The Bitterest Child
The Art of Asking Questions
One of the more common trends in the last number of years of Pesach celebrations I have noticed is the desire to save the wicked child, of four children fame. To refresh your memory, here is what they say:
רָשָׁע מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מָה הָעֲבוֹדָה הַזּאֹת לָכֶם. לָכֶם – וְלֹא לוֹ. וּלְפִי שֶׁהוֹצִיא אֶת עַצְמוֹ מִן הַכְּלָל כָּפַר בְּעִקָּר. וְאַף אַתָּה הַקְהֵה אֶת שִׁנָּיו וֶאֱמוֹר לוֹ: "בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה' לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם". לִי וְלֹא־לוֹ. אִלּוּ הָיָה שָׁם, לֹא הָיָה נִגְאָל:
What does the evil [son] say? "'What is this worship to you?' (Exodus 12:26)" 'To you' and not 'to him.' And since he excluded himself from the collective, he denied a principle [of the Jewish faith]. And accordingly, you will blunt his teeth and say to him, "'For the sake of this, did the Lord do [this] for me in my going out of Egypt' (Exodus 13:8)." 'For me' and not 'for him.' If he had been there, he would not have been saved.
Many things jump out that push us to want to save this child. They feel excluded? Let’s bring them in. They denied a principle of the Jewish faith? Who among us hasn’t?! They get their teeth blunted? Seems harsh! After all, they still showed up.
As much as the wicked child might need saving, I came across a different teaching this year that speaks to a different child being the saddest. That child is the “one that doesn’t know how to ask.”
וְשֶׁאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ לִשְׁאוֹל – אַתְּ פְּתַח לוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר, בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה' לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם.
And [regarding] the one who doesn't know to ask, you will open [the conversation] for him. As it is stated (Exodus 13:8), "And you will speak to your son on that day saying, for the sake of this, did the Lord do [this] for me in my going out of Egypt."
At face value, it doesn’t seem so bad. There’s no punitive measure involved. This child doesn’t separate themselves. So, what could be so bad?
The Sfat Emet1 shares the following powerful thought:
ושאינו יודע לשאול הוא בגלות המר שא"י כלל איך לפתוח הלב וע"ז נאמר את פתח לו
And the one who does not know how to ask is in the bitterest exile, for he has no idea at all how to open his mind. And regarding this, it says "you open it for him" (At p'tah lo).
On a night that is built upon questioning in a religion that is named after struggling with God, to not be able to formulate questions is akin to being in exile. The more I thought about it, the more it resonated.
Think about the power of questioning in your own life. It can guide monumental life decisions. It can create new opportunities. It can steer us away from damage. It can lead us from a defensive posture into an open one.
Questions are how we learn, grow, and connect with others. But at some point we stop asking them. Or, we ask them for the wrong reasons.
But we can learn a lot from children on this because children are the best question askers we know. Studies have shown that children’s questions come from a place of deep curiosity and help develop their cognitive abilities. The unique 30-year project, called the Fullerton Longitudinal Study, found that, independent of IQ, kids who were especially curious and enjoyed learning scored higher on standardized tests, were more likely to stay in school, and were more likely to go to graduate school than their less curious peers.
So to not know how to ask is a unique form of exile. It does strike me then as the bitterest of the four children and maybe the one that needs more saving than the wicked. One possible answer is one that we learn from the Haggadah itself:
At p'tah lo- אַתְּ פְּתַח לוֹ
Open it up
Model it for them. We do that at the seder but I think we can do it more in life too, for others and for ourselves. After all, if we all have remnants of our inner child constantly screaming out for attention, there also must be the child within us that doesn’t know how to ask.
The root of that word “open” when used in the reflexive form means to develop. To give someone the gift of learning the art of asking questions is an opportunity for meaningful development.
The art of the right question is any question that enlivens you, comes from a place of honest curiosity, and, as journalist Warren Berger notes, helps you to organize your thinking around what you don’t know. Be radically curious about the things and people around you. In doing so, we open up ourselves and offer others the chance to open themselves.
Sending wishes for a joyous and redemptive Passover!
The Gerrer Rebbe