Pesach 5782: answering questions with questions

By Rabbi Matt Rutta

Why do Jews love asking questions? Why not? 

It may go back to the Torah’s description of the very first Passover Seder and the instructions for subsequent Seders. It states four times in the Torah that you shall tell your child (Exodus 12:26-27, 13:8 and 13:14-15, and Deuteronomy 6:20-25), the biblical source for the Four Children of the Haggadah. In only three of these four passages does the child first ask a question, leading to the identity of a fourth who “does not know how to ask” and who must be prompted. The early rabbis turned this into a religious imperative that someone ask questions at the Passover Seder. These are traditionally asked by the youngest child (perhaps this is the prompting of the one who doesn’t know how to ask) in the form of Mah Nishtanah; the rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 116a, say that even one dining alone must ask the questions to him/herself. Even the wisest scholars who know every single detail there is to know about Passover must ask each other these prix fixe basic questions. Technically, they might not be questions but observations and there are actually five of them (“how different is this this night from all others?” is a question too) which raises even more questions! 

Let me add some questions that have come up at recent Seders: With all the hand-washing, did our ancestors know or suspect something about germ theory? Why do we break the middle matzo for the Afikomen? Why do we lift the Seder plate at certain times and cover it at others? What’s with the number four? At what points in the Seder do we actually need to stand? Why are the plagues simultaneously terrifying and fun (there’s nothing like throwing a hail ping-pong ball or rubber frog across the table, except perhaps whipping your brother with a giant scallion during “Dayenu”)? Why do we recite the story of Passover in roundabout ways multiple times in the Haggadah but never seem to directly tell the story? Pay close attention and you will see more deviations than the 40 years it took us to wander in the desert. What happened to Moses, whose name is mentioned in the Haggadah exactly once in passing (in a section that many people glaze over or skip anyway)? When do we eat (pro-tip: Put out a bunch of crudités, French fries, baked artichokes and various dips after the Karpas section and you will have far fewer complaints during the Maggid section; parsley isn’t even food, it’s decoration!)? We end our Seder proclaiming, “Next year in Jerusalem!” What do you say if you are conducting your Seder in Jerusalem? 

One of my favorite questions involves the cups of wine. Do we drink four cups or five cups, corresponding to the five promises of redemption found in Exodus 6:6-8: “I will bring y’all out from the suffering of Egypt,” “I will save y’all from their slavery, “I will redeem y’all,” “I will take y’all to be My people” and “I will bring y’all to the land which I swore to give”? Is that fifth promise realized during the Exodus and therefore cup-worthy? Absent a definite answer, we use both four AND five cups: Four cups we drink and a fifth cup remains on the table for Elijah, the herald of the Redemption, who traditionally will answer all of the lingering questions we have. My grandfather, Rabbi Hillel Silverman, an ardent Zionist who dropped his rabbinic year of studies in Jerusalem in order to fight in the Haganah after the 1947 Partition of the British Mandate, had a definite answer to this question: He put a fifth cup at the end of the Haggadah he co-wrote with his father, followed by the singing of “Hatikvah.” My Sabbah (Grandpa) saw the realization of God’s fifth promise unfold before his very eyes with the restoration of our sovereignty in our Promised Land and the flowering of our Redemption. He acted in partnership with God to make it happen. 

The Passover Seder, in some form or another, is statistically the most observed annual Jewish ritual, far surpassing Yom Kippur fasting and/or service attendance or lighting Hanukkah candles. It’s done with the family and other loved ones, it involves food, it involves a national story that takes us from disgrace to glory. It’s dinner theater! The Haggadah, possibly the most published book and with more editions than any other in Jewish history, literally “tells” you what to do. If you are only reading from the Haggadah you are not really fulfilling the mitzvah to ask and tell the story of the Exodus. I invite everyone this year to supplement their Seder by asking questions, by answering those questions with more questions. Truly make this a night different from all others.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher v’Sameach

Rabbi Matt Rutta, M.A.Ed., is director of Jewish Student Life, Hillels of North Texas.

Leave a Reply