Passover: The Hidden Question

With many spring holidays including Passover, Easter and Ramadan just a few days away, it’s important to name this moment. It is a very, very difficult time for everyone.  Clearly, this phenomenon, what Secretary General  of the United Nations António Guterres called, “The greatest challenge facing us since World War II,” and what the Surgeon General of the United States, Vice Admiral Jerome Adams, has described as our “Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment,” is an inflection point in history.  These are indeed very challenging times, where we feel very alone, stuck in our houses (if we have the privilege to have a home). As I’ve written earlier, I believe there are two great forces that have been unleashed upon us, simultaneously.  The first is the centrifugal force, what I’ve termed fission, that drives us apart from each other — never before have so many individuals globally been so physically isolated from one another.  And at the same time, the centripetal force of love, what I’ve termed fusion, the force that drives us to connect, to help, and to be together.  These two forces are at the heart of the spiritual tug of war we are experiencing right now. 

In my tradition, Passover begins Wednesday night (4/8) where Jews across the world gather in homes to celebrate the Exodus from Egypt.  It feels like the right holiday to name this moment. Of all the Jewish holidays we celebrate throughout the year, this one is the most distributive.  The Torah teaches that each family shall share in the sacrifice of Passover as a family. “A lamb to a house.” (Ex. 12:3) Each family is to have the ritual meal on their own, not in the convocation of the whole community. The whole world seems to be having a Passover moment. 

At the center of the Seder are questions. Questions are how we learn and Judaism has always used questions to teach deep truths, and the Haggadah (our guide to the Seder) is not different. The Haggadah enumerates that there are four questions, four differences between this particular night and all other nights. Taken from the Mishnah (Pesachim 10:4), these questions relate to the food we see and eat on the Seder plate: matza, bitter herbs, dipping vegetables, and the paschal lamb (later traditions replaced the lamb question with the one about reclining at the table).  But there are other questions, deeper questions, found at the Seder table. Three of the four children: the wise, the wicked, and the simple, each ask a question about the regulations, meaning and basic understanding of the Exodus in our lives. (Ex. 12:26:-27; Ex. 13:14).  There are many beautiful commentaries written about these children and how they represent different aspects of our community, differing attitudes towards tradition, and even different psychological and developmental parts of ourselves. Questions upon questions abound.

There is, however, a hidden question of the Seder, one that is never articulated fully, perhaps because it’s too hard to ask and name this moment too starkly.  I’d like to think it is the question that lurks behind the eyes of the fourth child, one who does know how to ask. It’s a question that, like Moses, is hard to bring to voice because the weight of it is too heavy on the lips, born out of trauma, pain and disorientation.  I take the silence of the fourth child not as obstinance against a tradition or as an inarticulate babe who does not have the facility to speak. The fourth child is grasping at the deep and has not been able to ask a question because the lines that it traces are hard to fathom and the answer is harder still. She holds within herself the hidden question, but in times like this it is the only question.  My best sense of that question is:

Who am I, now?

With the pandemic continuing, the death count rising and isolation settling in, this is really the question of the times. There are elements of our lives that have changed dramatically that we don’t understand yet. The disaster is still unfolding; we do not yet know the aftershocks of the psychological plates shifting beneath us because we are still only experiencing the tremors. The deepest questions are not about what foods we eat or what the ritual of Passover is, but what kind of person we are at this unique moment in history.  It is not “what makes this night different from all other nights,” but, “What makes me different tonight from all other nights?” Will I be a different person tomorrow? Will I be a different person the day after? Will I be a different person when I emerge and the crisis wanes? Who am I, really? Who am I, now?

This is the hidden question of the Seder.  

The question of who we each are right now and who we will become when this is over is never articulated and never asked, but it is answered again and again. There are parts of the Haggadah which are ever-present in their wisdom and attempt to answer the hidden question of the Seder.  At the beginning of the storytelling,the Haggadah states, “And it is this that has stood for our ancestors and for us; since it is not only one enemy that has stood against us to destroy us, but rather in each generation, there are those that stand against us to destroy us, but the Holy One, Blessed One, rescues us from their hands.” Even before the Exodus story gets underway the rabbis are teaching us that the pattern of adversity in our lives, of feeling beset and besieged, is not unique to ancient Egypt.  Every generation faces at some point a great challenge, and having faith and optimism in the face of great uncertainty can pull you through. It was the same back then under Pharaoh’s switch and sandal, it was the same under the Roman spear and shield, it was the same under the German boot and boxcar, and it is the same now. This virus is our great challenge and it will change us, but it should not define us. 

Which leads to the second answer from Haggadah.  If the opening of the Exodus story tells us that adversity is a pattern to be confronted in every generation, the end of the Exodus story tells us that the courage and confidence that support us in these great and trying times, is inside of us already.  “In every generation one is obligated to see themselves as if they were liberated from Egypt.” The Haggadah is telling you that you are a survivor. You have already recovered from trauma, from pain and from exile, and once you’ve been redeemed, that capacity for redemption is now in you to redeem yourself and others. 

Who are you at this moment?  You are ancient and you are modern.  You are Moses and Miriam. You are a refugee in Babylon and Rome.  You are the partisan in the forest. You are the freedom fighter in Tel Aviv.  You are Elijah. All of us, in every generation, joined together on this night of redemption, facing the latest challenge.  All of us, together, answer the question of the fourth child by using our past to create our future. Knowing that redemption is always just around the corner. 

Have a wonderful Passover,

Chag Sameach

Leave a Reply