Amidst a flurry of early morning questions from my then three year old daughter a few years ago, one particular query stuck out for its comic strangeness and cuteness – does Hashem wear pyjamas? I smiled and admitted ignorance of the answer.
God is very real for young children, and given their natural curiosity about the world they ask some amazing questions about God’s nature which most adults could never think of asking. In a cafe in Yerushalayim more than a decade ago, my cousin, then aged about five, abruptly changed the topic of conversation from football to asking me in Hebrew: Joe, how do we know that we aren’t simply images in God’s dream? By the time I had picked my jaw off the table, he had returned the conversation to football.
And just a few weeks before Purim this year, in a COVID-era version of the above conversation, my youngest daughter, herself now three, asked me as we walked with our faces covered on the way to school, Abba, does Hashem wear a mask?
In this piece I would like to offer a reflection on how children’s questions are not simply moments of cherished cuteness and nahas for parents, but actually serve to nudge adults into themselves asking questions of deep meaning and significance. Moreover, this mostly unconscious or unacknowledged relationship of children inspiring parents, while true the whole year round, reaches its pinnacle on Seder night.
Children stand at the center of the Seder. In what will go on to be developed into the Midrash of the four sons, the Torah foresees a child’s question regarding the Exodus and instructs the parents to respond appropriately:
And when, in time to come, your son asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘It was with a mighty hand that the LORD brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.’ (Exodus 13:14)
Following this vein, the Rambam makes the centrality of children and questioning at the Seder abundantly clear:
On the first night of Pesaḥ, one should introduce some change at the table, so that the children who will notice it may ask, saying: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” And he in turn will reply: “This is what happened.” In what manner, for example, should he introduce a change? He may distribute parched grain or nuts to the children; remove the table from its usual place; snatch the unleavened bread from hand to hand, and so on. If he has no son, his wife should ask the questions; if he has no wife, they should ask one another: “Why is this night different?”—even if they are all scholars. If one is alone, he should ask himself: “Why is this night different?” (Hilkhot Hametz U-Matzah 7:3)
Indeed, anyone who has grown up attending sedarim every Pesah would affirm that children are at the heart of the Seder. Through encouraging their questions the adults are able to give the children a sense of the great story and history of which they are a part.
And yet I think this conceptualization gets it the wrong way round. Children are not simply the intended recipients of the Seder night’s messages. They themselves – without realizing it – are also the educators of Pesah. Children play a critical role in allowing the adults present at the Seder to themselves ask profound questions and unlock the deeper meanings of yetziat mitzrayim.
An especially profound example of the ability of children to shock adults out of a default non-questioning state appears in an interview with the Israeli musician Erez Lev Ari, who is best known for the soundtrack to Srugim. Asked in a newspaper interview whether he felt watched over by God, he responded:
Completely… I genuinely know it and I even have examples. For instance, if there’s an issue that’s bothering me, suddenly I come upon a scene in a film or happened to have a conversation that I feel Hashem is sending me. Two years ago my son, Nehorai, was sitting in his room, and in the middle of a game asked me nonchalantly, ‘tell me Abba, do you love me?’. I said to him, ‘what do you mean, do I love you? I love you more than I love myself!’ And then he said to me ‘but do you even love yourself?’. A child doesn’t have awareness, he hasn’t read books of Rebbi Nahman, but something spoke through him, as if someone wanted to ask me this question. That’s what I’m talking about. If you’re waiting for the Holy One to descend in his glory and speak to you, you’ve got hutzpah. But if you make some space you can hear his answer to you through different channels. When you don’t believe, and everything for you is chance, you won’t see it.
But do you love yourself? A simple question for a child perhaps but a deeply provocative question for an adult who may devote much time to not asking himself this uncomfortable but deeply necessary question. It may have been the child who had the question but it was the adult who needed to hear it.
Many of us adults have perfected the art of not asking questions of ourselves. Arguably it is the night of the Seder more than any other whose aim is to bring us into a more childlike state of curiosity. A strong clue to this theme lies in the figure of Elijah the prophet.
Elijah is a surprising character to assume such a prominent role on Seder night. Although having nothing to do with the Pesah story directly – having lived many centuries after the Exodus – he features more prominently in the Haggadah than Moshe himself. A clue as to why the fiery prophet merits such inclusion may lie in a moment at the heart of one of the famous Biblical stories in I Kings Chapter 18.
During the reign of King Ahav, Israelite society was awash with the foreign deities of Ba’al, imported from Sidon by Ahav’s wife Izevel. The people question whether they should follow the old religion of the Torah or the new foreign gods. Or perhaps they can have it both ways, worshiping them all? Elijah summons the prophets of Ba’al to a showdown at Mount Carmel to answer definitively once and for all the question of who is the true god. But before he deals with the Ba’al he turns to the people themselves who have gathered to watch the spectacle:
Elijah approached all the people and said, “How long will you keep hopping between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; and if Ba’al, follow him!” But the people answered him not a word. (I Kings, 18:21)
The people have no answer to the question Eliyahu forces them to confront.
An ancient tradition holds that the phrase “teiku” – used by the Talmud to signify that a debate is unresolved (and the modern Hebrew word for a draw) – is an acronym for “Tishbi Yitaretz Kushyot Ve-ba’ayot,” the Tishbite (Elijah) will answer questions and difficulties.
What about when there is no question? The Gemara in Yevamot 102a states:
Said Rav, ‘were Elijah to come and tell us that the halitzah ceremony is performed with a shoe– we would listen to him. But if he were to say that it cannot be performed with a sandal we would not listen to him, for the people have already established the custom in a certain manner.’
According to Rav there are two sorts of issues and we might add that there are perhaps two sorts of people. Those who are open to questions and those who are not. Those who feel curiousity or doubt about life’s questions and their choices and those who are confident that they have the answers to everything.
The people at Har Carmel were torn between the Ba’al and God. For all their faults they still had a question which Elijah forced them to confront. But if one harbors no doubts whatsoever and has no need for a question – apparently as was the consensus regarding halitzah using a sandal – then even the appearance of Elijah in all his fiery glory would have no impact.
The challenge of Seder night is to move us from being people without questions to those with questions. It is children who teach the adults to ask questions and it is they who open the door to Elijah helping their elders to find an answer.
Perhaps the figure of Elijah and this particular message contains an alternative suggestion as to why Pesah is called Pesah. As we saw above, Elijah confronts the people at Har Carmel:
?עַד מָתַי אַתֶּם פֹּסְחִים עַל שְׁתֵּי הַסְּעִפִּים
How long will you keep hopping – poshim – between the two options?
Poshim – skipping, hopping, oscillating, wavering. It was not only God who skips over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt. It is also in our own nature, to skip, hop, oscillate and waver between different choices. Elijah forces us to confront the questions we wish to ignore.
There is one person in the Haggadah who does not know how to ask a question. One person for whom – following the Gemara in Yevamot cited above – the arrival of Elijah would have no impact whatsoever. It is one of the four sons, the she-aino yode’a lishol – the one who doesn’t know how to ask. Many illustrated versions of the Haggadah depict the one who does not know how to ask as a small child in contrast to the older ones who have had the time to become wise or wicked. Yet this representation doesn’t quite accord with reality. My daughters and every other small child I know are excellent at asking questions. In fact, as noted earlier, at times they can do it far better than many adults. As Rav Elyakim Krumbein writes, the one who does not know how to ask is far more likely to in fact be the adult who believes they have everything worked out:
It appears that the greatest educational effort of the Haggadah is directed towards the child who does not know how to ask. Great thought was expended by the Sages and by those who came after them to properly fulfill the mitzvah of “You initiate him.” There is no indication whatsoever that this child is mentally deficient or intellectually lacking. His only limitation is that he does not know how to ask, he is afraid of admitting that everything is so incomprehensible. On the contrary, it is precisely the intellectually gifted who are likely to suffer from this deficiency. Those Seder rituals that are uncommon and even seem strange provide a significant allusion to our existential state in this world. Their goal is to bring each one of us to recognize the boundaries of our understanding, and to deeply desire to transcend those limitations by posing the question.
The she-aino yode’a lishol is not a child. The she-aino yode’a lishol is the adult who believes that he or she knows it all and has everything figured out, such that there is no need for questions. Their inability to ask is directly related to the question of insecurity. Because to formulate a question implies that he or she might not in fact have everything as sorted out as they would like to think.
Seder night encourages children to ask questions so that they can discover the depth, power, and meaning of the story of their ancestors’ slavery and liberation. Far less noticed but just as powerful is the role children play in shaking adults from their complacency. Unbeknownst to these young children they are also the educators on Seder night teaching the adults who have forgotten-how-to-ask the importance of questions.
As children learn the lessons their elders wish to teach them, Pesah allows grownups to appreciate the magic of our people’s story by being inspired by the wonder and curiosity that children show to us everyday.
And if you’re still wondering about the original question, my daughter Mika went on to answer her own doubt. Yes I think Hashem does have pyjamas – they are blue and white striped and have green dinosaurs on them.