The Necessity of Asking Questions

Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)


It is no accident that parshat Bo, 

the section that deals with the culminating plagues and the exodus, 

should turn three times to the subject of 

children and the duty of parents to educate them. 

As Jews we believe that 

to defend a country you need an army, 


to defend a civilisation, 

you need education. 

Freedom is lost when it is taken for granted. 


parents hand on their memories and ideals to the next generation the story of 

how they won their freedom and the battles they had to fight along the way 

What is fascinating, is the way the Torah emphasizes the fact that: children must ask questions. 

Two of the three passages in our parsha speak of this:

And when your children ask you, 'What does this ceremony mean to you?' 

then tell them, 

" It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.'" (Ex. 12:26-27)

In days to come, 

when your son asks you, 

" What does this mean? "

say to him, 

" With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. (Ex. 13:14) "

There is another passage later in the Torah that also speaks of question asked by a child:

In the future, 

when your son asks you,

" What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?"

 tell him: 

"We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. (Deut. 6:20-21)

The other passage in today's parsha, the only one that does not mention a question, is:

On that day tell your Son, 

" I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt." (Ex. 13:8)

These four passages have become famous in the Haggadah on Pesach.

They are the four children: 

one wise, 

one wicked or rebellious, 

one simple


" one who does not know how to ask." 

Reading them together the sages came to the conclusion that children should ask questions,  

the Pesach narrative must be constructed in response to, 

and begin with, questions asked by a child, 

It is the duty of a parent to encourage his or her children to ask questions, and the child who does not yet know how to ask should be taught to ask.

There is nothing natural about this at all. 

Most traditional cultures see it as the task of a parent or teacher to instruct, guide or command. 

It is a religious duty to teach our children to ask questions. 

That is how they grow.

Judaism is the rarest of phenomena: a faith based on asking questions, 

In the yeshiva, I remember we were already asking a lot's of questions and I remember my teacher would say,

" You right! You 100 prozent right! Now I show you where you wrong."

Judaism is not a religion of blind obedience. Indeed, astonishingly in a religion of 613 commandments, 

there is no Hebrew word that means: "to obey."

When Hebrew was revived as a living language in the nineteenth century, and there was need for a verb meaning "to obey," it had to be borrowed from the Aramaic: le-tsayet. Instead of a word meaning "to obey," the Torah uses the verb shema, untranslatable into English because it means:

to listen, 

to hear, 

to understand, 

to internalise, 

and to respond. 

our highest duty is to seek to understand the will of God, not just to obey blindly. 

The one essential, though, is to know and to teach this to our children, that not every question has an answer we can immediately understand. There are ideas we will only fully comprehend through age and experience, others that take great intellectual preparation, yet others that may be beyond our collective comprehension at this stage of the human quest. 

In teaching its children to ask and keep asking, Judaism honoured what Maimonides called the 

" active intellect "

and saw it as the gift of God. 

No faith has honoured human intelligence more.