Two divrei Torah: Asking questions and The psychology of the Seder

Thoughts for people celebrating the seder alone or as a couple: Is there a point in askinng oneself the Four Questions? And can a one or two person Seder be meaningful?

Torah Mitzion Torani Tzioni Movement

Judaism Torah Mitzion Beit Midrash
Torah Mitzion Beit Midrash

Asking Questions

By Rabbi Gideon Weitzman
Former Rosh Kollel in Kansas City (1998-2000)
Currently head of the English Speaking Section of the Puah Institute

The Mishnah (Pesachim 10:4) says that, after the first cup of wine is drunk for Kiddush, a second cup is poured and the son asks the father the Four Questions. The Gemara (Pesachim 116a) states that if the son cannot ask the questions or is absent then the wife asks the questions, if this is also not a possibility then the person asks themselves the questions.

This strange suggestion may become the sad reality for many people alone for the first time in their lives on Seder night. Instead of being surrounded by family and friends they will be on their own and “ask themselves” the Four Questions. Our hearts go out to them and we pray that this situation should change for the better very soon.

Why does the Gemara suggest that a person asks themselves? Surely the idea of asking questions is to get an answer, and what is the reason for the same person to ask and to supply the answer?

While questions are often asked in order to gain information the Talmud suggests that there is another reason to ask questions in general, and these questions in particular.

It has been said that we remember questions that we ask; many years after a class students may not recall the details of the lesson but they will remember their own questions. We ask what we are interested in and so when we are permitted and encouraged to ask we are more likely to remember.

But this cannot be the only reason that the Gemara wants us to ask, since the question is a somewhat artificial one and the answer is supplied by the Hagaddah. So why is it so important that we ask?

We recently started reading the Book of Vayikra, the first word is written with a small Alef, what is left is Vayikar, and it just happened. When the Alef is added it becomes a calling, a cry from God to Moshe and to all of humanity.

The same word appears at the end of the Book of Vayikra; we are warned that in the future we may leave God and go with him “keri” (see Vayikra 26:21). Rashi explains that we will claim that all is by chance, instead of seeing God in the equation. The Rambam (Laws of Fasting 1:3) says that when bad things happen in the world we are to fast and turn to God. If, instead, we chalk it up to a natural occurrence and do not seek out God this is cruel and prevents the people from repenting.

The question is a declaration of belief; we do not view the world as a chain of freak events, rather we ask why did this happen. Or, even more powerful and pertinent, what can we learn from this and how can we make things better?

The questions affirm that, while we cannot always fathom the Divine mind, we do believe that this is not outside of His jurisdiction. This is not happenstance and we are commanded to learn something from it. Do not just let it pass over you; continue to believe in asking questions and seeking out the rhyme and the reason.

Our prayer is that we continue to ask questions and that, when He sees fit, God will give us an answer.

May we all have a special and uplifting Pesach, wherever we are, whatever our circumstances and whoever is asking and answering. 


The Psychology of the Seder

By Emanuel Elstein
Former Shaliach in Washington (2003-4) and Memphis (2010-12)
Currently Director of Operations,Torah MiTzion 

Judaism is a family based religion. Long before the invention of organized education systems, we had already perfected the method of familial traditions, passing from father to son.

First and foremost, the obligation of passing our tradition from generation to generation is upon the parents. Today modern educators are discovering what we have intuitively known for eons; that the best form of learning is not by a lecture but rather through experiences.

And so the primary arena of study in Judaism is the family table. Our Shabbat table is a living educational experience, where we reinforce our basic beliefs.

If Shabbat is an educational meal, than Seder night is the educational meal. It’s a meal totally geared towards children. We have to four question, we do all kind of strange things so they’ll ask questions, we hide the afikoman… all the create interest and involvement.

But then we have an odd saying in the seder, which seems to contradict all that –
אפילו כולנו חכמים, כולנו נבונים, כולנו זקנים, כולנו יודעים את התורה, מצווה עלינו לספר ביציאת מצרים..."
"Even if all of us were wise, all of us understanding, all of us knowing the Torah, we would still be obligated to discuss the exodus from Egypt; and everyone who discusses the exodus from Egypt at length is praiseworthy"

But why?

Isn’t the seder all about kids? About teaching the story to someone who doesn’t know it yet? If we all know the Torah, so really, why are we telling the story? It’s one thing to tell it to our kids so they know the story. But we know it already!

What’s the point?

Maimonides, teaches us that what we have here is a successful exercise in mass psychology. Some things we can prove. Once you rationally prove something it’s just a matter of teaching the information and you’re set. But when it comes to our beliefs, our faith, there is no proof. That’s why it’s called belief and faith.

But how do we reinforce this belief? – Through repetition. Certain stories have become part of our national heritage; have been ingrained in our psyche so deeply we can’t get rid of it. They are the founding myths of our collective memory – Akeidat Yitzchak, for example. Jews have been raised on that story and the concept of Kiddush Hashem for so long, it’s no wonder we find so many stories of even totally unaffiliated and non-observant Jews who were willing to die rather than give up their Judaism.

Similarly, we repeat again and again, twice a day, but writ large on Seder night, the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim. We hear it so often we rarely take the time to think about the absurdity of it. The story makes no sense. It’s totally irrational that G-d would choose to liberate a nation that had sunk to the pits of 49 Shaarei Tum’a, and almost reached the 50th. It makes no sense that G-d would kill all the firstborn Egyptians but spare the Jews who were just as idolatrous as them. It makes no sense to think that G-d would choose us and give us the Torah, when we were so underserving of it.

But it happened. Pesach is an irrational holiday. And the seder is not about learning history. It doesn’t matter how much I know or how smart I am, this night is about reinforcing our belief in Yetziat Mitzrayim, restoring our belief that if G-d promised something - it will happen even if it doesn’t make sense. Our belief that just as Hashem redeemed us once, despite all logic, he will also redeem us again, for the final Geula.

And as Binyamin Theodore Herzl said – אם תרצו, אין זו אגדה
If you will it, it is not a dream.