An unusual Buddhist-Jewish dialogue took place inSeptember 1989, when the Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, metwith a group of six Jewish leaders. The Dalai Lama requested themeeting, not because of an academic interest but, rather, because ofa practical need. He wanted to learn the Jewish “secret technique”for survival. “We always talk of Jewish people scattered in so manycountries, speaking so many languages, yet the Jews keep theirtraditions. It’s something remarkable,” he said.
Faced with the Buddhist challenge, the Jewishleaders debated what constitutes our secret survival technique. Amongthe numerous answers offered, the one that caught everyone’s fancystated that Jews survive because they know how to argue.Historically, the Jew could defend his faith because he was trainedto inquire, to probe, to question.
That answer seems particularly apropos, assurvival, once again, is high on our agenda. Indeed, how successfulis modern Jewish education in training our young to ask probing,life-sustaining questions? And what better time to raise this issuethan Passover, which focuses on both education and questions — theMa Nishtana, the four questions of seder fame? As everyone knows,youngsters in Jewish schools throughout the world learn to recite thequestions letter-perfect. Some children even learn them in more thanone language, dazzling their audiences with their multilingualtalents.
But does learning to parrot the questions in theHaggadah provide our children with survival techniques? At least onegreat medieval sage thought it did not. According to Maimonides (Lawsof Chametz and Matzah 8:2), when it comes time for the Ma Nishtana,”the son asks his own questions, and the reader says, ‘Ma Nishtana.'”A revolutionary idea. No more parroting of questions, and no morelittle children asking the Ma Nishtana. Rather, a free flow of ideastakes place. Maimonides thus advocates stimulating our children toprobe rather than programming them to parrot. Let them observe forthemselves why this right is different, and let them inquire in theirown way, creating their own set of questions. The seder is a time forquestions, for only those who question will find answers.
From this vantage point, we can now understand whyMaimonides insists that the seder leader recite the formal MaNishtana. He appreciated that the role of a good educator is to teachhis students to question. In order to achieve this goal, the teachermust first demonstrate the value of questioning, and what better waythan by asking questions himself?
But the teacher can’t stop there. He must teachhis students how to question, and the Ma Nishtana serves that purposeas well. Precision inquiry and intuitive thinking are present inthese four questions. They note all phenomena at the seder, and theyobserve all changes in behavior that deserve analysis.
On seder night, we all become teachers, and it isour responsibility to ignite our children’s imaginations. We willcommit a grave injustice to our children if all that we expect anddemand of Passover is a rote recitation of the Ma Nishtana.
Let us not waste the opportunity, and let us teachour youngsters that Judaism is only appreciated by those whoformulate their own questions and search for proper answers.
Rabbi Elazar Muskin is spiritual leader ofYoung Israel of Century City.