To ask or not to ask, that is the question. With apologies to Shakespeare, it’s a very real question.
Long ago, the Mishna, in Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot), taught: “The bashful will never learn.” If we are ever to learn and grow from our education, we must overcome our own self-consciousness and fear of asking the proverbial “stupid question.” As a colleague once told me, “The only stupid question is the one that doesn’t get asked.”
Passover is, of course, the season when, traditionally, rabbis are asked many questions.
I think it’s safe to say that the most famous of all Jewish questions is Ma Nishtana? —Why is this night different from all other nights? It even stumps that other famous seder question, “When do we eat?”
Timid, would-be questioners have been encouraged to ask and seek answers since the very beginning of our Jewish journey. The Talmud is replete with questions and answers. I wonder if there is a single page of the Talmud without the to-and-fro of questions and answers, challenges and rebuttals.
Thus, we have the Four Questions of the Haggadah and the Four Sons, only two of whom articulate serious questions—the Wise and the Wicked Sons. Interestingly, their questions seem remarkably similar.
The Wise Son asks, “What are these testimonies, statutes and laws that the Lord our God has commanded you?”
The Wicked Son asks, “What is this service of yours?”
Why is the Wise Son praised for his question and the Wicked Son denounced for his? They both seem to be asking the same question.
The answer is that the Wise Son is asking politely and respectfully: “Please explain. Tell me more. I want to know. I want to learn.” He refers to “the Lord our God,” meaning that he includes himself in the congregation. He is part of his people.
The Wicked Son does not speak about “our God” at all. In fact, by saying “yours” he is excluding himself from the community. His question is not a question at all. It is a brazen statement.
If we were to punctuate their words with English grammar, we would put a question mark after the Wise Son’s words and an exclamation point after the Wicked Son’s. While they might appear to be similar questions, they are diametric opposites. One is the humble question of a genuine searcher who seeks more knowledge than he currently possesses. The other is a brash and arrogant statement deriding his brothers’ and sisters’ commitment to God.
The Wicked Son declares categorically that he knows better and these religious old fools are wasting their time and energy on pursuing a theology of folly and fantasy: “What is the service of yours?!” Or, in other words, “What kind of nonsense are you wasting your time on?!’
It’s like the old story of the chazzan, the cantor, who insulted a congregant named Yankel in shul by calling him a gonif, a thief. The target of the insult promptly summoned the chazzan to the rabbi’s office.
When the rabbi heard what the chazzan did, he ordered him to go up to the bimah in shul and declare for all to hear: “Yankel is not a gonif!”
The chazzan duly followed the rabbi’s instructions and ascended the bimah. In a loud, cantorial voice, he proclaimed: “Yankel is not a gonif?!”
Poor Yankel was horrified and ran back to the rabbi, who immediately called the chazzan to appear before him.
“How could you do that?” he asked. “You must go back and announce for all to hear that ‘Yankel is not a goniff!’”
Whereupon the chazzan told the rabbi: “Rabbi, in matters of Jewish law you are the expert. But in matters of how to sing, I am the expert.”
The Wise and Wicked Sons seem to be asking almost identical questions. But their melodies are poles apart. They sing their questions very differently indeed. Whether we use a question mark or an exclamation point can make all the difference.
We have always been encouraged to ask questions, but we must ask with respect and humility. Otherwise, even if we get the answer, it will not be absorbed but simply go in one ear and out the other.
Answers abound. When we ask with a genuine desire to learn, we find all the answers we are looking for.
Chag kasher v’sameach!
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from Ktav.com and Amazon.