|More than 4 questions for Pesach|
Which is more important in Judausm generally, and at the Passover seder in particular: stories or questions?
You might say that stories are most important because the Torah itself is the story of the Jewish People. The Jewish story (not “history”, but “our story”!) continues into our own day. The book we use for the seder is called the haggadah, which means “the telling”. The haggadah is a guide for telling the story of our Exodus from Egypt, which we do four times at the seder! (See if you can count them at your own seder!)
However, you might also wonder: Can the story be fully understood without asking questions about it? Isn’t the Talmud a book full of questions and debates about the answers to those questions, which in turn generate even more questions about being Jewish that we ourselves answer by how we live our lives each day?
Can we really comprehend the story of Passover until someone fi rst asks ma nishtana: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
Asking questions at the seder is essential as a catalyst for telling the story. More than that, though, asking questions is part of the drama of our redemption and freedom that we reenact each year. No less important than sitting on pillows, reclining, and drinking four cups is expressing gratitude that we are free to question and to discuss. Our questions are not the meek questioning of an inferior to a superior. A slave is not consulted, a slave accepts without questioning, a slave has no horizon and no hope to wonder about, nor time to inquire.
“An essential characteristic of free people is that they notice the world around them, make distinctions and search for meaningful patterns. They want understanding, not inscrutability. For a slave mentality, nothing is “different” – all tasks are part of the same meaningless arbitrariness. There is no point in asking if no one answers, no place for questions in a world where the master’s arbitrary orders are the ultimate justification for the way things are. In beginning the seder with genuine (not rote) questions, the Rabbis show that we not only tell the story of freedom, but we act like free people.” (A Different Night Haggadah)
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook pointed out that the difference between a slave and a free person is not merely a distinction of social class, There are cultured and learned slaves whose spirits are fi lled with freedom, just as there are “free” people whose spirits are constrained and subservient.
Real freedom is the noble spirit through which individuals as well as nations strive to become loyal to their inner essential selves, to the Image of God within them. It is this striving that makes life purposeful and worthy of value.
The meaning of freedom is reinforced by the “Counting the Omer”, that is, counting the seven days of the seven weeks from the second night of Passover until Shavuot (the “Feast of Weeks”).
On Shavuot we celebrate the gift of the Torah given on Mount Sinai. Not only do we want freedom from slavery, but we want freedom for a purpose. As wonderful as our redemption from slavery was, we could not appreciate its meaning and value for us if we did not have the Torah to challenge us to use our freedom to live our lives with moral and spiritual worth.
We continue counting even today because we remain with the challenge of how to use our gift of freedom to make our lives ultimately meaningful.
What questions about the meaning of being free will you ask at your seder this year? Challenge your table guests to come up with four questions about the meaning of being a free Jew in our world today.
Consider our generation’s great fortune to fi nally be free after 2000 years of exile and now celebrating 60 years of independence in Israel: What responsibility (or rather, “response- ability”) do we have as a nation to assert freedom’s “noble spirit through which individuals as well as nations strive to become loyal to their inner essential selves, to the Image of God within them?”
Rabbi Michael Schwartz lives in Jerusalem and is the Director of Development for the Zionist Human Rights organization in Israel, Rabbis for Human Rights www.rhr.israel.net. He is asking questions at the community seder of the United Jewish Congregation in Hong Kong www.ujc.org.hk.