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Question Marks

March 28, 2017

Published in The Times of Israel, March 28, 2017

by Dasee Berkowitz

I can ask my kids the most uninspiring questions. “How was school today?” is the classic one, which usually elicits the most tepid of responses: “Good.” Or this morning’s, “Why did you take so much cereal when you never finish it!?” Then, there’s this one, when things were getting really dicey around 7:30 a.m. and we are going to be late for school: “Do you really think shorts are a good idea when it is raining outside?” And on and on.

While I like to think of myself as a soulful kind of person, who has the ability to cultivate deep “presence” and a usual interest in other people’s lives, I find that in the hustle and bustle of family life, it is sometimes hard for me to access that soulful side, especially with my kids.

When we were in the throes of Passover preparation, when questions, and questioning was at the heart of the Seder experience, I was thinking more about the role of questions in my family life. As I heard Torah scholar, Avivah Zornberg once say, (I’m paraphrasing here) to question is at the heart of being free. Questions open up possibilities. Too many answers close them down and can enslave us.

It’s no accident that there are so many questions in a story that retells the liberation of an entire people (the classic four, and then the four children and their questions.) Slaves don’t ask questions, they aren’t allowed to. They are given lots of answers. Questions open up worlds and reflect a curious spirit. This is the work of free people. Answers have their role to play. They create a sense of safety, secure boundaries, but too many questions can be stifling and limiting, and can sound like, “This is how it is!” Answers don’t give room for doubt that comes with asking, “Maybe there’s a better way?”

In my family, do I ask open, life-giving, possibility enhancing questions, or closed and narrow ones (does it sound like I might already have a very clear answer in mind?) Um, the answer to that question is “yes,” I fear.

I want to really think about what are the kinds of questions I am asking my children this season. Krista Tippet says, “Questions elicit answers in their likeness. Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet.” When I ask a lazy question to my son (“How was school today?”), I get a lazy response (“Good”). I could have put a bit more effort into that question, even remembering a detail (any detail!) about his day and how things are going with his friends. When I question my daughter about her wardrobe choices (“Really, are you wearing that?”), a combative answer (“Yes, okay!?”) is her only option.

The beautiful thing about questions is that, by nature, they require a relationship. When asked, we expect someone to answer. The kinds of questions I ask my kids will indicate the kind of relationship I will want to have with them.

But questions and questioning is a two-way street. Beyond the simple information-seeking kind that children ask their parents (like, “are we there yet?”), there are also bigger and more profound ones that invite bigger and more profound answers from the parental unit. Questions, like, “why do we always invite those friends over?” help us open up conversations with them about the meaning of friendship. “Why do you believe in God and pray to something that’s not really there?” enables us to understand why they would prefer to play outside rather than sit next to us in synagogue and invites me to share with them how prayer nourishes us.

Ours aren’t the first children to ask their parents questions. The Haggadah’s four children ask plenty of questions too; the wise, the wicked, the simple and the one who does not know how to ask. While much ink has been spilled on the meaning of these four “archetypical” children, I’m interested in what came before them asking those particular questions. How did their parents set the stage for them to engage with the story of the Jewish people’s liberation from Egypt at all? What does it indicate about how their parents related to them?

There are two beautiful ways of reading the four children that Michael Kagan writes in his book, The Holistic Haggadah (Urim, 2004). One is developmental and the second is spiritual. The one who doesn’t know how to ask is the pre-verbal baby. Passover to her is a sensory experience — what she sees, hears, smells and tastes. It has little to do with the words she speaks or the questions she formulates. The simple child is the youngster, a toddler perhaps. She asks only the most basic and simple questions. The rebellious child is the teenager. She pushes back against her family’s boundaries and traditions as a way to define her own boundaries and sense of self. And the wise one is the oldest. She has gained wisdom and understanding. And her parents relate to her as one worthy of a place of prominence. She is the first to ask, and she is given the most detailed answer.

But maybe, as Kagan writes, we should look at these children (and our own) through a spiritual lens instead. Maybe a higher way of relating to them and to the questions they ask is to move from the intellectual realm (where we give them precise direction to the questions they ask) to simply being in their presence, the way we are with a child who does not know how to ask.

What would happen during this Passover season, if we shifted our relationship with our children from making conversation, or being in ‘question and answer mode’, and return to what the simple child teaches us — the power of asking simple, deep, and profound questions?

If we have a child who is unhappy in school, asking simply, “What is one thing that made you smile today?” Or when you are out for a walk with your child ask, “What do you see here that is beautiful?” When you are kissing them goodnight ask them, “What does love feel like?”

And if questions like these are hard for you to ask (like they sometimes are for me) then ask yourself, this: what is holding you back? Fear of being dismissed? Eye-rolling? An unsatisfying answer? It takes a certain kind of courage and presence to ask a different kind of question.

Passover is the holiday of courageous questions. Let this Passover provide us that invitation.