The Four Questions


When I was in school back in the early ‘70s, some of the tie-dyed shirt and sandals crowd started wearing buttons that urged everyone to Question Authority.  I think that’s very much in the spirit of Passover:  Asking the hard questions and demanding thoughtful, reasoned answers.

One aspect of the multilayered Passover story encourages us to question injustice rather than submissively accepting the status quo as inevitable and unchangeable.  An imbalance of power does not alter the imperative to ask questions.  “You can’t fight city hall” is not a phrase in the Jewish lexicon.  We may be the underdogs and we may be in chains, but we take that as a temporary state of affairs rather than resigning ourselves to the vicissitudes of fate.

The Passover story also teaches us that we are not insignificant as individuals, that one person can make all the difference in the world.  Moses was one such person.  Sure, he was a charismatic leader, but he hailed from humble beginnings.  As a baby, the king’s daughter found him floating in the Nile in a basket; as an adult, he suffered from a speech impediment that made it difficult for others to understand him.  But he couldn’t bear to endure the suffering of his people.  We are told that he went so far as to kill a cruel overseer who was mercilessly beating one of his people to death.  Not only was Moses unable to accept injustice, but he took action at critical moments.  Rather than engaging in hand-wringing and head-shaking, he stood up and did something.  This takes an extraordinary amount of faith and courage.  Undoubtedly, the fleeing Jews of Egypt were certain they were headed for a watery grave in the Red Sea.  It took a true believer to dip his toe into the ocean before the ocean split to provide a road to freedom.

The drama of the exodus is introduced early in the Seder service when the youngest person present traditionally asks “the four questions” (ha’arbah sha’a lot in Hebrew or der fir kashas in the Yiddish vernacular).  Obviously, this means the youngest child who is able to read the questions from the page of the Hagaddah.  But we do not forget the infants among us; even the babe in arms has a place in the story.

The premise is that young children will be awestruck in wide-eyed wonder at the glowing candles on the gleaming white tablecloth, at the strange foods displayed upon the table, at the rituals of washing and dipping and breaking matzahs.  What’s going on?  What’s all the fuss about?  Why is this night different than all other nights?

The Seder encourages children, at the earliest age possible, to observe and then question authority:

  • On all other nights, we eat either leavened bread or unleavened matzah.  Why on this night does everyone eat only matzah?
  • On all other nights, we use whatever kind of condiments we want.  Why on this night does everyone use only bitter herbs?
  • On all other nights we don’t serve even one kind of dip at dinner, so why on this night do we dip twice?
  • On all other nights, we either sit up straight in our chairs or recline, as we please.  So why is everyone reclining tonight?

It would be easy to answer each of these questions quickly and dismissively, but the text of the Hagaddah does not do this.  We believe in the right and obligation to question authority.  We respect the person who does not merely accept what is observed, but instead raises his or her hand and says “excuse me, but what the heck is going on here?”  We believe that this person is entitled to detailed, thoughtful answers.

As a staff trainer, I am terribly impressed by what happens next in the service.  The
liturgy recognizes that different kinds of people require different kinds of answers.
  The ancient words bear out what every trainer knows — that everyone learns differently and that instruction must be tailored to the individual’s learning style.  But instead of identifying visual learners, auditory learners, kinesthetic learners, etc., the text generalizes, in a highly allegorical manner, by identifying four types of people (“sons” — sexist, I know), all of whom require answers to their questions.

The “wise” or “righteous” son realizes the gravity of the situation, takes part in the communal responsibility, and asks what exactly the Lord has commanded us to do on this occasion.  To him we respond by describing the laws of Passover in detail.

The “wicked” son asks “What does this service mean to you?”  He says “you” as a means of excluding himself from what he believes is mere foolishness.  He wants no part in the communal responsibility.  The leader should respond that “this ceremony is in recognition of what the Lord did for me.”  That is, “for me” and not “for him,” since he is excluding himself now and undoubtedly would have been deemed unworthy of redemption had he been in Egypt at the time of our emancipation.

The “simple” son just asks “What is this?”  To him, we respond:  “With a mighty hand did the Lord bring us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.”

Finally, as promised, comes the baby, the one who is not yet able to recite the four questions, “he who hath not the capacity to inquire.”  It is for him that we recount the entire story of the exodus from the very start, beginning with the command “And you shall relate to your child on that day, this is done because of what the Lord did for me, when I went out of Egypt.”

Through the years, many have tried to convince me that I have no duty to follow the rituals because the events of history that occurred so long ago have nothing to do with me personally.  After all, I wasn’t personally freed from slavery under the Egyptian Pharaohs, I wasn’t saved from being burned alive as an apostate in the Middle Ages, I wasn’t saved from death at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Quite the contrary.  In the Jewish faith, no man is an island.  We are indeed our brothers’ keepers, a part of the greater whole, as inextricably bound to our ancestors of centuries past as to our community in the year 2013.  There is no “me” and “them,” only “us,” only the community of mankind.

So ask me a question if you have one.  And don’t be surprised if, in true Jewish fashion, I tell you a story.


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