With the Jewish holiday of Passover coming up I devoted time to our study group to discuss the topic of questions. I opened the discussion by stating the obvious: The central experience of Judaism revolves around asking questions. The Passover Seder begins with four questions, and the rest flows from there.
1) On all the other nights of the year we sometimes eat bread and sometimes eat matzo. On this night we eat only matzo.
2) On all other nights of the year we eat various kinds of vegetables. On this night we focus on eating a bitter vegetable.
3) On all other nights of the year we don’t dip one food into another. On this night we dip twice.
4) On all other nights of the year we sometimes recline and sometimes sit upright. On this night we recline.
You may have noticed that these are not actually questions but statements. They are introduced by “What is different about this night that sets it apart from all other nights?” Taking a cursive look through the English hagaddahs I had in the house I saw that the question is usually mistranslated as “Why is this night different…?” and one had “How is this night different?” None of them said “What is different?” I’ll get back to this point later.
The Seder is very structured, and while the structure is meant to assist us, it can also become a barrier. We come to forget our own questions and replace our personal quest with the structure itself.
I thought about one of my places of stuck-ness and I recalled a very illuminating point made in the personal development book, Alei Shur. When divine justice strikes, a person’s tendency is to ask “Why”? Why did this have to happen to me? And when you ask that question and find that no answers are forthcoming, this forces you to look introspectively inwards instead.
In light of this we thought about the evocative quality of these four questions and how they are designed to pull the questions out of us that beg to be asked if we are to achieve personal and national redemption.
There is a different reality on this night. The attribute of divine justice is felt as that which is presented to us as a given that is not in our control. That “given” can be a fate that happens to us that is beyond our control or it can be a reality we create because of a religious imperative. It is the latter I am referring to at the Passover Seder. We are presented with facts. We must eat matzo and not leavened bread. We must eat something bitter. We must dip something at two different specified times at the meal. We must recline while eating.
We realized that the order of the statements we are making and the realities we are thereby elucidating represent the redemptive process itself.
First we have to ingest matzo with all the simplicity it symbolizes in order to let go of our presumption that we already have all the answers, because if that is true then we have no questions to ask, and without questions we cannot grow.
Moreover, by eating the matzo we begin with the inner process of introspection that Alei Shur was referring to. We are put on the right track of not asking “Why?” but asking “What?” What am I to do with this experience? How am I to see it in context? How can I make some sort of sense of it from a religious/philosophical perspective even though I don’t presume to know to real cause, i.e. to know God’s reasons? What am I supposed to do with this as an ingredient to propel me towards more authentic living and closeness in my relationships towards God, other people and myself?
The next step in the process is to eat the bitter vegetable. Allow yourself to experience the pain. It’s real. Accept it. Don’t run from it. Know that God is crying along with you. Accept what is beyond your control. Understand that no change can take place on the same physical level but if you see it from a different perspective, a transcendent perspective then help can come from a different place.
The third step in the process is to dip. I need to research this more (questions to seek answers to) but a cursory reading of the Shem Mi’Shmuel commentary told us that we need to dip, to immerse ourselves in the wisdom of Torah and then we will emerge as wiser, transformed as a creature in God’s image. This is redemption already.
By the time we get to the fourth step we are reclining like free people. We need to recline to be able to feel our freedom. If we are really and truly feeling free, then we sense the freedom of open space, as Frankl put it, the freedom of what we can do within the parameters of all we’ve been given.
So these are not four questions. No, those come later when the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son and the son who does not know how to ask have their say. But these are the statements that provoke the questions. What is going on here? What is this reality I see in front of me? How am I to respond to it?
The haggadah doesn’t treat them as questions. It doesn’t say “We only eat matzo because…We eat a bitter vegetable because…We dip because…We recline because…” It continues by saying “We were slaves in Egypt…” By doing these four things and stating the reality we are reliving the experience both of the slavery and the redemption. The reality evokes the questions that come later. The questions that we will ask will reveal more about who we are than about the reality we face.
Will we find our personal meaning? Will we hear reality inviting us? Will we just read the words or will we find our way to redemption at the Seder this year?
This will be my last post before a week of Passover break. Please come back on April 27 when I will be blogging again. Until then may we merit personal, national and world redemption!