By Rabbi-Cantor Cheri Weiss
Passover is the most beloved and celebrated of the Jewish holidays. Statistics indicate that even those who consider themselves to be completely secular Jews make the effort to attend (or hold) a Seder – the festive meal that forms the cornerstone of the holiday. Ask anyone what the highlight of these festivities is, and chances are they will reply: The Four Questions, of course!
The honor of asking these questions usually goes to either the youngest child present or all of the children as a group. It is a responsibility that children seem to take very seriously, practicing at home for their shining star moment. As parents, we can only hope that they find meaning in their distinctive role at the Seder and remember it for years to come.
The Four Questions opens with an introductory question: How is this night different from all other nights? What follows are really statements that delineate how this night is different:
On all other nights we eat leavened products and matzah, and on this night only matzah.
On all other nights we eat all vegetables, and on this night only bitter herbs.
On all other nights, we don’t dip our food even once, and on this night we dip twice.
On all other nights we eat sitting or reclining, and on this night we only recline.
In simple terms, we may respond: We eat matzah because we did not have time to bake fully-leavened bread before their daring escape from Egypt. We eat bitter herbs to remind us how difficult our lives were as slaves in Egypt. Our food is dipped twice: parsley in salt water to signify the tears we shed as slaves, bitter herbs in charoset to signify the bitterness of slavery turning into the sweetness of freedom. We recline like royalty to symbolize freedom from oppression (slaves stood while royalty ate in luxury).
Why is it so important for children to ask these questions? The text could just as easily have been incorporated into the body of the retelling of the story without this interlude. Yet that would have defeated the entire purpose of the Seder itself! We are meant not only to retell the story; we are meant to relive it, as though it were happening to us. By having children recite these questions, we are encouraging them to see themselves as an integral part of the fabric of Jewish history, hoping that this will encourage them to continue living Jewish lives as they enter into adulthood.
In Judaism, we are encouraged to ask questions rather than accept Jewish laws and customs at face value. We are urged to question the nature of God and the reasons behind God’s actions, even if we don’t always find answers. By asking questions and exploring Judaism in all its facets, we may deepen our connection to our faith and its traditions. Exploring the writings of ancient Jewish sages and contemporary scholars may help us discover how Judaism can feed our soul and help us lead more fulfilled lives based on the Torah and its teachings.
On Passover, we delight in watching our children recite the ancient Four Questions, hoping that this ritual marks the beginning of a lifelong search for answers to the great questions that life will bring in the years to come. May we, as adults, also understand that there is no limitation to our own quest for knowledge and that our own questions should continue to be asked.