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One Who Does Not Know How to Ask

Every year, as we gather for the Pesach Seder, the description in the Haggadah of the “four sons” – the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask – captivates our attention. I confess that in my family, as in many others, there are parts of the Haggadah that we read through more quickly and other parts that attract greater interest and inspire fascinating conversation, analysis, and insight. In the section about the four sons, our focus typically gravitates towards the wise and the wicked, and lively discussions often ensue. This year, however, I would like to dwell on the silent figure – the one who does not know how to ask. Is his (or her) silence a reflection of inadequacy, or does it reveal shortcomings in our own understanding?

In the United States, April has been designated as Autism Awareness Month. President Biden wrote in his proclamation: “America was founded on the idea that all people are created equal and deserve to be treated equally throughout their lives.  Today, we champion the equal rights and dignity of the millions of Americans on the autism spectrum, and we celebrate the immense contributions of all neurodiverse people, whose perspectives and experiences make America a richer nation…” This proclamation underscores the foundational principle of equality. It beckons us to champion the rights and dignity of all, including the millions navigating the autism spectrum. Yet, amidst our advocacy, do we truly grasp the world through their lens?

According to the National Institute of Health, 25% of people with autism are non-verbal and 43% of people with autism have some form of communication disability.  Do we, the speaking public, have the ability to understand the “perspectives and experiences” of people who cannot communicate with us? Is it a coincidence that the word “dumb,” which technically describes someone who is unable to speak, is also the word used, at least in slang, to describe someone who is perceived to have inferior intelligence?

People with autism are not the only individuals who have a problem with communication. Aphasia is a language disorder that occurs when the brain’s language-dominant side is damaged, usually the left side. This damage can be caused by a stroke, head injury, brain tumor, or progressive neurological disease. Aphasia can impair a person’s ability to express and understand language, reading, and writing. My father was a brilliant man, an outstanding student of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and a scientist with a PhD in experimental physics. He spent most of his non-work time learning and reading. Near the end of his life, he suffered with many mini and not so mini strokes that affected his speech center. He was terribly frustrated that he could not express his thoughts clearly, and he sometimes referred to himself as dumb. His ability to think was not affected at all, just his ability to relate his thoughts.

Sometimes the reason for not being able to speak or understand others may not be due to a medical condition at all, but rather to difficulty conversing in a language that is not one’s mother tongue. For those of you who speak a little Hebrew but cannot keep up when Israelis are speaking at a pace at which you cannot listen and translate in your head quickly enough, or they use vocabulary  words or slang that you  do not know, do you become quiet, stay with your own thoughts in your own head, and avoid asking questions or offering anything meaningful to the conversation? Do you ever therefore feel “less than,” not intelligent, and perhaps ignored?

My son Yosef, navigating life with Autism Spectrum Disorder, encounters daily hurdles in expressing himself. Despite the fact that he is an adult, other people, though usually well-meaning, often patronize him and interact with him as they would with a small child due to his communication challenges. It sometimes requires patience to communicate with Yosef in a way that he can understand, and for him to then be able to respond appropriately takes him the same effort it would take any of us to respond in a language in which we are not fluent. It is sometimes just too much work for him and he thus prefers to ignore us, stay in his own head, and not contribute to the conversation or ask any questions. But that does not mean that he doesn’t have his own thoughts and feelings, despite certain gaps in his knowledge, and that he can’t understand anything if he can be made to work on it.

As humans, we value the spoken word and we equate excellent verbal skills with intelligence. This year, perhaps we can open our minds and our hearts to people who may not be able to express themselves well or perhaps not at all. The frustration of having thoughts and not being able to communicate them to the people around you must be extraordinary; tuning out, living in one’s own head and perhaps jumping up and down or waving one’s hands to get rid of that frustration is understandable and should not be construed as an inability to think or comprehend.

I believe that the Haggadah is instructing us not to ignore the person who is not asking. He may in fact have many questions inside that he simply cannot ask, and he will thus never initiate any conversation. We are therefore told to prompt him, to lead him by starting the discussion, and to treat him respectfully in a way that he can understand and ultimately be heard in his way as well.

About the Author
Beth S. (Bassie) Taubes, RN, CHC, CYT, is the owner of Wellness Motivations LLC in Teaneck. She is the director o f Community outreach for Ematai. She is the Rebbetzin of Congregation Zichron Mordechai in Teaneck
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