If you think about it, the Four Questions seem to appear in the wrong place. If a child’s curiosity is going be aroused, it should be an immediate response to a sensory stimulation. Most of the rituals about which the child asks haven’t happened yet in the Seder, other than maybe the introductory one (Why is this night different…). Our learned rabbis (Chazal) give us many possible explanations. The Mishna teaches that if the youngster does not have the intellect to formulate their own questions, that it is the responsibility of the child’s parents to teach them the Ma Nishtana so that four basic questions (plus the introductory one) will fulfill the commandment. Rambam interprets the text as meaning that a child should be encouraged to ask random questions according to their capacity, but that the parents should ensure that the requirements of the Mishna are met. Another source, however, suggests that a child who can formulate his own questions exempts all from the Mishnaic requirement. Then there is the practice cited in Talmud P’sachim: the table with all the food is removed, then gradually returned dish by dish, in order to spark the child’s curiosity.
Seems like an awfully complicated set of formalities just to get some ritual questions asked, especially since the answers don’t change much from year to year. Or do they? We can tick off the questions and their answers as they relate to the Seder from memory, but this somewhat arcane practice serves to teach us something even more important: asking a rhetorical question is a means to an end. There’s always something more to learn, and even more importantly, a way we can and should be inspired to action.
Look around our world. There’s so much surrounding us about which we ask “why?” even though we know the answer. In Ukraine, Yemen, Sudan, and so many other places around the world, for those suffering from COVID or its derivative effects social, political, and economic, this Pesach our challenge should be to change and expand the narrative. The real question is, “What have I done?” When we eat the Bread of Affliction, let’s remember to do something for those who are hungry. Then do it. When we eat bitter herbs, lets vow to help those whose life has recently turned bitter, through no fault of their own. As we dip our food twice as in the days of the Haggadah, let’s promise to turn our fundamentally wasteful eating style into one which can benefit all. Finally, when we recline as we observe the Seder, we can resolve to do our part to offer a place of rest and respite to those migrants worldwide who are fleeing oppression and war.
If we can allow the familiar words of a misplaced set of rhetorical questions to not just entertain us at the Seder but to truly motivate us to global action, then we will truly have made Passover be a night which is different than all others. May we so be inspired.
Chag Kasher V’sameach!Rabbi/Hazzan David B. Sislen