rabbi Avraham Altein just pointed out: If there are no children to ask, no guests, nobody, the halacha is that you have to ask the question to yourself. According to Maimonides, even if the children have asked the questions, the parents must also ask.
Get that? You know the answer, but you have to ask again. Really ask. Revisit the darkness of “I don’t know”—as though you never knew. Because last year’s answer no longer satisfies you. That’s how you get to a new light. And that’s what it means to be wise.
All the Children
Which all explains why the Wise Child often ends up getting all the attention, while the others are left out.
But no, there are three more children in the room.There are three more children in the room. They are also our children. They are also our children.
Like the Wicked Child. He’s next in line in expertise at asking questions. After all, he has identified exactly what it is that is bothering him. Problem is, he’s not interested in an answer.
But he’s still number two, because something bothers him. The whole Seder bothers him. Which means he’s alive and kicking. Which means there’s something there to work with.
The Simple Child asks, but he’s not sure what he’s asking. He’s the one that is too often ignored. Since you don’t really get his question (because neither does he), he never gets an answer. In the times we live in, that’s a precarious situation. Because that may one day mean to him that there is no answer. And if so, he will have a different question: “Why am I doing all this if there is no answer?”
So the Haggadah instructs you to tell him stories of wonders and miracles. That is his world, that is what he sees. He is in wonderment. Go with it—take that wonderment and nurture it, all the way. Don’t give him any less than the Wise Child, or the Wicked One. And don’t demand that he become the Wise Child—lest you push him towards his cynical brother.
As for The Child Who Doesn’t Know How To Ask—In illustrated Haggadahs, he’s always a baby with a pacifier in his mouth. But that’s nonsense.The Inquisitively Challenged Child got 100% on his Haggadah test. I’ll bet he got 100/100 on his Passover Haggadah finals.
You know why I think that? Look at the answer we give him: “For the sake of this, G‑d did what He did for me when I left Egypt.” That’s a deep answer to an intelligent person.
So what does it mean that “he doesn’t know how to ask”?
Many of the ideas I’m writing here were sparked years ago by a conversation with an Israeli researcher, a student of renowned educational psychologist, Benjamin Bloom, who visited our school along with many high schools across North America. At each school, the researcher would ask the principal, “Give me your best students, one by one, in a private room.”
When the student would enter, she would just sit there for a minute or two. Then she would ask, “Do you have any questions?”
Then: “I’m visiting from Israel.”
“I’m doing research.”
You get the gist of it.
But then, she would ask the principal to bring in the troublemakers, one-by-one. They would enter, and immediately break into, “Why am I here? Who are you? What is this all about? Israel? What’s that like?”
Open For This Child
So this child #4, a bright child who excels in school, why does this child not ask? Why is he not in search of understanding and meaning? What went wrong?
My guess? He went to school. There he was rewarded for answering questions just the way the teacher likes. But he was never rewarded for asking the really good ones that might disrupt the class, or the questions that the teacher might not have the answers to.
So Teach him, by example, that it’s even ok to question the most basic assumptions.for this child, “You must open for him.” Open his mouth. Teach him to ask. Teach him that it’s ok to ask. Teach him that it’s even ok to question the most basic assumptions. How? By example. By showing him how you yourself question assumptions.
That could explain another one of those Seder tidbits that should spark a thousand questions—or at least some annoyance. Immediately after the episode of the four children, a heavy chunk of Talmudic exegesis plops down upon us, seemingly telling us nothing of the Exodus narrative or the people sitting here.
Here’s the classic translation:
One may think that [the discussion of the exodus] must be from the first of the month. The Torah therefore says, “On that day.” “On that day,” however, could mean while it is yet daytime; the Torah therefore says, “It is because of this.” The expression “because of this” can only be said when matzah and maror are placed before you.
But Rabbi Don Yitzchak Abravanel (15th century) tells us it’s actually as relevant as you can get. It’s a response to that Inquisitively Challenged Child. It’s about opening his mind with a question that challenges the most unquestioned assumption of the entire ritual: Who says it’s Passover tonight?
Try reading it like this:
You: Hold on, maybe we were supposed to do this Seder on Rosh Chodesh—15 days ago on the first day of the month!
Child: Umm. Why then?
You: Because that’s when God told Moses about the mitzvah of Pesach.
Child: Okay, so we messed up.
You: Nope, it says on that day.
Child: Okay, so let’s get on. What do we say next?
You: Not so simple. Because then we should be doing it during the day. Now it’s night already.
Child: So it’s over. Let’s eat.
You: Not so fast. You see, it says, for the sake of this stuff. Meaning this matzah and bitter herbs that we eat on the night of Pesach. So we have to wait until we’re supposed to eat that stuff—and that’s tonight.
Child: Why on earth do we have to tell a story to food?
See? It worked!
So here’s what I’m taking from my Seder into the coming year:
Torah comes to us in a beautiful package, wrapped and tied. The only way to untie those knots and open up its treasures is by asking the right questions whenever and wherever they come to mind, and asking them without fear or shame.
How do we get ourselves,How can we teach the faith and courage it takes not to fear a good question? our children, other Jews, and everyone else who can benefit, to ask? How can we teach the faith and courage it takes not to fear a good question?
If we can find answers to those questions, we will have half of education nailed.