The four questions revisited: Affirmation, agitation, acceptance or alienation?

Reciting the Ma Nishtana is really an exercise in self-reflection, encouraging us to look into what drives our experience in the Jewish community.
The Four Questions (Ma Nishtana) in the historic Sarajevo Haggadah. Source: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons
The Four Questions (Ma Nishtana) in the historic Sarajevo Haggadah. Source: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

The four questions that we ask in our micro-communities at Passover Seder trigger a more significant question: what motivates us to question the Jewish community? In any context, we embed our motives for asking questions. Regardless of the setting, some questions reflect our curiosity about a novel idea or experience, others our interest in diving deeper into a familiar topic, and still others are excuses for showcasing our expertise by asking questions that we know others can’t answer. So, let’s revisit the four questions in the Haggadah with the hope of becoming self-aware of our embedded intentions in questioning the value of the Jewish community.

The four children or personality types in the Haggadah are described as smart – chacham, sassy – rasha, simple –tam, and silent – sh’eno yodeah l’shol. Their decision to question (or not) opens a window into their relationship with the Jewish community. As the Haggadah editor’s portrayed them, the smart (chacham) person seeks affirmation, the sassy (rasha) individual agitation, the simple (tam) person acceptance, and the silent (sh’eno yodeah lishol) individual, alienation.

Smart/chacham: These individuals are the community insiders who want affirmation from the establishment. That’s clear from how we’re instructed to answer them. Provide details, data, and documentation about Passover’s rituals! This approach works best with believers. Community leaders have deputized them as defenders and transmitters of traditions. A community that thrives into the future requires people who are rooted in the inherited teachings of its past. If they are also bold, they have abundant potential to adapt and innovate authentically in disruptive times.

Sassy/rasha: These kinds of people are foils to the chacham, the unquestioning guardians of the faith. They are agitators who provoke the establishment to look underneath the surface of religious behaviorism and examine bedrock belief. The rasha knows how to get the attention of community leaders with only one word – avodah, a brilliant double entendre! By asking the elders about the personal significance of the avodah – Pesach sacrifice, they also imply that sacrificial service is another form of avodah, slavish adherence to inherited norms. But let’s not dismiss the provocateurs so hastily. We need constructive agitators to keep the establishment honest. They slow down group think and help communities reach better decisions.

Simple/tam: These simple people agreeably take any side of an argument because they want to be universally accepted. They strategically ask a vague question, “What is this/mah zot,” with an unclear antecedent. Does “this” refer to this commandment, this seder, this story of Passover, this tradition? With an open-ended question, they’re welcome in any crowd as each group can respond to it as they wish. These simple ones are bridge-builders between polarized parts of the community. They think that it’s fine to break the middle matzah, but don’t dare sever the community by placing principles above people!

Silent/sh’eno yodeah lishol: These alienated individuals are the most disturbing. They were shut down by the community and have become disengaged. It’s likely that an establishment figure verbally hurt or judged them. Sometimes leaders do so intentionally, but they’re often unaware of how a word or gesture leaves a deep negative impression. Fortunately, another establishment figure perceived how the community damaged these silent types and wants to leave no child behind. So, this other leader tries to create safe openings for them to ask questions again (in the Haggadah’s words, “Open the conversation”) and re-engage with the community.

We need these four types of individuals in our community mix. Each child in the Haggadah asks a question or is coached to ask one. In good Jewish style, I suggest that we provide them with answers and more questions.

For the smart/chacham person: Will you listen to your feelings when you believe that the establishment isn’t always right?

For the sassy/rasha individual: Can you question the establishment empathetically so that it hears your issues and doesn’t angrily dismiss your frustrations?

For the simple/tam person: Have you examined what values you may have compromised in your desire to always fit in?

For the silent/sh’eno yodeah lishol individual: Will you reciprocate with openness and curiosity once you’re convinced that it’s safe to speak up?

This year, we will have one answer with many variations to the question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Our Seders will celebrate our connections with family and friends. Through our questions, we can also use them as a time for reflections on our relationship with the Jewish community. Next year, together in good health, in Yerushalayim!

About the Author
Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is a national thought leader, organizational consultant and author on the American Jewish community with a specialty in synagogue life. He is President & CEO of the Herring Consulting Network.
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