Every time I go back to Argentina my mother makes me feel like a child. She reminds me to button up my coat, impervious to the fact that I survive quite well during the other 350 days of the year, many of which I spent in freezing temperatures. She also reminds me, with gestures that futilely try to be discrete, not to put my elbows on the table, ignoring the fact that in the last few decades I’ve dined with business leaders, politicians, and social leaders, none of whom found my table manner particularly disturbing.
At the beginning, I found that infantilization annoying. I’d answer back, get feisty, and end up in arguments. With time, however, I softened. Maybe it’s the fact that I have my own children and I know how she feels; or maybe that it feels good to be treated like a child for a few days a year.
This came to my mind while thinking about the Passover Seder this year, especially about the four questions that the youngest children are instructed to ask during the ceremony. And while the wisdom of having the children ask the questions is self-evident, I felt uneasy about something. I discovered that my uneasiness referred to something at the root of many of the problems that we face as a community and as a society: we seem to have relegated the question-asking to children, and to children alone, while we, adults, seem confident in our answers and certain of our responses. Indeed, we live in a world where asking question is a signal of weakness, where doubt is an undesired chink in the armor. Questions are tolerated only when asked by the children, for they are, after all, too young to have any answers.
Our love for unambiguous answers betrays a hidden fear, which rears its ugly head through the high walls of our self-sufficiency: we are afraid of the open-endedness of the question, and we yearn for the pale succor to be found in the stony embrace of an answer.
Wouldn’t it be liberating, to become children again and have the freedom to ask? Shouldn’t we try, if only for the few days of Passover, to abandon the ramparts of our certainties and embark in an adventure of doubt and surprise?
Not-in-vain questions are at the center of the Festival of Freedom. The slave doesn’t ask; he obeys. The serf doesn’t question; she executes. Questioning is essential, not just to Pessach, but to the very idea that Judaism has of the Human Being. In one of those exercises that assign numeric value to Hebrew words, the kabbalists equate the value of the word “Adam” (Human) to that of the question “Ma” (What), as if to say that asking questions, doubting, and challenging is the essence of Man.
And asking questions is essential, too, in who we are as a People. Our Biblical heroes ask questions, they challenge God, they doubt. They seem to know that honoring their freedom, and the responsibility that comes with it, is the best way to honor God.
The Jewish People knows what happens when people stop asking questions and just obey – it has suffered it in its own flesh and blood. Primo Levi, the holocaust survivor and author of “If This Is a Man,” was once asked about the monstrosity of Nazism. He said, “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” Judaism tries to inoculate us against blind obedience. It tells us that relinquishing our right to ask questions is a crime against our very nature. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, “If you want a free society, teach your children what oppression tastes like…encourage them to ask questions. Teach them to think for themselves.”
And yet, questioning seems to be one of these skills that we lose as we grow up, like hand-standing and somersaults. Many of us seem to have lost the capacity to ask the most important questions – those that cast doubts over our own assumptions and beliefs, those that challenge our biases and shake our certainties. We leave those questions to children while we sink deeper into a world of truth-owners where self-righteousness replaces righteousness.
Our inability to question our own beliefs is creating a world of unprecedented polarization and intolerance. Because of our fears, we choose to listen to those who don’t question us, to those who reaffirm our biases. We build echo-chambers, where the same rusty arguments are repeated over and over, and we demonize those that don’t think like us. Because of our fear to question, true conversations have become an endangered species. After all, the requisite of a true dialogue, as Buber defined it, is the capacity to be challenged and transformed. Today, however, when in conversation, we don’t listen; we reload. In sum, we don’t question ourselves because we don’t want to leave the cocoon of our certainties, rancid and stale as it may be, but comforting nonetheless. We have become that fourth child in the Seder, the one that doesn’t know how to ask. Or rather, we know how to, but we are afraid of doing it.
A world where adults are afraid to ask the questions that come naturally to children is a sad and dark place. It’s a place where repetition replaces true knowledge; a place where we spin the wheels of our intolerance instead of moving forward in the quest for true wisdom. And wise people, as Isaiah Berlin, that prophet of moderation and tolerance, put it, “are adults that persist on asking childish questions.” If we lose our capacity to ask, we lose another childhood trait: our capacity to be amazed. We are tone deaf to the wonders around us and to the countless blessings that we enjoy.
So, on this holiday of liberation, let’s free ourselves from the need to always be right, to always have the correct answers. Let’s roam the open fields of our uncertainties instead of remaining locked in the cells of our biases. Let’s ask “Ma nishtana” (what is different) in our minds, in our beliefs and ideas. Let’s push ourselves to doubt what others tell us, but most importantly, what we tell ourselves. In the magic night of the Seder, let’s go back to the times in which we weren’t afraid to ask childish questions. Let’s journey in time to that enchanted age when simple things amazed us.
Let’s go back to the richness that existed before our brains ossified into a bunker of false notions and unchallenged opinions. Let’s replace self-righteousness with childish curiosity, and let’s introduce dissonant tones in the bare uniformity of our echo chambers.
Let’s believe, like children, that everything is possible; that our story will indefectibly have a happy ending and that every question opens the gates of a joyful adventure of self-discovery.
Let’s be, for a day, like children. Not in vain when retelling the exodus, the prophet Hoseah said, “When Israel was a young child, then I loved him, and from Egypt I called out my child.”