Today we learn that questions and answers aren’t just for the Passover seder:
It was taught: One asks about and teaches the laws of Passover thirty days before Passover.
Because this is the Talmud, this is no abstract assertion, but something the rabbis learn from the Hebrew Bible. Here’s how:
Moses was standing at the time of the first Passover, on the 14th of Nisan, and warning the people about the laws of the second Passover (Pesach Sheni), which occurred a month later, on the 14th of Iyar.
Wait a minute — Passover only comes once a year! What is this second Passover about?
Numbers 9 records that when Israel went to celebrate the first Passover in the wilderness, some of them were in a state of ritual impurity. (At that time, celebrating Passover was primarily about slaughtering a Paschal lamb, which had to be done in a state of purity.) Moses quickly consulted with God who explained that those who had to sit out Passover due to impurity were required to hold a second “make-up” Passover exactly a month after the first, slaughtering and eating the Paschal lamb on the 14th of Iyar in accordance with all the usual Passover laws.
Since Moses was effectively teaching these men the laws of Passover 30 days before Pesach Sheni (the make-up Passover), the rabbis learn from this that one should always teach the laws of Passover for 30 days before the holiday, whether one is in shape to observe Passover in its proper time (Nisan) or on the make-up date a month later.
There’s more though! From this passage in Numbers, the rabbis understand that it’s not just about teaching, it’s also about asking. After all, the people who were impure came and asked Moses a question about what they should do. And Moses, in turn, asked God. Asking and answering go hand-in-hand.
What we see from here is that Jewish practice is not only based on the words of our great leaders and teachers like Moses, but also on the questions and requests of men and women throughout our history who, though often not remembered by name, have significantly contributed to the shaping of Jewish thought, Jewish law and Jewish practice.
The Jewish people have always sought to promote questioning. The Talmud itself is a series of questions and debates. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z’’l reminds us, in an essay titled “The Art of Asking Questions,” that the Nobel prize-winning Jewish physicist Isidore Rabi learned to be a scientist from his mother in this way:
“Every other child would come back from school and be asked, What did you learn today? But my mother used to ask, instead, Izzy, did you ask a good question today?”
Sacks further explains: “In the yeshiva, the home of traditional Talmudic learning, the highest compliment a teacher can give a student is Du fregst a gutte kasha, ‘You raise a good objection’ … asking a question is itself a profound expression of faith.”
Because they believed there was an answer, the small group of unnamed people in Numbers 9 asked Moses a question. Moses, through faith, turned to God for an answer. And through Moses, God gave that answer. This is why the rabbis encourage asking questions — for the month leading up to Passover, at the seder table, and all year round — because by doing so, we reflect on our faith in God, and on the faith God has in us.