Asking the right questions

Asking the right questions

The story is told of a dying sage surrounded by admiring disciples intent on obtaining the key to life. “What’s the answer?” they ask. “It depends,” the sage replies. “What is the question?” 

That really is sage advice. Everything depends on the question we ask. 

This is Shabbat Hagadol, the Sabbath preceding the seder, which begins with questions. The right question is everything.

This questioning goes back to the seder’s origins, the Mishnah, which says, “The second cup of wine is poured, and here the son asks the father.” But what does he ask? The Mishnah does not say, and for centuries the question or questions varied. The Talmud lists our four questions but just as suggestions of the kind of thing a child might notice and inquire about. Only in the Middle Ages did they somehow become “official.”

Even then, however, it was the father who asked them, not the children — a sign that they are symbolic of deeper questions that only adults are able to contemplate. Eventually, the questions were relegated to children, but not on that account made central to the evening’s proceedings. Only with the baby-boomer generation did we mistakenly come to treat them as virtually sacrosanct — another sign of post-World War II Judaism, in general, becoming “pediatric”: religion as a childhood diversion that adults no longer believe. 

Until then, the point of the seder was hardly children chanting questions memorized in religious school; it was adults deliberating the consequences of taking Jewish existence seriously. The “four sons narrative” is not really about “sons” or even about “children.” Adults too can be wise, evil, foolish, or just plain uninvolved. 

“Even if we were all wise and all knowledgeable,” the Talmud says, “we would still be obliged to relate the Passover story.” But why? If we were so smart, wouldn’t we already know it? My Talmud teacher, Samuel Atlas, of blessed memory, answered this objection by observing that the underlying question for Passover changes with the times. Mah nishtanah — “Why is this night different” should be read symbolically to mean “Why are our times different?” What question should preoccupy us in our time?

The Rabbis read Shabbat Hagadol (“The Great Shabbat”) as Shabbat Haggadah (“the Shabbat of the Haggadah”), and set it aside to anticipate the reading of the Haggadah the week following: not just how to read it, but how to read something new into it, a new question for every era. What question ought to haunt us this year?

I do not mean a passing question for 2018 alone. I mean an ongoing question of substance; and because Passover marks our birth as a people, I mean the most pressing question possible for the Jewish people’s continued existence. What is that question?

The child-centeredness of the seder’s questions is not altogether an error, if we redefine “children” as the next generation, the young adult millennials who fault their elders for asking old questions rather than facing up to a new one. Here’s their burning question: Why be Jewish altogether? Or, translated into seder language: Why does it matter that God delivered us from Egypt in the first place?

That question is anathema to most of my generation who think Jewish existence requires no justification. In every generation (the Haggadah says) people rise up to enslave or even kill us. But God saves us — or, in more modern, even Zionistic, language, we fight to save ourselves. What more do we need to know? 

But, the millennials say, for what end? What’s the point of it all? If being Jewish has no transcendent purpose, then why bother? 

We left Egypt to serve God: that’s the Torah’s answer. Do people still believe that? What does “service of God” mean today? Without thinking that through, we will have nothing to say “when our children ask,” and we will perish — not by others who rise up against us, but by our own intellectual lethargy. Passover insists that Judaism matters profoundly. Our seder this year should explain why.

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