A rabbi probes the truth behind the child who does not know how to ask

My Passover column last year featured a translation of my teacher Rabbi Lior Engelman’s thoughts on the Wicked Child. Here is what Rabbi Engelman has to say about the last of the Seder’s four sons, the one who doesn’t know how to ask.

A child made to order

Nothing tops a child who doesn’t know how to ask. We’re speaking about the easiest kid in the world: he sticks to the tried and true, he doesn’t question or challenge, he doesn’t cause trouble, and he is not chutzpadik (impertinent). A child made to order. He’s far from the wicked son who scornfully asks “what is this worship of yours?” And unlike the simple son, he doesn’t even ask “what’s this?” He’s just a shy, good boy blessed with good manners. Not for nothing is he beloved by parents and teachers.

How pleasant to raise a child like this, how easy it is to bask in the illusion that his lack of questions means that there really aren’t any problems. How tempting to then become a parent who doesn’t know how to ask, who doesn’t stir up trouble by wondering why their child doesn’t ask any questions.

Fear of the absence of answers

It’s frightening to ask! A child might think to himself: “Maybe if I do get up the courage to ask questions that are really bothering me, maybe it will become apparent that there are no answers to my questions and I will be condemned to live with doubts all my life.” Fear of the absence of an answer can silence the need to ask. We are not speaking here of one who doesn’t ask because his path is clear to him. On the contrary: this is a child who has no true belief that he will receive a proper answer to his questions. He has no faith in answers that the Torah might provide, he does not trust his parents or teachers, and above all he does not believe in himself. And so he chooses to float in calm, question-less waters — not because he doesn’t have any to ask, but because he does not have hope for answers.

Not infrequently a child who does not know how to ask is the product of surroundings that do not really provide a place to question. Any time the child asked he was put off or silenced, or his teachers frantically hurried to come up with an immediate, shallow answer. The child learned that there are questions that one does not ask and there are thoughts that one does not think.

Eventually he would himself silence his own questions — for what good can there be in raising questions in a world without answers?

Fear of the meaning of the answers

There is a different type of child who doesn’t ask. This one does not fear the absence of answers; rather, he is bothered by the answers’ consequences. He knows that the courage to ask will yield answers that will make demands upon him. He is threatened by the significance of these answers, and thus he chooses to hide behind the mask of “everything’s fine.” This child who does not know how to ask is not necessarily one who finds it difficult to ask questions of others.

We are speaking about someone who does not know how to ask questions about himself, about his life, about his path. He has questions, he is certain that there are answers, but he feels that they are liable to shake him to his core. The fear of the meaning of the answers causes him to neglect the questions. It’s easier for him to assume a calm expression and simply not to know how to ask.

“And the one who does not know how to ask — open for him”

It’s certainly pleasant to raise a child who accepts everything as given, who does not force us to struggle with questions that we ourselves did not dare to ask. Pleasant but not right. How wonderful to live within a family that does question, that believes in a child’s ability not to fall to pieces in light of his questions. Such a family believes in the power of a question to open up new vistas and to be rewarded with grand answers. “And the one who does not know how to ask — open for him.” Open for him an opening for belief in his ability to ask big questions and to discover worlds.

This child, the one who doesn’t know how to ask could be my son, my daughter, my brother or my student, and sometimes, this child could simply be me.

Teddy Weinberger, who made aliyah in 1997, writes for several American Jewish newspapers.