For Jews around the world, Passover—which was celebrated last week—is a joyful spring holiday that commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. It is a time when families gather together to enjoy their common heritage, share a festive meal and re-tell the tale of the Exodus, when Jews were led by Moses on a 40-year trek through the desert to freedom.
There are only about 15 million Jews in the world today, less than one-quarter of one percent of the world’s population. But, even so, Jews have had a profound effect on almost every field of human endeavor. In the 20th and 21st centuries, one-fifth of all Nobel laureates have been Jewish, far more than any other minority. In only 67 years of existence, Israel ranks among the top 25 economies of the world and is considered within the top 11 militaries in the world.
Why so much brain power, initiative, and determination from such a small group of people? Maybe the answer goes way back in time—to the very beginning—to the birth of the Jews as a people and to the meaning of Passover itself.
Today, more Jews attend a Passover Seder than fast on Yom Kippur (the sacred Day of Atonement), making it the most celebrated of all Jewish holidays. With such a large participation and, for many Jews, one of their only tangible connections to Judaism throughout the year, it becomes a unique opportunity to share the wisdom of the ages and to pass it on to future generations.
So, what has the Torah instructed Jews to do on this remarkable night? Talk about how important it is to believe in God? Attend synagogue? Live a highly-disciplined life?
No! On this night, with all ears listening, the Haggadah (the text that sets forth the order and serves as a guide for the Passover Seder) teaches about the importance of asking questions. And, most importantly, that Passover should be filled with questions instead of answers - a radical departure from traditional religious ritual. Why is this night of Passover different from all other nights? Because this night is designed to provoke questions, lots of them.
For so many, religion is a way to seek clarity, find approval and receive comfort. And, questioning religion can be unsettling and challenging. But, on Passover, a question is much more valuable than an answer. Questions teach us to explore, to discover, to engage each other in dialogue; to argue, to debate. Ultimately, questioning presents us with an opportunity to seek compromise and agreement; to learn from each other; and to find solace in making a meaningful social connection.
On Passover, the youngest child recites the four questions, starting with, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Then, the adults are challenged to answer. A child’s first Passover memories are of questioning and debating, instead of dogma and compliance. Generations of Jews have instilled this value in their children and, as a people, have profited considerably.
Most don’t really realize that the Torah is, essentially, a book of questions. Its pages are filled with phrases like, “From where do we derive these things? What does it teach us?” And, most importantly, “What is the reason for this?”
I believe (and most of you, knowing me, will agree) that nothing can be learned if not challenged, even if it means arguing some in the process. On Passover, Jews around the world celebrate the experience of going from slavery to freedom by drinking wine and eating a wonderful meal. But, the utmost expression of freedom on this night is the asking of important questions. Questioning is the first step to freedom.