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Dvar Torah on Pesach

Pesach 2009 / 5769 - Talking to Yourself

09.04.2009 by

I'd like to share a thought with  you all about the Seder. As many of you already know, the asking of questions is a central element of the Passover Seder. Traditionally, the youngest children at the meal ask the four questions. Prompted by the strangeness of the Seder table - matza instead of challah, weird vegetables and dips, way too much wine, pillows at everyone's seat - the children ask the adults what it's all about, and get answers. This dynamic is seen as classically and crucially Jewish: we must pay attention, things must be noticed, questions must be asked, answers are demanded, and we must try to supply them, as best we can. 

The Talmud in the tractate Pesachim, which is our basic source for the laws and customs of the Seder, contains a strange halacha (law). What if there are no children present at the Seder? What if it is a Seder attended only by knowledgeable adults? Must the questions still be asked? The Talmud says yes: the classic Jewish dynamic of asking and answering must be preserved. Well, OK, but what if it is a one-man Seder? What if someone is making the Seder on his or her own, what then? The Talmud insists that even in this case, the lone Seder-maker must ask himself the four questions, and then answer them.

Now, one could explain this law by pointing out that this strange monologue does serve to keep the tradition of question and response alive, even though it would seem to lack the true dynamic of a real question and answer - after all, if you know the answers, what kind of questions are you asking yourself?  But, I have a different, hopefully more satisfying, explanation. Some months ago, I was given a gift by some of my students: a bumper sticker that  reads "Don't Believe Everything You Think". Pondering this message as I hide in my office during the final, crucial, critical hours of  Pessach cleaning, it occurs to me that the law which demands  that the solo Seder-maker ask himself the questions is NOT simply a formal nod to the importance of the question/answer format. Rather, it may well be teaching us what the deepest, hardest, most important Jewish question is.

You see, telling your four-year-old son or granddaughter the story of the Exodus is a pleasure, a piece of Kosher for Passover cake (and my wife makes a Passover apple cake that you can not believe is Kosher for Pessach, but I digress).  Challenging yourself  to really explain what it all means, trying to figure out what your connection is to the Jewish past and present, and what your part in the Jewish story really is, is a lot trickier. Asking yourself the four questions, forcing yourself to think deeply about the things you claim to believe in, pondering what the ritual and rhythm of Jewish life really have to say to you, really demand of you, these, perhaps, are the most important questions of all, and the hardest ones to answer. When we sit alone at the Passover table - and, ultimately, we all must do that - we are asked by the halacha to challenge what we think, and discover what it is we really believe.

Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

Pesach Summary


Pesach commemorates the Exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. We remember the birth of the Jewish nation on Passover with a seven-day holiday (eight in the Diaspora), which begins with the Seder - a festive meal during which we retell the story of the exodus and describe how God freed us from slavery to become His people, receive His Torah, and live in His chosen land, Israel. During the holiday we eat unleavened bread - matza - to remember both the cheap, crummy bread we were fed as slaves, as well as the speed with which we left Egypt - no time for our dough to rise - and we refrain from eating any form of leavened bread.

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