by Meir Sendor
מה נשתנה הלילה הזה מכל הלילות
Somewhere down the line the common English translation of this well-known phrase went off the track. It’s not “why is this night different,” but “what is changed about this night from all other nights?” It’s not a philosophical question but a question about being aware and being alert to what’s going on. And the implication is not limited to why this night is ritually unique, but rather what is the impact of this night of transformation that continues beyond this night. The opening four questions point out anomalies that the halakhah builds into the progress of the evening, things that have changed or will change on this night compared to the usual order. In fact, the term Seder, Order, is itself ironic, since the point of the evening is to highlight what’s out of order. On this wild and crazy Pesach it will not be hard to notice things that are way out of order.
The Mishnah Pesachim says that when the second cup of wine is filled “here the son asks his father.” The Gemara adds: if the child is not able to ask, one’s wife asks; and if not, one asks oneself (Pesachim 116a). This year, sadly but also deeply, many of us will be alone at our Seder, and this halakhah, that you can ask yourself, is not only timely and useful, but consoling. The Rabbis clearly foresaw there would be unusual times, times when many of us might be the only one at a Seder. The fact that the halakhah includes the situation that you ask yourself the questions means you are not entirely alone – there have been and will be and are now Jews throughout the world and throughout Jewish history who are with you in the same situation. You are included.
But what does it mean to ask yourself a question? The Gemara notes that the four questions are not the only questions this night, and the commentary tradition is emphatic that the four listed in the Haggadah are just the beginning, samples and examples meant to prime the pump and get us to keep asking more and deeper questions throughout the night. According to Rav Hayyim of Brisk, the mitzvah of telling the story of the going-out of Egypt is fulfilled by a process of questioning and answering (Hiddushei HaGaon Rav Hayyim, 33). In many homes, especially with young children of school age, the questioning takes on the character of a quiz – parents and relatives who more or less know the answers to the questions they are asking, testing the children on what they have learned, making a game of it, and the children spouting back the lessons; or the children asking questions they have been taught and giving canned answers. In a household with older children or a group of adults, the questioning sometimes becomes a chance to show off cleverness – people asking questions rhetorically to set up answers they have already thought of. But if you are asking yourself a question, it’s not going to be a quiz show, and there’s no one you need to impress. It will be sincere questioning, asking real questions that get to the heart of what it means to ask. So what is a real question? And if you are asking a real question, to which you don’t know the answer, then who answers it?
Rabbi Gershon Hanokh Henokh Leiner in Sod Yesharim explores what it means to ask a real question at the Seder, or at any existential time. Referencing the profound discussion of what it means to ask a question in the Zohar (1:1b-2a), he says:
The root and foundation of the service of Israel is to reach for the place that is not known, to ascend there in thought far above the understanding of the concept of Creation. Though all understanding of the concept of Creation begins with the day God created mankind, that is, begins from this point about which a question can be asked, nonetheless there is no one to answer it, since it is covered and hidden… even so, from this question , which is “Who created these (Is. 40:26),” begins the grasp of Creation. (Sod Yesharim, Leil Pesach, sec. 3).
A real question begins with a fact – such as the fact that we find ourselves here, we find the world here, and we did nothing to bring ourselves here. Then our minds try to reach beyond, to ask “Who created these.” A question is the way by which mind transcends all contents of mind, and this reaching beyond is the essential mission and divine service of Israel. He says that this essential question can be asked but not answered. Well, the Torah does seem to answer it – it says God created the world. But Rabbi Leiner’s point is that when you really ask the question and mean it, you don’t receive and experience the answer directly, as a concept contained in mind. God is Infinite and hidden. But it’s still important to ask. Because the reaching out itself, beyond your own mind, is the way our mind transcends itself and opens and expands to be able to appreciate the mystery of this world and begin to be in touch with HaShem the Infinite, Ein Sof.
Rabbi Leiner continues:
However, the point that can be asked and answered begins with the salvation of the Exodus from Egypt… for in the Exodus from Egypt HaShem, blessed be He, began to open the light completely that can appear to human conception, that can be asked and answered. And therefore HaShem, blessed be He, revealed the enlightenment of this salvation by way of question and answer… This is what is alluded to in the salvation that is aroused by questioning and innovating, and this is why changes are made [at the Seder] in order to ask and answer and teach that we always need to set in our hearts questioning and crying out, by which salvation is aroused…
His point is that, while the origin of the world is a question that can be asked but not fully answered, the process of salvation from Egypt, and every divine salvation, is a question that can be asked and answered. In fact, it is the process of asking that activates the salvation itself, which is the real answer. If we find ourselves stuck in a dangerous situation, the process of help begins when we stop accepting what is happening but rather question it and reach out beyond the situation for help. This is how the salvation from Egypt was initiated – by the Israelites ultimately crying out and questioning their suffering – and they received a direct answer from HaShem: the rescue from Egypt itself. So, too, our commemoration of the salvation from Egypt is re-experienced through question and answer. A real question is not just a sentence with a question mark at the end. A real question is asked with our whole being, reaching from the little we know about ourselves and the world and our situation in it, out into the unknown, opening us to HaShem the Infinite, HaShem Who cares for us.
How is this Pesach changed from all other Pesachim? In one way, our Pesach this year is closest to that original Pesach, when the Israelites sheltered in place in small groups, prohibited from leaving their homes while an epidemic raged outside. But for each of us in our own lives, in this wild and dangerous time, when so much of what we relied on and took for granted in our lives is suddenly changed, when the whole world has changed for all of us, we have many, many questions to ask. It’s a time for real and meaningful questioning, about life and what’s essential in our lives, about how to strengthen and deepen our connections to each other. And in our questioning in this precarious time we reach out sincerely for HaShem Himself. Wherever we are, whoever we are with, even if we are by ourselves asking ourselves – by our real questions we include God in our Seder.
May all of us, wherever we are, share together a joyful, meaningful, real and healthy Pesach.