Voices from the field
A Night to Remember: Pesach, Israel, and Good Questions
When our oldest son, Jonah, was three years old, we had a seder with 20 Northwestern University students crammed into our 3-bedroom apartment. Jonah was used to lots of attention from the students, as I was the rabbi at Hillel at the time, and he decided he wanted to sit toward the middle of the table while Natalie and I sat at the head.
Just after we said kiddush, Jonah interrupted and said loudly, “Abba, I notice something.”
“That’s great, Jonah. What did you notice?”
“Well, usually on Shabbat, after we say kiddush, we have challah. But tonight, we’re having matzah.”
My mind immediately called up the Talmudic story of Abaye, who noticed that things were different on the seder and said so. Rabbah, his teacher and adopted father, announced that, because Abaye had noticed something different and commented on it, he had exempted the seder participants from having to recite Mah Nishtanah, the Four Questions (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 115b).
So I told the students that, because Jonah had observed what was different about tonight, we really didn't need to say Mah Nishtanah. Nevertheless, we did, because who could imagine having a seder without reciting the Four Questions? Doing that would be like not singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh inning stretch.
This story highlights an important dimension of all education: In order to open ourselves up for learning, we have to first pry ourselves loose from the regular and everyday. We have to notice something different. And generally, that's the point of questions: to destabilize, to open space. The story of the Exodus itself begins this way: "Moses said, 'I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn't the bush burn up?'" (Exodus 3:3) Without Moses's noticing, without his asking a question, the rest of the story doesn't happen. Turning aside to look, and not simply accepting that things are what they seem at face value, or that the present and future must be like the past, that is the first miracle of the Exodus. Without questioning the present, we can't be open to dreams of the future. Freedom begins with asking questions.
In his recent Ideas Incubator workshop at the iCenter, Rabbi Mishael Zion, writer of A Night to Remember (along with his father, Noam Zion), invited us to reflect on how we use questions and stories in Jewish education. As Mishael pointed out, the ancient Rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud seemed to understand something about differentiated learning, designing the Haggadah in such a way that everyone from the youngest children to teens to adults would be able to notice something different and ask about it. The youngest can notice the different foods and customs, or play the hide-and-seek game of the Afikomen. Teens can engage with the stories: of their ancient ancestors, and of their more recent ones. And adults can move to the more abstract level of midrash, finding meaning in the links between words, stories, and concepts.
Art can sometimes open windows where text cannot, particularly when we ask questions like, "What do you see? What do you notice? And what do you think the artwork is trying to say?" Pesach is the moment to tell the Jewish people's enduring story, and to invite ourselves and our children to write their own chapter in it. That storytelling begins with asking good questions, and by making the space for questions to be asked.
View the Educator's Backpack about the Four Sons inspired by R. Zion's haggadah