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Questions About the Questions

by Rabbi Israel Rubin

  

Library » Holidays » Passover » Seder » The Haggadah | Subscribe | What is RSS?


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Although our faith is based on an unquestioning belief in G-d and His Torah, Judaism also encourages us to ask and inquire, to learn, think, and understand.

The central part of the Haggadah opens with the Four Questions, asked by the youngest member of the family. The recital of the Four Questions is no trivial matter. The younger children have been memorizing the words, preparing in school for this special presentation. Some children may be shy or nervous; they will require coaxing or prompting.

Yet this precious moment gives a child a large sense of accomplishment and gives the adults much nachas. Even if the child does not fully understand the meaning of the questions, his or her proud parents and grandparents listen carefully to every word as their little one chants the familiar tune.

The asking of the Four Questions is so important to the Passover ceremony that if the child does not ask on his or her own initiative, it is our duty to arouse an interest, to literally beg the question. The custom to dip karpas in saltwater was instituted as part of the ritual for this very reason — so that the children will notice that something is different this night.

Do we adults pretend to be so knowledgeable that we have nothing to ask? Has Judaism become so routine and blasé to us that we are not determined to learn more, to delve deeper into the Torah and its message?
(It should be noted that it is not only the major Jewish observances that carry educational value. Sometimes it is the seemingly small matters, such as the dipping of the karpas, that make the biggest impression on a child’s mind.)

Our response to the Four Questions fulfills the Torah’s instruction to pass on the story of the Exodus. This actually serves as a rite of passage of historic proportions. It is at this juncture that the younger generation expresses the interest to accept the baton of Jewish tradition relayed to it by the older generation, continuing a 3,300-year-old tradition begun at the Exodus.

Questions for Adults
Even if we are all wise, understanding and knowledgeable . . .1

Whatever spiritual level of meaning and significance we attain at the Seder, it is a child who triggered the discussion. Even the narrative of the most distinguished Talmudic scholars, whose Seder lasted until dawn, came as a response to a youth’s question.

Let us remember that the Four Questions are not there just for the sake of the children. Even one who celebrates the Seder alone must begin the Haggadah by reciting the Four Questions to himself. The Four Questions are in no way childish. Kabbalistically, they are very significant even in the higher realms, representing spiritual relationships in the supernal worlds and spheres.

The significance of asking questions is relevant not only to the night of Passover itself; it applies to each day throughout the year. Although our faith is based on an unquestioning belief in G-d and His Torah, Judaism also encourages us to ask and inquire, to learn, think, and understand, so that we quench our intellectual thirst. We must consider that questions are not meant only for children. Do we adults pretend to be so knowledgeable that we have nothing to ask? Has Judaism become so routine and blasé to us that we are not determined to learn more, to delve deeper into the Torah and its message?

The Haggadah teaches us that Judaism is not afraid of questions. In fact, the Torah anticipates, welcomes, and encourages queries. The Talmudic style of learning of shakla vetarya is based on a question-and-answer system. The Talmudic Sages would probe and probe, taking nothing for granted. Accepting matters on faith is not necessarily always a virtue. As we read in Ethics of the Fathers (2:5): “The shy person does not learn.”

Footnotes

  • 1. Haggadah.

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Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Passover
A Biblically mandated early-spring festival celebrating the Jewish exodus from Egypt in the year 1312 BCE.
Rebbe
A Chassidic master. A saintly person who inspires followers to increase their spiritual awareness.
Lubavitcher
One who follows the teachings of the Chassidic group which was formerly based in the Belarus village of Lubavitch. Today, the movement is based in Brooklyn, New York with branches worldwide. The Lubavitch movement is also widely known as "Chabad."
Haggadah
Text read at the Passover Eve feasts. The Haggadah recounts in great detail the story of our Exodus from Egypt.
Seder
Festive meal eaten on the first two nights of the holiday of Passover (In Israel, the Seder is observed only the first night of the holiday). Seder highlights include: reading the story of the Exodus, eating Matzah and bitter herbs, and drinking four cups of wine.
Exodus
1. The miraculous departure of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage in 1312 BCE. 2. The second of the Five Books of Moses. This book describes the aforementioned Exodus, the giving of the Torah, and the erection of the Tabernacle.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.