The Question of Questions

Haim Watzman

Seder night four years ago was my last night with my younger son, Niot, who died in a diving accident a few days later. Each year I write a dvar Torah for “Shabbat Shalom,” the weekly Torah portion sheet published by Oz VeShalom-Netivot Shalom. The Hebrew version can be found here.

The Four Questions appear in the Hagadah as a preface to the Maggid, the telling of the Pesach story. They stand as prototypes of the questions that are meant to be asked during the entire Seder night. The evening’s unusual observances are intended, in part, to elicit questions, especially from the young people sitting around the table.

Some two decades ago, when my children were small, I was able to observe any number of times how effective this strategy is. One year we decided to adopt a custom with its source in the Talmud—to clear the table of the Pesach plate and matzot immediately after yahatz, the breaking of the middle matzah. The source of the custom comes from the school of Rabbi Yanai: “Why is the table cleared? Said the school of Rabbi Yanai: so that the children will see it and ask [why].” At that Seder, my younger son, Niot, who was preoccupied with his own affairs during the previous stages of Kadesh, Urhatz, Karpas, and Yahatz, suddenly noticed that something was happening and asked in a loud voice: “Why are you doing that?” By asking a spontaneous question, he had fulfilled his duty and we thus did not require him to chant the official Four Questions, an honor he happily passed on to someone else.

Niot’s question is, in fact, the question of questions, and is a much harder one to answer than the prescribed kushiyot.

In fact, it seems fairly clear that the Four Questions included in our Hagadah (along with another question about the Pesach sacrifice which is omitted from most modern versions) were written and placed in their current context not by children but by Torah scholars. They deal with fine points of custom and law—why do we dip twice? (Except that up to this point we’ve dipped only once.) Why do we eat maror and not other vegetables? (Despite the fact that just a minute ago we ate another vegetable.) Why do we eat matazh and not hametz? (Note that we haven’t eaten either at this point.) Why do we recline? (In our family, at least, the children never sat still at family meals, not on weekdays and not on Shabbat. In fact, if we managed to get them to the table they adopted all sorts of strange positions.) After Yahatz, a moment before Maggid, nothing has, in fact, happened that children are likely to ask about. And if they do ask, it won’t be those official questions.

When children ask a question it is generally a lot broader. “Why are you doing that?” is really the question of questions. And it’s interesting to note that it is, more or less, the question that the so-called Simple Son asks: “What is this?” He asks it pointing at—at what? Probably not the Pesach sacrifice. He’s more likely to have noticed an unfamiliar set of dishes, a not-all-that-successful flower arrangement that his older sister is very proud of, or the aunt who has a parsley leaf stuck to her lower lip.

Tellingly, Maimonides begins his Maggid in his Guide for the Perplexed with a similar question. In Part I, Chapter 63, which centers God’s appearance to Moses at the Burning Bush, Maimonides refers to the question Moses asks after he receives his mission from God. He has been told to return to Egypt and inform the Israelites that God intends to take them out of that land. Moses asks a tough question: “And they will say to me: What is his name? What should I tell them?” (Ex. 3:13). The answer Moses gets is: “I am that I am, and He said, this is what you will tell the Children of Israel: ‘I am sent me to you.’” Moses is a bit doubtful about this. He doesn’t think that this sort of answer will be very convincing. So after God details his plan of redemption, the endowment of the Land of Israel, the plagues, and the great spoils that the slaves will take from their masters when they leave Egypt, Moses gets up his courage and asks another question: “But they won’t listen to me—they’ll say God didn’t really appear to you” (Ex. 4:1).

In our times, no few rabbis would respond to a question like that with either a fiery harangue or pained plea about the need for perfect faith. But that’s not what Maimonides says. He tells the student to whom he addresses his book: “In fact, it’s clear that this is exactly what anyone should say to a person who claims to be a prophet, until he brings proof.” He stresses that wonders that Moses performs with his staff will not convince his people to leave Egypt, and that the people are quite right not to be persuaded by such sorcery. They would rightly response to such miracles with the same question Niot asked: “Why are you doing that?”

Last year I wrote that “the bitter herbs signify that the Children of Israel, at this point, again felt the bitterness of slavery. The restoration of the bitter taste in their mouths was a precondition for redemption.” But there seems to have been another precondition as well—to be redeemed, the Children of Israel had to ask questions. To be able to ask his question, Niot had to wake up from the dreams he was dreaming, from those things that preoccupied him and did not let him notice that we had said kiddush, washed our hands, eaten some karpas, and broken the middle matzah. It was only sweeping the table clear, a totally unexpected act, that grabbed his attention and led him to ask: “Why are you doing that?”

Following decades and centuries of slavery, the Children of Israel were in a stupor. As slaves, they lived not in dreams of soccer, which is probably the world Niot was in that Seder night, but in a nightmare of hunger, fatigue, and helplessness. Then, suddenly, something unexpected happens, something unprecedented. The son of Amram appears, dusty, hungry, and thirsty from his long journey through the desert from Midyan. He doesn’t even pause to drink the cup of water they offer him—he tells them without a pause that a God whose name they have almost forgotten is about to take them out of Egypt, to pass judgment on their oppressors, and to return them to the land of their fathers. Moses’s appearance was like the clearing of the table on the Seder night—it caused the Israelites to see something that they had not seen before. Something had changed, but they did not yet understand that they were about to be transformed from slaves into free people. Before they could even formulate specific questions about the great change that was about to occur in their lives as individuals and as a people, they had to ask the question of the Simple Son: “What is this?” And Niot’s question: “Why are you doing that?”

Let me repeat the main point of my message of last year: to change something, to change the world, the necessary first step is to recognize that the world can be different than it is now, that they way the world looks now is not the only way it can look, is not dictated from above. Today we, no less than the Children of Israel in Egypt, often find it difficult to perceive and understand that truth. To recognize that change is possible, we need to dare to ask.

Please consider a donation to The Niot Project, an educational program we have set up in Niot’s memory.