5756 - #13

The Question and the Change

There are those who say that Jews are not supposed to ask questions.[1] There are others who say that Jews are, specifically, not to ask the question why. [2] I have always wondered how these individuals respond to Pesach and the Seder. It is not only that we ask and that we, specifically, ask why - this would be enough to challenge these misconceptions; it is that the whole event, the mitzvah of sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim, telling the story of the Exodus, is predicated on the question, specifically, on the question why. There are numerous practices undertaken at the Seder simply to raise the curiosity of the children, simply to force the question.[3] Furthermore, the question is a necessary part of the mitzvah; even a scholar alone on this evening, in fulfilment of this mitzvah, is instructed to ask and then answer.[4] In fact, it would seem, that the Seder represents that it is an important and integral part of Judaism to ask questions, specifically why.

In the last Spark of the Week we introduced the words of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, Edoth 23:165 which state that Pesach marks the physical creation of the nation of Israel. On this holiday, we celebrate the birth of our nation - yet, more than simply remembering our birth as a nation, we are actually to re-experience that birth. Mishna Pesachim 10:5 states that one is to perceive himself or herself as actually leaving Egypt on this night. If the Exodus from Egypt marks our birth as a nation, then the goal to re-experience that Exodus must also be considered as an objective to re-live our birth as a nation. And if this is to occur through the phenomenon of the Seder, then our celebration of the Seder must, in some way, mirror the essence of the Exodus and our birth as a nation. And that essence must include the question, specifically the question why.

As presented in the last Spark, the essence of beginnings is change. Passover is ultimately a celebration of transition: but what exactly is the transition that we celebrate. T.B. Pesachim 116a states that, at the Seder, we matchil b'genut u'mesayem b'shevach, we begin with disgrace and end in praise. Shmuel states what would seem to be the obvious; that this statement refers to the Exodus itself. We were in disgrace, the lowest of slaves; then G-d liberated us and we became free men, thus we praise Him. Rav, though, states that the disgrace to be referred to is our forefathers worship of idols. While it is true that through the Exodus we became G-d's people devoted to His service - and for this we also praise him - why is our forefathers' idolatry part of the rendition of this evening? What is the connection between this genut and Pesach? More succinctly, why do we mark not only the transition, identified by Shmuel, from slavery to freedom, but also the transition, identified by Rav, from idolatry to monotheism?[5]

The question why inherently creates flux; what existed before can no longer exist after why is asked. There are, though, two possible forums where the transition initiated by this question may occur: one is in the world outside and the other is in the person within. When one asks why a certain behaviour is performed, one of twopossibilities may occur. One may find no reason for the behaviour and wish no longer to act in this way - so change in the world begins to occur. One, though, may find that there is a reason for the behaviour - and so, with understanding, change occurs within.

Many Jews feared the question why for they were concerned that questioning may lead to non-observance. The unfortunate mis-perception of these individuals was that this question only leads to transition in the world outside the individual. The underlying assumption was that the perception and basic understanding of an individual is given and unchanging; movement, thus, only occurs in the realm of behaviour - and so the question could only lead to non-observance. It would therefore be best not to ask the question. The only problem is that without the question why there also cannot be change within.[6]

The transition of Pesach was not only in a change of surroundings but in a change of understanding, a change of perception, a change within the self. It is more than the movement from slavery to freedom but it is also the movement from the mind of the slave to the mind of the freeman, it is also the movement from the mind of the idolater to the mind of the monotheist. There are certain situations where our question why will affect, within the parameter of Halacha, the world outside. But the greatest impact of this question is its affect upon us - for this question forces us to change - to change our perceptions, to change and develop our understandings. This is what the birth of the Jewish people represented - a people devoted to internal growth. And it is to this ideal that we are to re-dedicate ourselves at the Seder.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


[1] Numerous individuals have recounted to me stories that, when they were in Hebrew School, they were told that Jews do not ask questions but simply act. Nothing, perhaps, could explain the assimilation rampant in North America more than this falsehood. Sadly, this attack upon questioning presented Torah as imposing, dogmatic and lacking thought, driving many away from Judaism.

[2] Often this is accompanied by a reference to na'aseh v'nishma, "we will do and we will listen", implying that this great statement by our people at Sinai was a pledge to act without questioning. This is, in fact, a violent distortion of the meaning of this term. In fact, na'aseh v'nishma includes a pledge to question, to investigate the reason, the thought behind G-d's Will. See, further, Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, Nishma Study Materials on Kabbalat HaTorah.

[3] See, for example, Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 476:6,7.

[4] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Chametz U'Matzah 7:3 is the clearest statement of this rule.

[5] While the gemara seems to record the words of Rav and Shmuel in the form of an argument, already the early codes incorporate both descriptions of transition in halachic practice. See Rif on Pesachim 25b and Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Chametz U'Matzah 7:4. The Haggadah, in referring to both the genut of slavery and idolatry and the shevach arising from freedom and commitment to Hashem, indeed supports the view that Rav and Shmuel were not disagreeing but rather presenting two aspects of the same concept.

[6] It should not be difficult for one to see how these ideas connect to the four sons of the Haggada, specifically in regard to the why of the rasha, the wicked son, and the why of the chacham, the wise son

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