At some point during the last few days, thousands of reluctant Jewish children were goaded into reciting the portion of a traditional Passover Seder known as, “The Four Questions.” Some no doubt enjoy the attention while others are scarred for life. I can still picture the unspoken enmity that arced between my mother and my daughter when my daughter refused to recite the four questions for a tableful of relatives at a Seder twenty years ago.
While I’m on the subject, let me share a clever Passover Seder ploy that my father came up with. Every year my father would offer the kids at the table money if we could isolate an unbroken, single row of matzo by eating around it. He would pay 50 cents for an end row and a dollar for a middle row. Years later I reminded him of the annual matzo challenge and he confessed that he only did it to keep us quiet.
Apart from the logistical and emotional challenges of gathering friends and family around a dinner table for hours of rituals and readings, there is something appealing to me about reconnecting with the purpose of our traditions once a year from the perspective of the communities’ newest members. The four questions all begin with the phrase, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Each question focuses on an example of a difference: Why only matzos? Why bitter herbs? Why are we dipping our vegetables? Why are we reclining? By the way, if you’ve never been to a Seder and you are looking for definitive and unambiguous answers to the four questions – spoiler alert – the Rabbis disagree.
Young children get away with asking questions about things adults take for granted. In the same way, new members of an organizational community ask questions that long-tenured members of the community accept as part of the routine. The Seder would be a lot shorter if the leader answered the four questions by saying, “that’s just how we do it around here, now eat your bitter herbs.” Of course, when it comes to Judaism, the point of the Seder is to preserve tradition. When it comes to our organizations, naïve and potentially impertinent questions undermine traditions.
Imagine some annual organizational version of the Seder. Instead of town hall meetings with leaders laying out the operating plan for the year, what would happen if the newest members of the community were encouraged to ask four questions about what makes their new organization different from all other organizations? What questions would the newest members of your organizational community ask you?