If Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the time when we search for answers, then Passover is the time when we seek questions. Isidor I. Rabi, the Nobel Laureate in physics, was once asked, “Why did you become a scientist rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?”
“My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it,” he responded. “Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘Nu, did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘Did you ask a good question today?’ That difference — asking good questions — made me become a scientist.” (Donald Sheff, New York Times, January 19, 1988, quoted in A Different Night by Noam Zion and David Dishon)
That may reflect the truth for science and the scientific method. I believe that this approach to the world is also part of the Jewish mission. We see the centrality of questions and questioning very clearly in the wonderful spring holiday of Passover. A high point of the seder is the four questions, the recitation of four written questions by the youngest able participant. These four kushiot (the Hebrew name for questions, derived from the root meaning “hard” or “difficult”) were formalized by rabbis who wanted to be sure that the questioning mode dominated every seder. We are required to face the difficult issues that we might otherwise prefer to gloss over or avoid altogether. In fact, I think that the kushiot, or tough issues, posed at the seder should move us to ask the kushiot as tough questions of the world: How can we move from the world as it is into the world as it should be? Our tradition asks us not just to consider our own experiences, isolated in our homes, but also to consider the world around us and engage with that world.
The four questions can lead us to take our seder out of our homes and bring it into the world. They are not simply for Nisan/April, they extend throughout the year. Let me encourage you to pick your own kushiot — your own examples of issues that occupy or trouble you. I have chosen three to share with you.
What have I done to lessen slavery in the world?
The Haggadah moves us from degradation and slavery to liberation and redemption. We recount our travail as slaves in Egypt. We remind ourselves that no one is completely free until all are free. In fact, the Torah admonishes us no less than 36 times to remember the stranger, for we were slaves in Egypt. This may be necessary as it is so easy to forget hardship once it has passed. A goal at Passover is to ingrain this painful experience within us and therefore to motivate us to take action. We know the pain of slavery and have an innate sense that its eradication is a part of who we are.
Some will go into battle to remove slavery around the globe, and I applaud their commitment and activism. But most of us can do battle via our purchases. We have learned about blood diamonds and slave-free chocolate, about companies that do not provide benefits and other protections for their workers. I believe that all of our purchases make a difference. Each time we weigh the experience of the workers who created a product with the cost, we work to end “slavery” in the largest sense.
As the Haggadah elegantly states, next year may we all be free.
What are you doing to remove your leaven?
In preparation for Pesach we removed chametz — those baked goods that have risen. Like so many things in Judaism, we can take a literal approach to this instruction, removing leavened products from our homes, as well as a symbolic one. How have we puffed ourselves up this year? In what ways have we filled our lives with self-importance and lost perspective? How has our pride clouded our view of the world? Our relationships? Our self-image?
A fun moment in the seder is singing “Dayenu,” which translates to “enough.” What is the chametz in our lives that we can and should do without? How can we begin letting go of these puffed up parts of our lives? When will we remove that chametz and consider what we have as enough?
What are you doing to go beyond telling the story to living the story?
The Maggid of Mezritch put this question succinctly — don’t teach Torah. Be Torah.
Each year we owe it to ourselves and our people to learn that much more of what the seder is about. It is not simply the telling of a story. It is our reliving that story — first-person. Have I become that much closer to not just reading the Haggadah, but becoming the Haggadah? What could this mean to us? For some, it might mean taking a more creative approach to the actual telling of the story. For others, it could mean inviting a wider range of participants and opening up the conversation on slavery and freedom. For others, this could mean taking the lessons of the Haggadah out of our houses and into the world.
Ask questions. Engage in discussion. Delight in the community formed in seeking answers.