Pesach Day 1 5782 – Thoughts and Questions for this Passover

By: Elisa Miller

When I think of Passover, I don’t think of it as a time for going to shul… at least not until the last couple of days when we say Yiskor. The seder is the ultimate Jewish experience because it happens in the home, lending credence to the thought that Judaism is away of life, not just a religion.

One reading at the beginning of the seder says, “All who are hungry, let them come and eat.” This serves as both an encouragement to help feed those who are hungry in our communities and an invitation to fill your seder table with guests. Friends and relatives of all backgrounds and religions are welcome at seder tables.

I’m here today, however, because I am saying Kaddish for two people who were very important to me when I was growing up—my father’s Stepmother, Gertie and my great Aunt Dora.

My father’s mother passed when he was 16. In fact, I was named after her and I have always appreciated the fact that my father (z’’l) created the name Elisa and didn’t name me ‘Ethel.’ My grandfather remarried after she passed and I always considered Gertie to be my grandmother and she treated my brother and I as her grandchildren.

My great aunt was very special to me. She was my grandfather’s older sister (in fact both of my grandparents on my mother’s side had sisters named Dora). She spoke with a strong Polish accent, had boundless energy and lived in New York. She had married several times, yet never had any children.

So what is the connection between these women and Pesach? According to Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “It is no accident that Parshat Bo, the section that deals with the culminating plagues and the exodus, should turn three times to the subject of children and the duty of parents to educate them. As Jews we believe that to defend a country you need an army, but to defend a civilization you need education. Freedom is lost when it is taken for granted. Unless parents hand on their memories and ideals to the next generation – the story of how they won their freedom and the battles they had to fight along the way – the long journey falters and we lose our way.“

Both my aunt and grandmother encouraged us to ask questions, to explore, to wonder. They shared their stories and asked many questions of us as we were growing up.

Both had strong senses of education and they encouraged me to continue to pursue formal as well as informal education. Having such strong, encouraging women in my life impacted me in ways I didn’t always appreciate until I was older.

During the seder we talk about the four children: one wise, one wicked or rebellious, one simple and “one who does not know how to ask.” Reading them together the Sages came to the conclusion that [1] children should ask questions, [2] the Pesach narrative must be constructed in response to, and begin with, questions asked by a child, [3] it is the duty of a parent to encourage his or her children to ask questions, and the child who does not yet know how to ask should be taught to ask.

Rabbi Sacks continues: “There is nothing natural about this at all. To the contrary, it goes dramatically against the grain of history. Most traditional cultures see it as the task of a parent or teacher to instruct, guide or command. The task of the child is to obey. “Children should be seen, not heard,” goes the old English proverb (one my father used to say with a wink). Socrates, who spent his life teaching people to ask questions, was condemned by the citizens of Athens for corrupting the young. In Judaism the opposite is the case. It is a religious duty to teach our children to ask questions. That is how they grow.”

Judaism is known to have a culture of asking questions. We are often accused of answering a question with another question. Another thing I learned by reading Rabbi Sacks is “Judaism is not a religion of blind obedience. Indeed, astonishingly in a religion of 613 commandments, there is no Hebrew word that means “to obey”. When Hebrew was revived as a living language in the nineteenth century, and there was need for a verb meaning “to obey,” it had to be borrowed from the Aramaic: letsayet. Instead of a word meaning “to obey,” the Torah uses the verb shema, untranslatable into English because it means [1] to listen, [2] to hear, [3] to understand, [4] to internalise, and [5] to respond.”

Which takes us back to Passover and the asking of questions. During preparations how many times have you had to reach out to a reference (or a Rabbi) to ask: what oil is appropriate to use during Passover? which vegetables are okay and which are not? what time do we start the Seder this year? How do we sell our chometz, and why?

The seder itself starts with four questions:

  • Why is this night different from all other nights?
  • Why do we dip our vegetables twice?
  • Why do we eat bitter herbs?
  • Why do we sit in a relaxed fashion?

“Why” questions are the most challenging and often the most difficult to answer. Young children often drive their families crazy, asking, ‘why this? Why that? We spend the next several hours during the seder ‘response’ answering those questions and perhaps calling for more.

Again from Rabbi Sacks:

“The one essential, though, is to know and to teach this to our children, that not every question has an answer we can immediately understand. There are ideas we will only fully comprehend through age and experience, others that take great intellectual preparation, yet others that may be beyond our collective comprehension at this stage of the human quest. Darwin never knew what a gene was. Even the great Newton, founder of modern science, understood how little he understood, and put it beautifully: “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

In teaching its children to ask and keep asking, Judaism honoured what Maimonides called the “active intellect” and saw it as the gift of God. No faith has honoured human intelligence more.”

I want to honor and remember the members of my family, including my grandparents, aunts and uncles and my father who encouraged me to ask questions, love Pesach and continue the traditions.

Shabbat Shalom and have a Zissan Pesach.