By: Fanya Donin
It’s no secret among those who know me well, that Pesach (Passover), has never been on my list of favorite holidays. Yes, the Zionist story is a good one. Yes, the Jewish people overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds in order to become a nation is inspiring. But still, I don’t associate the same childhood joy with this holiday as I do with Chanukkah and Purim. I typically find the Seder to be extensive and tedious, and my mother takes Pesach cleaning to new and unexplored heights every single year. (I mean that literally. This year we basically made it to the ceiling. Now which chametz you’ll find on the ceiling, I haven’t the slightest idea. But I digress.)
Yet recently, as I was thinking about my choices, my lifestyle, and how very different I am from the me I knew last Pesach, I realized that in many ways I’ve experienced my own Exodus. I’ve (for the most part) left behind the thoughts that used to plague my everyday routine. I’ve moved past the discomfort I felt from simply being alive. And along with that, came a parting of the clouds; It unveiled a dazzling truth that quickly became blinding.
I’m an observant Jew. I do my best to keep Kosher and Shabbat. I try to abide by the laws of Tzniut and Shomer Negiah. And if you’d have told me a year ago that this would be my reality, I would’ve laughed at you.
“The Torah speaks of four children: One who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is simple and one who does not know how to ask.”
We read this passage at the Pesach Seder every year, and I’ve always attributed each child to a different type of person. But it never occurred to me to ask, “Which of the four children am I?”
And so this year, I’d like to offer an alternative to the traditional understanding of the four children mentioned every year. I think that I’ve been all four at various points in my life. When I felt broken, I didn’t know which questions to ask in order to escape my radical sense of loneliness. When I started to learn about Judaism in earnest, I felt simple; my preconceived notions of my heritage at first limiting me in my endeavors. And of course, there have been moments when I’ve felt unrighteous, or alternatively sagacious.
However, it’s the stark contrast between the evil son and the wise son that I find to be most poignant. When we’re young, we’re taught the difference between hero and lawbreaker, knight in shining armor and villain in a cape. But what if the only difference between protagonist and antagonist is the chapter in which you meet the character in question? What if the distance between good and evil can be ascertained by the questions you ask of your community, of your mentors, of yourself?
“Why is tonight different from all other nights?”
I remember the one year we jokingly added a banana to the Seder Plate, just so someone would ask why. (Bananas fall under the “borei p’ri ha’adamah” category, so they count as “Carpas” just in case you were curious.) The entire theme of the Seder is questions. Our Sages were well aware that children don’t usually have the longest of attention spans, and that the best way to engage children is to spark their natural curiosity. The Seder, therefore, is designed to provoke questions in the youngest among us. There’s literally even a part known as, “The Four Questions.”
So on that note, I’m offering four extra questions this Pesach. Four additional ways to ignite discourse. (The number four also happens to be a recurring motif throughout the Haggadah, but that’s a conversation for another time.)
“Next year in the rebuilt Jerusalem.”
- How many of us have a “wicked child” in our life? A Jew who has slipped through the cracks? One who has excluded himself from the collective, and as such, denied a principle of the Jewish faith? Doesn’t the Pirkei Avot (Ethics of The Fathers) insist that we “judge others favorably?” Yet how many of us have judged such a Jew, thinking him disenfranchised, when in reality he was just waiting to be embraced? What if we took it upon ourselves to close the gap between wicked and wise? How can I impact the destiny of such a Jew?
- Every good story includes a proverbial old man beseeching the neighborhood children to, “get off my lawn!” And at a Passover Seder, that persona is all of the adults collectively asking, “How can we engage young Jews?” Except they’re asking the wrong question. Instead, ask yourself, why are young Jews detached from Judaism to begin with? How could a story about star-crossed lovers, (the Jews and Israel) not move your children to tears? How could a story about intergenerational freedom and perseverance not cause your children’s eyes to widen in awe and delight? Perhaps we’ve been telling the wrong story. How can I better communicate to young Jews the richness of their heritage?
- As Jews we are obligated to see ourselves as personally leaving Egypt. But seeing as how Pesach is by and large a holiday of remembrance, what if we challenged ourselves to have in mind every Jewish exodus. The freedom Russian-speaking Jews tasted when leaving the USSR or the relief experienced by Jews of North African and Middle Eastern Decent? The miracles of years past and the ones yet to come? The physical instances of absconding oppressive countries and the spiritual enlightenment of escape? What would our lives look like if all of us chose to sanctify those moments? How can I honor the Exodus, in all its versions, this Pesach and always?
- “The Jewish people,” said Abraham Joshua Heschel, “is a messenger who forgot its message.” How can we expect Jews to represent Judaism, when most of us don’t even know what Judaism represents? The purpose of Jewish existence cannot possibly be simply to eat Jewish foods, or tell Jewish jokes, or use Jewish colloquialisms. The purpose of Jewish existence is to search for meaning, to live by God-given ideals, to be a light unto other nations. What am I doing to advance these goals?
Rabbi Reuven from RAJE always says that the quality of the life you lead is directly proportional to the quality of the questions you ask. This Pesach, let us be blessed to ask the right questions.