Why Is this Night Different? | Congregation Beth Am

Why Is this Night Different?

By Rabbi Janet Marder on
April 7, 2017

Here’s a question: where did the question mark come from? Perhaps you’ve heard that the shape of the question mark comes from the shape of a cat’s tail when it’s feeling inquisitive. The same theory posits that the exclamation point comes from the shape a cat’s tail makes when it is surprised. Both punctuation signs derive, it is said, from the ancient Egyptians, who worshipped – you guessed it -- cats.

Delightful as this theory is, I am sad to report that it is only an urban legend. There was no punctuation in ancient Egypt. It’s more likely that question marks come from an 8th century English scholar known as Alcuin of York. Borrowing the old Roman punctuation system, which involved dots, Alcuin took a dot and put a curved line above it – what we today call a tilde – a “lightning flash” that tilted up at the end, perhaps to signify that one should raise one’s pitch at the end – like we do in a question, right? Gradually, over the centuries, the mark was flipped upright and its usage was standardized. Only in the mid-19th century did it come to be called a “question mark.”

The more interesting question, perhaps, is: why should we care? For me, the answer is clear. Question marks matter because questions are at the heart of being Jewish. They’re as fundamental to Judaism as any ritual or belief you can name. The Hebrew Bible is less a book of answers than a book that exalts the question. In the Bible, human history begins with God questioning Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden – “Ayeka: where are you?”[Gen.3:9]  God asks Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” Instead of answering, Cain responds with a question of his own: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” [4:9]

Note how quickly the Bible moves from God interrogating human beings to the stunning spectacle of human beings interrogating God. Built into our religious DNA is the idea of questioning authority. And, it seems, the greatest biblical heroes pose the hardest, most challenging questions. Abraham asks, “Should not the Judge of all the earth do justice?” [Gen.18:25] Moses asks God, “Why have you brought harm to this people? Why did You send me?” [Ex.5:22] Jeremiah asks, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are the workers of treachery at ease? [12:1]. Job asks, “Why was I born?” [10:18] and “Where is my hope?” and “Why do the wicked live on, prosper and grow wealthy?” [21:7]. The psalms record a flood of poignant human questions about the persistence of suffering: “How long, Adonai? Will you ignore me forever?” [13:2]; “God, why do You stand aloof, heedless in time of trouble? [10:1] ; “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” [22:1]

It’s not just these searching moral questions that define the Bible. There are plenty of questions propelled by simple curiosity. The whole story of the Exodus begins with Moses wondering, “Why doesn’t the bush burn up? I must turn aside to see this wonderful sight” [Ex.3:3]. He peppers God with questions about the future: “What if the Israelites don’t believe me? What if they don’t listen?” [Ex.4:1] “How am I to get meat to give these people?” [Num.11:11,13]. And Moses has an insatiable desire to understand what God really is, asking, “Let me behold Your Presence!” [Ex.33:18].

Questions are on my mind this Shabbat Hagadol, this Shabbat before Pesach, because questions are the whole point of the Passover Seder. The entire ritual pivots upon them. That’s what makes this night different from all other nights. The Seder was created to respond to the questions of the young. For instance, consider the act of dipping karpas in salt water. Why do we do that? You’ve probably heard that it’s to symbolize the tears or sweat of the Israelite slaves. But the original answer comes from the Talmud [Pesachim 114a]: “k’dei sheh-yishalu ha-tinokot – so children will ask about it.” This strange, unexpected act was instituted solely to stimulate the children’s interest and provoke questions. We want and expect our kids to be curious about our behavior during Passover; we want them to interrogate us when they notice us acting differently. Their questions should be the catalyst for telling the story – and as we know, Haggadah means “telling.”

Three times the Torah refers to children asking their parents to explain their religious practice; in a fourth place the Torah says “On that day you shall tell your child…” [Ex.12:26; 13:14; Deut.6:20;Ex.13:8]. These four verses are the basis for the “four children” passage in the Haggadah. Note that when it comes to the fourth child, the one who doesn’t know how to ask, the parent is supposed to initiate the conversation, teaching the child how to ask questions.

This is rather extraordinary. In the ancient world, children were most often seen as vessels to be filled with knowledge – guided, trained, instructed and prepared for adult life. But for Jews, an integral part of that preparation was being trained in the art of questioning. For Jews, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “Education is not indoctrination. It is teaching a child to be curious, to wonder, reflect, inquire.” Why do we want our kids to ask questions? Because our intelligence is a gift, a sign of human dignity; we’re meant to develop it to its fullest potential. Rabbi Sacks again: “In Judaism, to be without questions is not a sign of faith, but of lack of depth. …Religious faith has often been seen as naïve, blind, accepting. That is not the Jewish way. Judaism is not the suspension of critical intelligence…. The child who asks becomes a partner in the learning process. He or she is no longer a passive recipient but an active participant. To ask is to grow.” [See: http://rabbisacks.org/necessity-asking-questions-bo-5777/ and Introduction to The Haggadah by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (Maggid Books, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, Spring 2013]

There’s some interesting research that confirms this Jewish fondness for inculcating in children this kind of active, independent learning. A 2005 study by the National Opinion Research Center, based at the University of Chicago, found that “Jews display a distinctive commitment to education, learning and the pursuit of knowledge….Compared with all other ethnic and religious groups, American Jews were more likely to value ‘thinking for oneself’ as the most important quality to encourage in one’s children (71% compared with 50% for non-Jews), ranking it higher than working hard, helping others, obedience and being well liked” [A Tradition of Questioning Tradition by Bethamie Horowitz, Forward May 27, 2005].

