Passover 5765: The Question

For Passover, once again I delve into other sources for my inspiration. An oddly enough one of those sources is a sci-fi parody, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. The other is a bit of Talmud:

Mishnah. They filled a second cup for him. At this stage the son questions his father; if the son is unintelligent, his father instructs him [to ask]: ‘why is this night different from all [other] nights? … Gemara. Our rabbis taught: if his son is intelligent he asks him, while if he is not intelligent his wife asks him; but if not, he asks himself. And even two scholars who know the laws of Passover ask one another. [Pes 116a]

The whole Passover Seder revolves one thing: asking questions. This is where The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy provides me with room for thought.

The story is about a man from Earth who wakes up one Thursday morning to find out that his house is to be demolished. Things get stranger from there. His best friend is actually from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse, and the Earth is demolished (along with his house) to make way for a bypass. This Earthman, named Arthur Dent survives to realize all this as his friend hitchhikes a ride on the alien equivalent of a planetary bulldozer. Through a series of adventures Arthur finds out the horrible truth about Earth. Billions of years ago, a race of hyper intelligent pan dimensional beings built a supercomputer to find the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. After millions of years the answer appears and it turns out to be forty-two. The new problem is there has never been a question to the answer. So a new computer is built to find the question, one that looks so much like a planet it often is confused for one, a computer called Earth. Five minutes before the critical readout, however the earth is destroyed, leaving the question unknown.

In the Passover Seder, what is known as the four questions is rather interesting, as it really is an undercount. The question “ma nishtana” “why is this night different on all other nights”, is really a fifth question. Secondly one of the original questions found in the Talmud, “on all other nights we eat meat roast, stewed or boiled, but on this night, roast only” we don’t say anymore, but instead, “On all other nights we eat either in a sitting or reclining position; why on this night do we recline?”

Interestingly, Maimonides in his Mishnah Torah, the first codification of Jewish law from the 13th century CE mentions all six. The roasting question seems to have been removed after this point, and Ma nishtana seems to be a prelude to the other four. Why did this happen? I’m not sure. However we then spend the whole night answering the questions. However, the story that occurs after sheds some doubt that we are really after answers:

We are told that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Akiba, Rabbi Elazar, and Rabbi Tarfon, five of the greatest Jewish Scholars of their time, once sat together at the seder table in the town of B’nai B’rak. All through the night they discussed the Pesach story, scarcely noticing the passage of time. At last they were interrupted by their pupils, who came in to remind them: “Rabbis, it is already morning; it is time to say the SHEMA of the morning service. “

This story, which I can find no sources earlier than Maimonides, is not about answers, but questions. It would be easy to read the answers out of the Haggadah, and end their service early. To take close to twelve hours, means there was not just pat answers but a lot more questions. Every answer leads to more questions. It’s interesting to note how many question words there are in the Babylonian Talmud. According to the search engine in the Socino classics CD-ROM, there are 6218 times the word Ma, the Hebrew what, how, and sometime why occurs in the Babylonian Talmud. There is 10,278 times the Aramaic equivalent Mai occurs in the Talmud. That means that 16,496 times someone asks a what, how and why question- and that is not the only kind of question. Compare that to 10,073 times the Torah is quoted in the Talmud. There are more questions than Torah in the Talmud.

Issues of Jewish continuity run hard on my mind lately. Will we survive as a people, from all kinds of assaults to our identity as Jewish? If so, How? I’ve been a little obsessed with the answer to that question, or more to the point “what can I do?” These issues of Jewish continuity I need to write for some of my grad-school finals continue to get me down. The answers to all of the reading were all pretty negative, causing major writers block. But my favorite piece of British comedy has turned things around. Adams has given the answer to Jewish continuity I was looking for.

The answer paradoxically, is the question. Throughout the history of the Jewish people it is not the answers which have sustained us, but the questions we ask. Our Passover Seder is driven not by answers but by questions, we are mandated no matter who we are to ask, man or woman, young or old, wise or simple. The Talmud and Midrash are not about answers as much as asking the right questions, and then asking questions concerning those questions. Responsa from the later rabbis are about the questions asked as much as the rulings made. Both Maimonides and Joseph Caro got a lot of flack from their colleagues for their codification of Halakah in the Mishnah Torah and the Shulcan Aruch. The big complaint was they made asking questions harder, not easier, even though the intention was the opposite. We are not just the people of the book, but the people of the question. During Passover, we relate the question of whether one should live in slavery. We ask what was the price of freedom for the Israelites back then, and the price of our own freedom from the narrow places we live in. Being the people of the question, how often do we give an answer as a question?

Modernity and the world around us tends to want simple answers. We become pressed into narrow places to give them. Passover is a reminder of the creative freedom of questions. While the Seder answers many of those questions, every Seder brings new ones.

So, any questions?

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