Seder Questions

By C.

It’s that time of the year again.

It’s nearly midnight, the table is laden with silver, the family is gathered around expectantly, and everyone is hungry.

My father, resplendent in his kittel and shtreimel, claps his hands and intones “Kan haben shoiel”, as he calls upon my youngest brother to begin the mah nishtaneh.

As my brother begins his well rehearsed rendition of the four questions, my father’s first phrase reverberates through my head. Kan haben shoiel, here the child asks. The implication couldn’t be any clearer. Questions are for children not adults. Adults are meant to have faith. To believe without any sort of questioning. Kan, haben shoiel.

My little brother, sitting to my left, lies sprawled out on two chairs. Apparently merely leaning to the left does not quite suffice for him. He chimes in, reciting a dvar torah about how tonight as God’s children, we’re all allowed to ask. We can ask for anything, he explains. He’s going to ask for a better understanding of whichever sugya he’s involved in, and for good chavrusas no doubt.

However, I too have questions. Questions that cannot be asked out loud at this seder.

Why do I have to choose between drinking four cups of wine, or the guilt of having caused my father anguish? Is it his fault that I’m on a rigorous diet?

Why was my father raised in a manner which forces him to believe that if I grow up to be irreligious he has failed as a parent? Is my striving to be a good person not enough?

If tonight is “leil shemurin” or a safe night, why do I feel unsafe by being who I am at this Seder? Why can’t I be my true self, just as my younger brother can?

Is there truly a God who will cut me off from my people because I don’t celebrate an undocumented event in the way an ancient book prescribes?

My questions run on and on inside of my head, until they’re cut short by my father turning to me. “Es iz tzeit tzi fraigen di kashes” he says, seemingly inviting me to ask what’s on my mind. But I don’t. Instead I recite the words I was taught to recite. Instead of asking about what’s truly bothering me, I ask the wrong questions. I say “Mah nishtana halaila hazeh m’kol haleilos”, but I’m unable to silence the real questions, playing inside of my head.

1 reply
  1. Baal Maggid HaApikoros
    Baal Maggid HaApikoros says:

    I certainly resonate with your story at the seder table.

    I’m someone who left the Charedi world some 10 years ago, but recall how difficult Seder night was with thoughts going through my head quite contrary to the Haggadah tale – which by the way, I hoped and wanted to be true.

    The funniest one was when we get to the Maggid section and discuss how Jews multiplied in Egypt to 600,000 Adult Male souls (Haggadah doesn’t itself give the number but from Torah and commentries)

    This always amused me and when questioning it, most just assume you can throw in an extra decimal place if two with no real historical consequences (it means Israelite numbers must be 2 – 3 million) and if the question gets to tough, then invoke miracles.

    It’s simply the staggering absurdity of these figures of 2 – 3 million Israelites that always bothered me, even whilst at the height of religious Charedi life !

    The problem was, if numbers were tens of thousands, it could be a partially feasible story and one may understand why evidence is lacking, after all, Israelites don’t build statues and written records can decay.
    That’s where the Torah just got a little decimal challenged !

    I recall researching the topic with historians to find out what historical population estimates are for ancient canaan, Egypt & Israel – a profound gift only available in today’s internet age when we can email archeology professors & researchers rather than trekking all over the globe (and easily obtain specialist materials and research.)

    I disagree with the premises of the article that questions are just for children based on the Seder, the entire Torah system is based on profound questioning all over the place – as anyone who studies Gemmorah knows.
    However, questions must fall in line “within the system” like a road which has no turnings or a tree without branches.

    Aware of this after years studying advanced text such as Klach Pitchei Chochma by the Ramchal and how understanding of Western Philosophy, Science & Skepticism don’t go do well in the recipe.

    Reply

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