2016-04-13 / Four Questions

Passover is a holiday designed to both love and hate

Congregation Beth Judah, Ventnor

I love Pesach—the cleaning, the matzah, the family!

I hate Pesach—the cleaning, the matzah, the family!

If you feel conflicted about Pesach, you’re not alone. Many of us dread preparing for Pesach—the cleaning, shopping, cooking, traveling, hosting or being guests—but we love the differences of foods, dishes, place and people that help make Pesach special.

These dichotomous feelings are reflected in aspects of the haggadah and seder. Dr. Erica Brown, in her book “Seder Talk,” writes about the intentional ambivalence in some of the most potently symbolic ritual foods at our seder table:

The story and its subsequent retellings are designed to pull our emotions in contradictory directions.

Matzah is both the bread of affliction and the bread of freedom. The egg that represents the circle of life is dipped into salt water, which represents our tears. The horseradish and charoset sandwich tells us to put bitter and sweet together…because adult life [sometimes] demands…a bittersweet duality that most accurately reflects our daily, complex lives.

The ambivalence goes beyond food. The “maggid” section of the haggadah, where we start retelling the story of Pesach, opens with a declaration of hope (“next year, may we be free”). We then have the famous Four Questions, “Mah Nishtanah;” “Why is this night different…?” But are they really questions?

In the Schechter Haggadah, Dr. Joshua Kulp writes that “Mah Nishtanah” is not “a list of questions to be recited” by (traditionally) a child. Rather, they are meant to prompt children—and adults—to ask questions. So, rather than a question, “Why is this night different…?” we have a statement, “How different this night is!…”

We eat foods that can have contradictory symbolism. We sit in freedom and tell the story of our enslavement. We give answers that are meant to provoke questions. And often, we take elements of our ancient historical narrative and seek to make them relevant to our times and circumstances.

The basic story in the haggadah is as amenable to retelling in many ways as is a Shakespeare play. “Romeo and Juliet” might be set in 1600 Verona, but it works as well in 1950s New York City (as a musical) or 1990s California (on film). Likewise, there are many, many haggadot with many different slants: Artistic, intellectual, interpretive, traditional; there’s a 30-minute seder and “The Baseball Haggadah,” cartoons, “family-oriented,” Sammy Spider, holistic, Chasidic…Try something new this year!

Wrestling with ambivalence, answering statements with questions, telling our story in our own words, in new ways; all these things enrich our seder tables, as do our family and friends. However we may feel about the process of getting there, may we revel wholeheartedly in the community we make around those tables. .

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