Rabbi’s Essays

Questions! We Have Questions!

It all begins with Exodus 12:26-27, “When your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ You shall say, ‘It is the Pesach sacrifice to the Lord, because God passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when smiting the Egyptians, but saved our houses.'”

Here is the core of the Pesach Seder. Jews are to engage in a ritual activity. Children will ask about, and we (adults) must answer. Thus, it is little wonder that 1) a highlight of the Seder (after Grandma’s matzah kugel) is the youngest child chanting Mah Nishtana, and 2) the whole dinner, from questions to storytelling to songs to the search for the afikomen seems directed at the children. Let me ask a few preliminary questions: Why does the Torah think one’s children are going to ask about the Pesach ritual? There is, after all, no expectation that they will ask about anything else. Further, (this one is for you empty-nesters) who are these children anyway?

In response to the first question: consider just when one asks questions in the first place. We ask, of course, when we do not know. Do not know what! That which we do not know—individually and collectively—could easily fill the stacks of Vassar College Library. It is therefore not simply that we are ignorant, but rather something piques our interest. We see, hear, read something odd, unusual or enticing, and what to know more. Then we ask.

In the passage in Exodus, children are observing their parents or elders engaging in the sacrifice of a lamb. This is odd. Sacrifices are usually done by priests. Perhaps, the children are part of a priestly family. A sacrifice would not be so unusual. But normally the meat of a sacrificed animal may eaten over the next two days. The meat of the lamb must be eaten that night alone, and the rest disposed of by morning. Thus, the children ask: What is going on?

The current Haggadah preserves this sense of childhood wonder. When one first encounters the Seder table, it is set in all the finery of a Shabbat or Festival dinner. There are the candlesticks, the Kiddush cup, and the covering for the bread. The evening starts in a normal fashion. We light the candles and recite the appropriate Festival blessing. We then raise a cup of wine and chant the Festival Kiddush. Children have seen this activity numerous times. Festivals are ritually very similar to Shabbat dinners.

The next activity (in a traditional home) is also normal. People engage in a ritual washing of one’s hands (n’tilat yadayim). Then something out of the norm occurs. The blessing is not pronounced, and rather than uncovering the bread, participants take a sprig of green vegetable, dip it into a dish of salty water and recite the blessing for “the fruit of the earth.” This is weird, but the leader of the dinner does mention it is Spring, and the blessing is a generically appropriate one for vegetables.

Things seem to get back to normal when the leader picks up the covered bread and prepares to uncover it. Instead of a braided Challah, we confront an oversized thin wafer. The leader breaks it in half—all fine and good—but then instead of saying the Motzi, s/he announces something about this being the ‘bread of affliction,’ and how all are hungry are invited to come and eat. And then, without taking a bite, sticks the funny-looking bread back under its cover. At this point, a child can no longer be constrained: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” (Particularly, the other Shabbat and Festival nights!)

This question is both obvious and natural. The subsequent four queries are also unexceptional, although they betray observations about the evening that have not yet occurred. What about the answers? Let us look back at the passage in Exodus. The children have observed an unusual ritual. They ask about it, and are told that the ritual is done in memory of the Exodus. A relatively obvious question goes unanswered: Why this ritual? Why not do something else?

In the Haggadah, the answer to the child’s questions is: We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Eternal our God brought us out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. As in the Torah, the response is not ‘why these rituals,’ but rather what these rituals indicate; what they point toward.

But, what do the rituals mean? Ah, that is truly the question! The Haggadah continues: Now, if God had not brought out our ancestors from Egypt, then even we, our children and children’s children might still have been enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt. Therefore, even were we all wise, all individuals of discernment, even if we were sages learned in the Torah, it would still be our duty to tell the story of the departure from Egypt.

If the import of this statement is not clear, the Haggadah then provides us with an example. A story is told about five rabbis gathering at Rabbi Akiba’s place in B’nei B’rak, where they engage in the Passover story through the whole night. You might think: big deal! When five rabbis get together, they can carry on a conversation about anything for weeks on end without having to come up for air.

The story continues, however, with one of them saying that he is essentially 70-years-old, and yet only recently learned why the Haggadah is read at night. (Is that a question you have ever thought about? Should we take for granted that the Seder is an evening dinner and not a mid-day feast?) 70 years old, a respected scholar, and he finally learned why the Seder is done at night!

The story explains to us just who are the children who ask: We are! We are all children, filled with wonder, always capable of being surprised, of asking questions, of discovering new things. The Seder and the Haggadah are dedicated to the simple proposition that we are never too old to question, learn and discover new things.

Each year I ask myself and others: what have you learned this year at Seder table? We cannot begin to learn until we begin to ask questions. We start with the children in order to find the child within each of us. So, tell me: what have you learned this year at the Seder table?