Rabbi Gila Caine: Knowing how to question

By Rabbi Gila Caine

Rabbi Gila Caine

(AJNews) – Why? is the most important three letter word in Jewish tradition. It is so unique that very often when people explain to me why they decided to join or reconnect with their Jewish heritage, it is because we know how to ask: why.

And the moment we celebrate the art of asking why, is on the Seder night, a ritual which was structured millenia ago specifically in order to teach our children and ourselves that being Jewish is being free, and being free is about knowing how to question.

The Pesach Haggadah has many editions and prints; it is probably the most wildly versatile Jewish text. But in case you don’t know it, I’d like to specifically recommend Noam Zion and David Dishon’s “The family participation Haggadah: A different night” (1997). On the cover page for this edition we find a wonderful question posed by Ira Steingroot: “The real question is not why do we keep Passover but how do we continue to keep Passover year after year and keep it from becoming stultified! How can we be privileged to plan it so that, as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook said, the old may become new and the new may become holy.”

Here is the question of questions: how do we make the old new (and so enable ourselves to reconnect to our roots and ancestors) but at the same time, create a newness which is sacred?

The Seder wants to teach us how to overcome two fears – the fear from tradition and rules, but also the fear of renewal and doubt. It reminds us that one of the great gifts we are given as Jews is the ability to live at once in both places – in the old which becomes new, and in the new which turns sacred.

But in order for that to happen, we are taught, we must learn how to ask questions, because the art of asking takes practice and is very complex.

Much of the society in which we live today professes to know about questioning, but for the most part, doesn’t do a very good job at it and questioning is either forbidden or used as a weapon. Just look at the complete break-down in social discourse around the Covid-19 pandemic, and ask yourselves – do we still know how to ask questions in a constructive way?

The Passover Haggadah teaches us that asking questions is sacred work, but it also reminds us that not all questioning is sacred or useful, and that we need to be cognizant of our inner intention when asking. The preliminary question I need to ask before asking “Why,” is why am I asking a question? Sorry, that was a confusing sentence. But it is also a confusing feeling, and one we need to get used to noticing in ourselves. The feeling of questioning ourselves, our beliefs and our ideas.

You’ll notice in the Haggadah that just before going into the story of our ancestors, we have a short interlude known as “The four sons/children,” and you might recall they are: Chacham (smart), Rasha (wicked), Tam (simple child) and She’eino yodeia lish’ol (the one who doesn’t know how to ask). Each one of them personifies a way of being in the world of questions – on this night, but in our daily life as well. It asks us to ask questions, but wisely and to promote connection and kindness in the world (hint: this is the wise child), and not in order to foment deconstruction and hate between people (sadly, the wicked child). To be clear, all “four children” exist within each of us and represent our reaction to reality, and we need to learn how to recognize them in our behavior.

If I go back to the quote by Rabbi Kook, I think our biggest challenge now is how to make “the old become new and the new become holy.” How do we choose our words and questions to uphold and reconnect to our past, with love and respect? And how do we create a newness that is sacred, that truly helps us sanctify our lives and our connection to the lives of those around us?

I wish all of you with your families a night of delightful questions, of deep questioning and of full and compassionate listening to each other.

May we, with all of Am Yisrael, have a happy and kosher Pesach.

Rabbi Gila Caine is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Ora in Edmonton.

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