What’s in a question?

Woody Allen once remarked that “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” At first glance it may seem as if his quote is an accurate assessment of the least participatory figure in the Haggadah, the child who does not know how to ask a question. Despite his silence, this child occupies a place of prominence in the Haggadah alongside that of the wise, wicked, and simple children. Throughout the centuries many illustrations have portrayed this child in a sympathetic light. He is often depicted as even simpler than the simple child, just trying to do his best. However, there is a something striking about the child who does not know how to ask. His silence is answered in the same way as the wicked child’s nefarious question. ““You shall tell your him on that day, ‘Because of this, God did this for me when I left Egypt.’” Like the wicked child, this answer excludes the one who does not how to ask from the miracles of the Exodus. But what did this child do to deserve such a harsh response?

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, suggests that this child’s lack of participation belies a much deeper problem. This is someone, he says, who may be successful, creative, and involved in a wide variety of domains. “But when it comes to Torah and mitzvot,” The Lubavitcher Rebbe writes, “somehow, suddenly there are no problems to solve. Why? Because he’s missing the spirit of life that gives a person the sensitivity that drives him to question. When it comes to his daily conduct, he’s actually quite religious—even very careful about Torah and mitzvot… [but] he is a person who doesn’t know how to question. Torah and mitzvot don’t move him—and therefore they elicit no questions.” The child who does not how to ask is given a harsh answer because, perhaps even more than the wicked child, he has removed himself from what is going on around him. His passive presence only serves to highlight his true lack of interest in what is occurring.

The Seder reminds us that the people and things that truly matter to us are the ones that elicit questions from us. In life, it is all too easy to just be present, to be like the child who does not know how to ask. But questions force us to engage on a deeper level. They demonstrate our concern for those around us and strengthen the bonds between people. The questions in the Haggadah should inspire us not just to ask more questions at the Seder table but in all aspects of our lives as well.

About the Author
Noah Leavitt has an MA in Jewish Philosophy from Yeshiva University. He received smicha from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.