Knowing the answers will help you in SCHOOL; knowing how to question will help you in LIFE. –Warren Berger, author “A More Beautiful Mind”
The highlight of most seders is the Ma Nishtana. It’s the part of the seder that is reserved for the youngest child. As a parent, I remember rehearsing these scripted questions with our four sons so that they were prepared for their 15 “minutes” of fame.
The remarkable thing about the Ma Nishtana is that the ancient rabbis said that ideally the Mah Nishtana should be not be recited. The rabbis preferred that that children and adults generated their own questions instead of mimicking a scripted set of questions. They intuited what modern research has shown: that around age 5 or 6 questioning drops off a cliff unless parents and educators make it safe, fun, cool, and rewarding enough to ask questions.
The Mishna in the 10th chapter of Tractate Pesachim says: After the second cup of wine is poured, a child is given the opportunity to ask a question. The nature of the question is irrelevant; It could be about the pouring of a second cup of wine or anything else that stands out at the Pesach seder.
If the child doesn’t ask a question, then a parent should draw the child’s attention to all the anomalies of the evening—the unusual props, symbols, foods, and customs that will appear throughout the night. Essentially, the Ma Nishtana wasn’t originally a set of questions that the child recited but a table of contents that was meant to spark his or her curiosity.
The rabbis wanted the seder leader to stimulate as many questions as possible. In our home we do this by giving anyone who asks a question a piece of gum or candy. Whether or not someone can answer the question is a different story. We want to encourage engagement.
On all nights of the year, we live by Warren Berger’s adage–knowing the answers helps you in school; knowing how to question helps you in life. On Passover, the holiday we celebrate freedom of thought and body, we add one more reason that questions are vital. The ability to question is a sign that we are no longer disempowered slaves but a free people, free to make meaning of our reality and our sacred traditions.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that the role of an educator is to “be a midwife to the birth of a question.” I would say that describes the role of the seder leader perfectly: to create an environment and an experience where no one is intimidated and all are encouraged to ask questions. Chag Sameach!
(For a list of sources in Hebrew and English, see https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/61965.)