By Lisa Steinmetz
Passover is the holiday of questions. We ask four questions about the differences between the night of Passover and all other nights. Parents ask children questions so that they can share their knowledge with us. Children and guests also ask questions, trying to understand things better, or just to start a conversation. We have simple and complex questions. How long the seder will last? How much longer until the meal is served? What is the afikoman? Where is the afikoman? Who is the prophet Elijah? Did you “really” see Elijah the prophet drink the wine!?
What is the purpose of asking questions and how are “questions” connected in particular to the holiday of Pesach?
In the Haggadah, “A Different Night”, which was published by the Shalom Hartman Institute in 1997, the idea of asking continuous questions during the evening of seder is discussed. The authors of the Haggadah suggest a beautiful idea about asking questions. The entire Talmud is written in the form of a dialogue of questions and answers of the Rabbis. Thus the idea of having this model during the seder would seem quite appropriate. But the authors suggest that there is a deeper connection between the seder and questions. They suggest that the act of questioning is an “essential part of the freedom celebrated on the seder night”, (pg. 43).
A slave by definition is someone who lives and breathes for his master. A slave does not have the luxury of asking questions because the answers are dictated in whole by the master. For a slave, everything in is subjective and at the whims of the master. There is no need to question because there is neither room for change nor room for personal opinion. The main theme of the holiday of Passover is the celebration of going from slavery to being free people. When we were taken out of Egypt, we began to shed our slave mentality. Being freed from slavery was not just a physical experience but also an intellectual one. In gaining our freedom, we were allowed to begin to pursue our own interests. We could now question, doubt, disagree, and argue. Freedom implies the ability to think independently and make choices. On Passover, we demonstrate that we have achieved that freedom through our questions.
The purpose of asking questions at the seder also has to do with making connections between the past, present and future. “Passover is a night for discovery of the new. But it is also a night for rediscovery of what we already know. The purpose of questioning is to create paths to new ideas and understanding, and to create new relationships. This is done through examining and melding the old with the new. Sometimes we need to add new questions and sometimes we need to just have the opportunity to embrace the nostalgic moments and customs of the past. “(Rabbi Josh Feigelsohn)
When I was a child, Pesach was one of my favorite holidays. Not only were my sisters and I encouraged to share our knowledge and singing talents, but we loved the whole family being together. Every year my aunt would always invite someone new to the seder. Every year we looked forward to raiding the special Pesach cupboard in which we would find the special bags of treats that my aunt would prepare as a way of keeping us engaged. But what I remember the most was what happened towards the end of
the seder. When all of the questions of the Haggadah were answered, the conversation always continued with more questions. Sometimes, it was about who was winning the playoff game. One year it was about wondering whether or not my cousin had given birth – her water had broken during the middle of the evening! But every year, it was the opportunity for us to learn more about our families. There were questions about Europe, old traditions and tunes, about life in Montreal in the 1930’s and moving to Toronto. It was at this very special time that I learned about the old shuls in Montreal, Baron Byng High School, tobacco shops and Colonial Baths. On seder night I found out about going to cheders and afternoon schools, about the Farband Organization and about my grandmother being a part of Hashomer Hazair (the Zionist youth movement) in Lithuania. Our questions helped us learn more about family, and in turn, also to learn more about ourselves.
I believe that the Rabbis of the Talmud set up a model of questions and answers in order for us to always value the pursuit of knowledge. The act of asking questions has two purposes. It reminds us that we are blessed with being free people. We need to remember that we still live in a world where both physical and intellectual freedom cannot be taken for granted. Asking questions also links us to our past and helps us to understand our present. Asking good questions will hopefully guide us in the right direction for the future of the Jewish people.