Little kids, as we all know, are a cornucopia of questions. Psychologist Alison Gopnik, an authority on children’s cognitive development, writes: “We've all experienced the endless ‘whys?’ of three-year-olds and the downright dangerous two-year-old determination to seek out strange new worlds and boldly go where no toddler has gone before….. Human children are equipped with extremely powerful learning mechanisms, and a strong intrinsic drive to seek explanations” [https://www.edge.org/response-detail/11928].

But Gopnik notes that this “intrinsic truth-seeking drive” seems to vanish dramatically when children go to school.  Maybe it’s because schools generally reward kids who have correct answers, not the ones who ask probing questions. Some teachers are even threatened by such questions. So early on, many of us learn to be anxious about asking a question that might make us look stupid or weird, or reveal that we weren’t paying attention.   And it’s even more insidious. It’s not just that we voice fewer questions as we get older; we often become less curious, less surprised by the world, less apt to wonder why it is the way it is. More and more, we read the world passively, taking it in without generating an internal set of questions.

The Seder is a great opportunity to reinvigorate our spirit of inquiry. The Mishna actually says that the Seder cannot begin until at least one genuine question has been asked. If no child is present, adults must ask one another. Reciting the Four Questions by rote – mah nishtanah ha lailah ha-zeh – doesn’t count. In a sense, the whole point of the Haggadah is to provoke new questions; only then will the telling of this ancient story come alive. Guests at the Seder table are expected to bring not just sticky macaroons and cement-like Passover pastries, but an active, curious, interrogative mind.

So what questions will you bring to your Seder this year? What would you like to ask your guests, or yourself?  Let me suggest a few possibilities. You might want to write some of these, or your own questions, on slips of paper and distribute them to your guests as conversation starters.

First: At every Seder we say, “let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who are in need come to celebrate Passover with us.” Why do we invite people to join the Seder when the Seder has already started? Shouldn’t we have invited those who are hungry and needy long before tonight? What’s the point of making this grand invitation when the only people who hear it are already sitting at the table? And why do we repeat the question? And what’s the difference between being “hungry” and being “in need” anyway?

Some say that “hungry” refers to those who suffer physical deprivation; “needy” refers to those who suffer psychologically – they are lonely, depressed, socially uncomfortable or spiritually estranged. How should our approach differ to these two categories of people? Some say that we repeat the invitation to remind ourselves that when we invite a needy person to join us, at first the person may decline for any number of reasons. But we can’t give up. We need to be patient and persistent, continuing to reach out to them until they’re ready to accept our invitation. What do you think about this idea of persistently inviting someone when they keep saying no? How have you tried to reach out to someone who is hungry, or needy – and what was that experience like?

Some say that when we ask the question at this point in the Seder the real audience is not the hungry and needy – it’s true; they should already have been invited. The real audience at this moment is ourselves. We’re summoning one another, as it were, to be fully present at the Seder – reminding ourselves that we are all hungry, all in need of spiritual nourishment and encouragement in a world often dark and depressing. So we might also ask: what are you hungry for this year? What gives you nourishment when you’re feeling hopeless about the world?

More questions: should we include the list of ten plagues in the Seder? What do you think of a God who would punish the Egyptians, including innocent firstborn children, in such violent ways? Do you see any justification for these particular punishments? Can one practice non-violence when facing a genocidal dictator? What about the Egyptian people who died – were they unfortunate collateral damage, or complicit in an oppressive slave-holding society? Where in the world today do we see innocent people suffering for the sins of their leader? What is our Jewish and American obligation to the murdered children of Syria?

If God is supposed to be omnipotent, why couldn’t the Israelite slaves have been freed quickly and easily, with a snap of the Divine fingers? Did God actually bring the plagues, or was it just that the Israelites perceived them as Divine actions? What do you think about miracles – are they compatible with a respect for science? Have you ever perceived something miraculous?

Ten drops are removed from our cup of joy because of Egyptian suffering. How is your own joy diminished, how is your own happiness purchased at the cost of others’ deprivation? Is there value in coming up with our own list of contemporary “plagues,” as so many modern Haggadahs do, to motivate us to action – or does that simply depress us? What’s plaguing you most at this point in your life? What’s plaguing our country, and what can we do about it? What motivates you to do better?

One Israeli educator writes that: “The plagues God visited on the Egyptians in Egypt seem to be a parade of people's greatest fears….Starting from the blood of birth and of death, through primal human fears of small creatures (lice) and large ones (wild beasts), fear of financial ruin (locusts), fear of the dark (losing direction and meaning), we face the greatest fear: the fear for our children's lives - loss of the future. Tonight, a night to commemorate the past, we seek the mercy of God's protection, look out from our places at a world full of fears and dangers - and pray for another quiet year” [Shai Zarchi]. What worries are currently keeping you up at night? Are you hoping for a quiet year or an eventful one? What are you most looking forward to? What’s your greatest hope for your children?

These questions are just the beginning, just a taste of what can happen when you give your inner question mark a workout. It’s worth making the effort to come up with your own inquiries -- for, as Rabbi Sacks said, it’s through the process of generating our own questions that we grow. And remember: the question mark is soft, rounded, open-ended – it invites another in. The act of imparting information can smack of superiority and arrogance, but we ask questions from a stance of humility, curiosity, vulnerability; seeking to understand, seeking connection with one another.

Elie Wiesel wrote: “The essential questions have no answers. You are my question, and I am yours – and then there is dialogue. The moment we have answers, there is no dialogue. Questions unite people; answers divide them.”

Those are words to cherish in a world in which everyone seems to be shouting, haranguing, hawking products, promoting their own version of the truth. Rather than hurling answers at each other, maybe we can meet instead, in question-mark mode. Maybe we can come together at the Seder table -- a place of open and genuine inquiry, finding new ways to interrogate an old story and bring it to life; finding new ways to understand and connect with one another. Why is this night different from all other nights? Why indeed?

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