JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review April 6, 2001 / 13 Nissan, 5761

A time to ask

By Jonathan Rosenblum

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THIS weekend's Seders are the highlight of the year as far as the transmission of enduring Jewish values from one generation to another: "And you shall say to your son on that day..."

Our goal is to bring each participant in the Seder to a recognition of the magnitude of what G-d did for us when He redeemed us from Egypt. Thus the more we tell of the going out from Egypt the more praiseworthy, for there is no limit to gratitude.

That gratitude requires that the Seder must become something more than the commemoration of events that took place more than 170 generations ago. The Exodus must become present for us as an event having a direct impact on our lives today. Only when we view ourselves as if we are ourselves are going out of Egypt have we fulfilled the obligation of the Seder.

So we begin, 'If G-d had not taken our ancestors out of Egypt, we and our children and our children and our childrenís children would still be slaves to Pharoah." The spiritual depravity of Egypt would still be part of us, for we would never have survived as one people capable of receiving G-dís Torah.

The Rabbis gave us rather explicit instructions as to how the story of the Exodus from Egypt should be told in order to maximize our feelings of gratitude and identification with the events being described. The story must begin with a recounting of the degradation of our servitude in Egypt and even before that ("In the beginning our ancestors worshipped the stars . . .") and conclude with praises of the Jewish people.

And the retelling of those events should be in the form of questions and answers. Even the greatest scholar eating the Seder by himself is required to recited the Four Questions, traditionally reserved for the youngest child at the Table.

Both the form and content of the story are predicated on a simple psychological principle: a person only fully appreciates something if he has first experienced its absence. To fully appreciate a life of freedom to serve G-d we must first experience its opposite: a cruel and degrading slavery that left us incapable of thinking about anything other than surviving the coming day.

Every question is based on a lack of information or understanding. Successful teachers know that students absorb knowledge far better if they first sought that knowledge themselves Ė i.e., if it comes as an answer to a question.

From the beginning, our ancestors experienced Egypt as one continuous question. Josephís brothers could not make sense of the behavior of the cruel viceroy who confronted them when they first came to Egypt to buy grain. Only when Joseph revealed himself did everything become instantaneously clear.

And when the generation of Joseph and his brothers passed from the scene and a new Pharoah arose "who knew not Joseph," their descendants could not comprehend the brutality shown to them. Even Moses asked G-d why He had treated the nation so badly.

G-d responded, "Now you will begin to see what I will do to Pharoah." The plagues were, in a sense, the answer to a question.

Jacob and his sons were forced to go into exile, the sages taught, to correct an imperceptible flaw in the patriarch Abraham's faith.

And through everything that took place in Egypt, Jacobís descendants were brought to unprecedented heights of faith and prepared to receive the Torah.

The miracles in Egypt and at the Sea forced them to recognize G-dís absolute dominion over nature. And because G-d responded to their cries, they learned that He is not a blind clockmaker setting the universe in motion, but actively intervenes in human history. Finally, Moses prediction of each plague and its beginning and end firmly established the truth of his prophecy, which is the basis of the entire Torah.

There is no joy, say the Sages, like the resolution of a difficulty. Our ancestors had all their questions resolved in a blinding flash in Egypt. We tell over the story in the form of questions and answers to relive their experience.

The absense of something Ė whether it be knowledge or freedom Ė not only helps us appreciate the absent object, it also draws from us unrealized potential. When G-d told Abraham to leave his fatherís house, He directed him to "the land that I will show you," without further specifying Abrahamís ultimate destination. G-d wanted the Land to be the object of Abrahamís striving, an ideal never quite attained requiring constant effort.

Similarly, the phenomenal growth of the Jewish people in Egypt only began after the last of the generation of Joseph and his brothers had died. The seventy souls who descended to Egypt represented one level of completion. Only with the loss of the that completion was a process triggered leading to the next level of completion Ė the 600,000 souls who received the Torah.

At the Seder, we do everything possible to arouse our childrenís curiosity and provoke their questions. Our purpose is twofold: to make the story of the Exodus dear in their eyes and to draw out their own potential.

Thus just before the asking of the Four Questions, the Seder plate is removed from in front of the host. Our hope is that the children will ask: Why are we taking away the plate before we have even begun? But if the take the bait and ask, we have nothing to tell them besides: Just so you would ask.

At a deeper level, however, by encouraging the children to ask about all the changes from our normal routine, we are hinting to them that they themselves are the agents of change and possess the untapped potential of a brighter future:

"You have the same potential as your forefather Abraham, who was born into a family of idol makers and yet brought knowledge of the G-d to the entire world. Just as Avraham brought light to a world shrouded in darkness, may you our precious children merit to see a world in which G-dís light replaces His present obscurity."

That final redemption will bring an end to all our present troubles and complete the process begun so long ago when G-d took our ancestors out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm."

JWR contributor Jonathan Rosenblum is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post and Israeli director of Am Echad. He can be reached by clicking here.


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© 2001, Jonathan Rosenblum<