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Good Question

01/18/2024 01:22:05 PM


A child once asked me, “what makes the wind blow?” My initial reaction was, “I don’t know, ask a meteorologist.” But the truth is, I knew more than I initially thought. Surely there isn’t some giant at the end of the earth that inhales and exhales causing the air currents of the world. Rather, it clearly must be a complicated system of temperature changes at different altitudes in our atmosphere that interact with one another and cause air to be displaced from one place of pressure to the other, which we experience as wind. Clearly. Yet, the experience stuck with me not only because this young child asked such a profound question, but also because it made me begin to wonder about how we transfer knowledge and information to the next generation. When a child asks a good question, do we give them a good answer? Do we help them research their answer and foster their curiosity? Moreover, how does their question generate our own personal questions? And what new things have we yet to learn and explore? These questions are foundational questions for teachers. After all, a teacher’s pedagogy ought to focus on the learner’s interests and curiosities and teach them how to access and uncover the answers they seek in a relevant way. Incidentally, our Torah portion agrees. 

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Bo, we get the final plagues of Egypt and the departure of the Israelites from Egypt. Right after the Torah relates that the Israelites fled Egypt with their unleavened bread, the Torah begins to explore what future Passovers will look like – mainly that the Israelites will be required to annually offer a pascal lamb on this date and eat Matzah for the week. But the Torah also explores how the Israelites ought to talk to their children about the Exodus.

“And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I went free from Egypt.” (Exodus 13:8)

“And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’ The people then bowed low in homage.” (Exodus 12:26-27)

“And when, in time to come, your child asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall reply, ‘It was with a mighty hand that the LORD brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.” (Exodus 13:14)

You might recognize these as three of the four questions, and answers of the four sons at the Passover Seder (the fourth is from Deuteronomy). All of these scripts introduce to parents that they have an obligation to talk about the Passover Exodus with our children. And as our tradition elaborates, the answer we give to each child depends on their ability and interest. When we think about this foundational moment in the development of the Jewish people, how appropriate to also consider how we relate our understanding of this moment to the next generation. Do we have a clear enough understanding for ourselves that we can in turn communicate to others?

Many of us might not be meteorological experts, despite the amount of time we watch weather radars and mind winter advisory reports. We might not even be experts in the Exodus of Egypt nor the core values and beliefs of our Jewish tradition. Yet, our tradition teaches us that we ought to consider what knowledge we already have and what we have yet to learn. Knowing that there are different levels of understanding, our tradition suggests that sometimes we just need to find the right question. And if we are a people of questions, then surely, we can be a people of learning and knowledge.  Moreover, if we can be a people of learning, then we can help create another generation of learners as well – as we stoke the fires of their curiosity, and expand our own knowledge on any given subject.

Shabbat Shalom

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784