JWR Pesach
Jewish World Review / April 10, 1998 / 14 Nisan, 5758

The Four Questions Why all those Passover nights really were different

by Sarah Shapiro

WHY IS THIS NIGHT different from all other nights? The question echoes down the long corridors of my own life, and down through the much longer corridors of the Jewish people's history.

Why did my family celebrate the first night of Passover, when all the other holidays were for me, as a child, just strange names? Yom Kippur -- I didn't know what that was; the word brought to mind kippered herring. Rosh HaShana, Hannukah ... what were they supposed to signify? And Succot? I'd never heard of it.

But Passover: on Passover we piled into the family car and drove out to Long Island for Aunt Sophie's matzoh ball soup and four glasses apiece of sweet wine. Why? I had no idea. I was the youngest of all the cousins. So it was my job to read the four questions: Why on this night do we eat unleavened bread? Why on this night do we eat bitter herbs...

The questions stirred me inexplicably, but what did they mean? I wasn't interested. Our grandfather Pop took it seriously. He read aloud from a little pamphlet called the Hagaddah, in incomprehensible Hebrew, which embarrassed me. It embarrassed all of us children --again, I knew not why. Why was it so uncomfortable to have Pop sitting there with a black yarmulke on his head, reading that old, strange language in a guttural, thick, unfamiliar tongue? We kids cracked jokes which hard-of-hearing Pop could not make out. He'd look up every once in a while from his recitation, at his giggling, smirking grandchildren sitting there around the elaborately set dinner table, with its white tablecloth and crystal wine glasses, and he, too, must have wondered, "Why?"

Why of all the holidays did our assimilated Jewish family, like assimilated families everywhere, single out Passover as the one they would not forget? Aunt Sophie told me years later that she made those Passover seders in order to forge a bond between all the cousins, and in that she succeeded. But unbeknownst to her, perhaps, and unbeknownst to me, she was also forging a bond between me and my Jewishness, and between me and my G-d.

The Hagaddah tells the tale of our bondage at the beginning of our history, and of our liberation. Matzoh represents redemption; the bitter herbs life's suffering. We make a sandwich of the two at the Seder, enclosing the bitterness of life within the kindness. Somehow this story encapsulates our national identity, and for the individual Jew, his personal identity, as well.

It's precisely the experience of enslavement that makes an awareness of freedom possible, the difficult experience of successfully crossing the desert that makes it possible to earn self-respect; and precisely the experience of wandering that makes finding home a cause for celebration. Every person in the course of his life passes through his own individual exile and seeks to reacquire his own homeland, his own liberation. It's a homeland not only in the physical sense, but in the sense of personally reacquiring one's own real self, a liberation not only from physical bondage but liberation from the various sorts of bondage to which one has enslaved his own spirit.

In a rabbi's anthology of his halachic responses to the religious queries of fellow Jews with whom he was incarcerated in Auschwitz during World War II, he recounts the following incident: One morning during prayer at the camp, the man who was leading the congregation in the service reached the blessing, 'Blessed are You Who has not made me a slave.' The man stopped short, and suddenly "he shouted bitterly to the Master of all masters, 'How can I recite a blessing of a free man? How can a hungry slave, constantly abused and demeaned, praise his Creator by uttering 'Who has not made me a slave'? Every morning as he led the prayers, he let out the same cry! And many of those who joined him in prayer felt the same way. I was then asked for the Torah ruling on this matter. Response: One of the earliest commentators on the prayers points out that this blessing was not formulated in order to praise G-d for our physical liberty but rather for our spiritual liberty. I therefore ruled that we might not skip or alter this blessing under any circumstances. On the contrary, despite our physical captivity, we were more obligated than ever to recite the blessing, in order to show that as a people we were spiritually free."

During this same era, the mid-1940s, while those Jews in Auschwitz were debating whether to recite the blessing, my husband was a child growing up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. One of the taunts he used to hear sometimes, from the parochial-school children on his way home, went like this: "Matzohs, matzohs, three by five! That's what keeps the Jews alive!"

My husband flinched, the kids laughed, and neither he nor they had any way of knowing that what the little jingle said was true.

JWR contributor Sarah Shapiro, is a Jerusalem-based writer and editor.

3/98: The day the Middle East was transformed ... at least temporarily

© 1998, Sarah Shapiro