Weekly Torah Portion – We Question To Learn
Passover celebrates the Israelite exodus from Egypt, reflected upon in many places in the Torah as the cornerstone of Jewish religious faith in God.
The first of the Ten Commandments declares: “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt from the house of bondage (Exodus 20:2).”
Passover also celebrates the liberation of a subjugated people from its oppressors that has served as a model for the universal values of freedom and human dignity. The black civil rights movement in America used the exodus narrative as the model for its own struggles against slavery.
Parshat Pesach 1: Exodus 12:21-51; Numbers 28:16-25; Joshua 3:5-7,
However, the form of how we celebrate the holiday of Passover and, in particular, the seder ritual is uniquely Jewish. Culturally, Jews are a questioning people. The Mishna presents a series of cases and attributed and unattributed legal positions. The justifications for these legal positions typically are absent. Jews, ever questioning, required justified law; hence the Talmud came into being, incorporating the Mishna but explaining, often for several folios, the basis for the laws stated in a short few lines of Mishna.
Talmud itself is a series of arguments from rabbinic sages over the meaning of the text and questioning one another. Little is taken for granted, and hard questions are lifted up as the ideal in Jewish scholarship. Many have attributed the large percentage of Jews in the legal field due to centrality of Talmudic study in Jewish life over the centuries and the culture of questioning borne from it.
The typical rabbinic sermon has a common structure. After an introduction of some sort, the rabbi poses a question, usually from the Sabbath Torah reading. The more perplexing the question the more compelling it is for the audience to listen to rabbi’s suggested resolution.
The structure of the Passover seder is also patterned after a series of questions. We begin the Maggid section of the Haggadah with Ma Nishtanah — the Four Questions — recited most often by the youngest participant able to chant the beloved text. We revel in our children’s ability to ask questions, ironically, even before they fully understand the depth of what they are asking. But the questions at the seder do not end there. Each new section opens with questions. One by one the “Four Sons” opens with the same question formula. “The wise son, what does he say? The evil son, what does he say? The simple son, what does he say? And the one who does not know what to ask, say to him …”
In the section explicating biblical verses, the Haggadah opens with: “What did evil Lavan attempt to do to our father Jacob?” And finally, when introducing symbolic food items, we ask: “The paschal lamb brought in Temple times was eaten for what reason?” “For what reason do we eat this matzah?” and finally, “Why do we eat these bitter herbs?”
Questions arouse curiosity, and curiosity arouses engagement, which is an essential goal of Jewish education. The more questions the better. In the language of the Haggadah, “Whomever increases is praise-worthy.”
Rabbi Scot A. Berman is head of school at Farber Hebrew Day School – Yeshivat Akiva.