The answer may depend on the questioner - not just the question.
Wanting to know
News travelled quickly last week of the death of someone I grew up with. People asked on FaceBook, “what did he die of”.
It took me back fourteen years to the death of my daughter Elena. People asked us that all the time. Sometimes I told them, sometimes I didn’t.
The question that became harder for Kim and me to answer was the casual question from someone who met us years later and didn’t know us or know anything about us.
We’d be at a school event, or will have just mentioned our eldest daughter Maggie, or were just getting to know the person and they’d ask, “how many children do you have.”
Kim and I talked about that a lot.
How do you answer?
If we answer “two” then inevitably the fact that Elena died would come up and then that becomes the focus of the conversation or the end of the conversation.
If we answer “one” are we denying Elena’s life somehow?
Kim and I independently came to the same conclusion: it depended on who was asking and our relationship or expected relationship with that person.
The four children
During Passover the youngest child asks the four questions. But that is followed by an analysis of questions asked by four different children.
The wise child has done the work and refers to specific things they have considered and asks specific questions about them. We are instructed to teach this child everything they want to know.
The wicked child removes themself from the situation. In the midst of a story about their peoples’ history as slaves this child asks “What does this mean to you?” The text dwells on this that because this child removes themself from the community and the history there is little that can be done for them.
I have a pretty progressive Hagaddah but it says that you must make them feel uncomfortable and stress that this attitude is what keeps this child from being redeemed.
The third child is the simple child. The child cares and wants to understand but it doesn’t yet have the context.
The fourth child doesn’t even know how to ask the question.
I’ve always thought that the seder serves as the telling of the story in a way that these two begin to see what they need to know and do. That it is our job to help them mature to a point where they will become either a wise child or a wicked child.
When I used to teach, I taught mathematics and I taught teachers. I’ve seen at least a thousand different presenters over the years and so many of them try to be encouraging by saying, “there are no stupid questions.”
There are stupid questions.
There are inappropriate questions.
There are questions that don’t need to be asked.
There are questions that the questioner hasn’t earned the right to ask.
There are questions that are perfectly fine - but I’m just not able to answer you right now for any number of reasons.
“But Daniel,” you ask, “what does that have to do with what’s going on right now?”
If you do even a little work first to show that you are working on becoming the wise child, people will help you get there.
Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 11. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe