There is a good reason that the home Seder is the most widely observed Jewish ritual. It engages all of the senses, with wonderful food, light, sound, aromas, and even unusual textures – matzah and gefilte fish, Hillel sandwiches, and bitter herbs. The Haggadah text engages us with humor and song and serious reflections; there is room for familiar liturgy as well as spontaneous expression. We are ensconced in intimate settings with family and friends, and we also invite strangers and guests, real and imagined, to join in our celebration.
One of the most beloved elements of the Passover Seder is the recitation of the Four Questions. This part of the Seder exemplifies what is best about the ritual, in that it engages people of all ages, young and old. Traditionally, the youngest child who is able to chant or read is assigned the great honor and responsibility of asking the questions, which are then answered by all of the Seder participants.
In his groundbreaking Haggadah, “A Different Night,” Noam Zion makes a fascinating point about the Four Questions. He notes that “the four questions are not formulated as questions, but as statements of wonder.” The child doesn’t ask about the big miracles of our tradition, the 10 plagues, or the parting of the Red Sea, or even the giving of the Torah, but rather observes with wonder several rather small changes in the routine of the meal that have caught their attention. The menu has changed – we eat matzah rather than bread, the foods are eaten in a special order, and we dip not once, but twice. These are not really questions but rather observations.
Adults can learn a lesson from the way children focus on small changes in their routines. If we are attentive, the Seder meal may open a door – not only for Elijah, but for all of us to pay attention to the small changes in our lives, to what is different in our feelings, our appearances, our families, our friendships. The Seder is a time to reflect on the small miracles that make up the bigger miracle of our having survived to celebrate yet another festival together.
According to the Mishna, the oldest source for this tradition, the child is prompted with these observations by the parent – and only if needed, in order to encourage the child to ask their own questions and engage in the story of our redemption and meaning of the ritual meal. What this may teach is that neither the asking nor the response should be rote.
The best approach to creating a meaningful Seder is to pay attention and be willing to ask our own questions – and find our own answers as well. I often say that Judaism does not claim to have all the answers to the questions we bring to the table. However, we do have great ways of asking the most important questions about life and meaning, about spiritual matters and how to be a good human being. And we have a community of people devoted to formulating and addressing these questions and adapting them to our time and needs. The Seder table is the microcosm of the entire enterprise of Jewish learning and Jewish life. And as we go forward on our journey of redemption, as we seek greater freedom from all that oppresses us, may we bring others along that path with us as well.
Wishing all a sweet and engaging Pesach! Θ
Rabbi David Kudan leads Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester.