One of my twins is always looking for something new to learn online. For awhile, he was fascinated by a Massachusetts service dog project, where Great Danes are trained to provide support to those with balance and mobility impediments. He found this amazing service dog program through the website explore.org. It has live cams of animals all over the world. While we’re not traveling anywhere, my kid is bird watching, seeing service dogs, polar bears, and more. When we least expect it, he rushes up with his iPad and demands that I admire a nesting owl, or that his biologist dad identify an animal he’s never seen before.
This kind of intellectual curiosity is something I’m excited to see. Open-ended questioning about the world and how it works is a special kind of Jewish exploration. This intensity and enthusiasm is how we delve into studying Torah and Talmud, or how we engage with the world in general.
Passover is an obvious time to think about questions and how we approach and answer them. Our families have been telling the Exodus and “Once we were slaves and now we are free” story for thousands of years! Still, our questioning can’t just stick to the Four Questions and be done. Sometimes, even with good intentions, we get hung up on the rote narrative of the seder. We know we have to get through it. We start at the beginning and head to the end. It’s a yearly ritual routine, punctuated by matzah, lots of other foods, wine, and, in normal times, family and guests.
When we were first married, I once attended a smaller seder with some of my husband’s family. I was excited and nervous to engage over the Haggadah’s ideas – but it didn’t turn out as I expected. The family was committed to getting through the ritual traditionally and to the food part. They looked uncomfortable when I tried to talk about ideas or ask questions. In retrospect, I realized I knocked them off their game. There was a seder routine – and I wasn’t following theirs.
My other twin is also learning. He’s not into the animal live cams. Instead, he comes up with questions about school projects. He brainstorms and makes suggestions, even when they’re not welcome. The remote learning teacher suggested he limit his research on one social studies project to their “class time” online rather than do more research later.
Of course, the minute he logs off, I help him look up his questions and learn – whenever he wants. His teacher maybe wants to slow down the group learning, or avoid making more social studies lesson plans, but feeding intense curiosity with knowledge helps enthusiastic learners blossom. In my experience, putting somebody off when they want to learn more feels negative and does the opposite.
For many people, the pandemic has knocked them off their game. Losing regular routines may have felt negative. As people anticipate getting vaccinated, they talk more about which things they miss the most and long to do when things return to “normal.” For another view, I recently read a CBC news article that quoted David Eagleman, a neuroscientist.
Eagleman suggested that, in fact, the pandemic might be good for people’s brains, because the huge lifestyle changes we’ve experienced have forced us off our “path of least resistance.” We’ve been forced to be more flexible and innovate. This can be positive for our brain health. In some cases, forcing our brains to adapt may result in positive growth and changes in our work or home lives.
In a Jewish context though, when we consider our ritual routines, we must balance the comfort of what’s familiar with the opportunity to learn. Questioning and continuing to grow intellectually are valuable, particularly during Passover.
In the talmudic tractate of Pesachim, on page 105a, there’s a discussion about when to say certain blessings such as the Kiddush. Should we interrupt a meal in the middle to do Kiddush? Rav Hamnuna the Elder says, “You don’t need to do this, because Shabbat establishes itself.” In other words, our holidays, like Shabbat or Pesach, will happen whether we are ready or not. We must automatically rise to the obligations associated with them. So, yes, we do a lot of things by rote and habit.
Even so, the next page, Pesachim 106, teaches that there are times where leaders must do things extemporaneously, or work to learn more to figure out what to do. A good leader both continues with the routines and remains able to ask questions, be flexible and learn.
It’s too early for me to conclude whether our freeform research online this year has helped my twins become lifelong learners. (I hope so!) I don’t know if observing animals via live cam will result in a career like field biologist or even a hobby like bird-watching. Whatever they choose, creating a routine-based learning environment that encourages and cultivates questioning, improvisational thinking and flexibility may go a long way towards helping them succeed later on.
It’s true, as Rav Hamnuna the Elder explains, that holidays happen whether or not we’re ready for them. As Rabbi Sari Laufer explains on My Jewish Learning’s explanation of Pesachim 105, “Kiddush doesn’t make Shabbat begin, we make Kiddush because Shabbat has begun.” Yet, once our holidays begin, it’s our obligation to engage with them, to learn and to question.
“Due to the pandemic” is a phrase we’ve heard too often, usually in relation to cancelations or programs offered exclusively online. Perhaps we might add a positive “due to the pandemic” twist. We’re forced to be more flexible thinkers in our ritual routines, too. We can question why we always did them this way. In the end, we might be all the better for that brain jostling and chance for intellectual inquiry.
My family and I wish you a wonderful, thoughtful, questioning Passover, full of joy this year, however different it may be from your usual routines. Chag sameach.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.