Sunday, April 14, 2019

Shabbat HaGadol: Asking Questions

Asking Questions
Thoughts on Shabbat HaGadol 2019
Click here to view as PDF
And so, should your son ask you, “What is this service to you?” You shall say, “A Pesah sacrifice to God, who passed over the house of Bnei Yisrael in Egypt when He scourged Egypt and our households He rescued.” (Shemot 12:26-7)

And so, should your son ask you tomorrow, saying, “What is this?” You shall say to him, “By strength of hand God brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slaves…” (Shemot 13:14)

The missvah of telling the story of our exodus from Egypt, sippur yessiat Misrayim, lays focus on questions. Beginning with the four queries of mah nisthanah, the structure of leil seder takes form as one of “question and answer” (she-elah u-teshuvah). The heads of the household are furthermore encouraged to pique the children’s curiosity by encouraging them to engage in the central activity of the night – asking questions.[1]

Why do questions play such an important role in our national recollection of yessiat Misrayim?

Seeking the appropriate questions and framing them properly often provides the necessary segue to insight. Albert Einstein was reportedly once asked: “If you had an hour to save the world, how would you spend that hour?” He responded: “I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and then five minutes solving it.”[2] Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX similarly remarked: “A lot of times the question is harder than the answer. And if you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part.”[3]

Following my graduation from high school, I entered an elite yeshiva for Talmud study in Israel. Although I was confident in my general ability to understand rabbinic texts, I hoped to grow my skills in plumbing the depths of Talmudic discourse. I was confused by my rabbi’s opening sentence to the first shiur, when he told us simply, “My goal in this yeshiva is to teach you how to ask the right questions.” It was, however, over the course of my two years of carefully listening to his classes that I came to appreciate his statement. I discovered that the seeds to blossoming novel insights and interpretations are thoughtful questions.

R. Shemuel Yaakov Borenstein z”l suggested that the “question and answer” format of sippur yessiat Misrayim is in fact rooted in the exodus from Egypt itself. He explained that it was, perhaps, the “dark” and incomprehensible centuries of servitude in Egypt that laid the groundwork for the “lit-up” depth of perception of God and His ways that was experienced by Am Yisrael upon their departure.[4] We, too, relive the exodus by leading our seders along the similar route of mystifying questions that lead to revelation.

Indeed, the great kabbalist R. Moshe Cordevero z”l noted the ironic reality of how the concealment of a powerful light  is necessary for its revelation. “Though concealed, the light is actually revealed, for were it not concealed, it could not be revealed,” he wrote. The dazzle of the sun serves to conceals its overwhelming brilliance, as you cannot gaze at the it with the naked eye. “Yet when you conceal it – looking at it through screens – you can see and not be harmed.”[5]

Inspired by his own realization of this reality, the well-known British psychotherapist Wilfred Bion fashioned an approach that “casted a beam of intense darkness” into psychological analysis. He would first shroud the client’s issues in the darkness of obscurity and misunderstanding before endeavoring an insight of solution, which could then “glitter in the darkness.”[6]

In the word question there is a beautiful word – quest. I love that word.
(Elie Wiesel)[7]

The integral role of questions to sippur Yessiat Misrayim must serve as a paradigm for our approach to life in general. Living in constant anticipation of the “Eureka!” moment of insight or inspiration is futile. Courageously asking the questions that may precipitate discovery is ennobling.

[1] See Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, Hil. Hamess UMassah 7:3.
[2] Quoted by J, Daniel Couger, Creative Problem Solving and Opportunity (Danvers, MA, 1995), pg. 178.
[3] “Transcript of Elon Musk Interview: Iron Man, Growing Up in South Africa,” Fresh Dialogues, Feb, 7, 2013. <>. Cited by Hal Gregersen, Questions are the Answer (New York, NY, 2018), pg. 17.
[4] R. Shemuel Yaakov Borenstein, Haggadah shel Pesah Zot LeYaakov (Bnei Brak, IS, 2019), pg. 243.
[5] R. Moshe Cordevero, Pardes Rimonim 5:4. Translated into English by Daniel C. Matt, in The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism (New York, NY, 1995), pg. 91.
[6] See James Grotstein, A Beam of Intense Darkness: Wilfred Bion’s Legacy to Psychoanalysis (New York, NY, 2007).
[7] Quoted in Questions are the Answer, pg. 1.