As Jews around the world gather together to celebrate the onset of Passover, we will all sit down to participate in one of the most intriguing religious rituals ever conceived.
Whereas many of the other acts that have come to define Jewishness center around certainty, the Seder is at its core an exercise in questioning, probing the extent of our knowledge and inspiring ourselves and others to explore the unknown.
From the Four Questions posed by the youngest at the table to various other elements of the Haggadah, such as dipping parsley in salt water or repeatedly covering and uncovering the matzah, we strive to pique the interest of young and old alike, hoping to arouse the participants' curiosity.
Some might view this merely as a means of keeping people awake and involved as they make their way through the evening. But that is only one small part of a very important and much larger story.
Indeed, questions can be bothersome things. Life is often strewn with them in areas ranging from the practical to the philosophical, from the mundane to the metaphysical. Frequently, without even realizing it, we are asking and answering our own queries on topics such as what to eat for dinner, whom to telephone or what book to read. But then there are the weightier issues – from where to live and what profession to pursue to how best to raise our children – things that obviously challenge and sometimes even intimidate the greatest of minds.
After all, in our day and age especially, who likes questions? Google has built an entire industry around the idea of providing us with a range of instant answers. But questioning and debating, deliberating and delving are what enable us to grow. So rather than shying away from doubt and uncertainty we all know deep down that it is best to confront it head-on.
Hence, by contextualizing rituals with questions at the Seder, we are sending a powerful educational message: never fear or falter in the pursuit of truth.
Indeed, it is as if we are transforming the question mark, that sometimes perilous particle of punctuation, into something both sanctified and sacred.
And it is no coincidence that this act is linked with the retelling of the Exodus from Egypt, when we commemorate our deliverance from slavery and servitude, for anyone who ceases to question is in effect a slave to his existing preconceptions and knowledge. Ignorance and lack of intellectual curiosity are no less a form of chains than shackles or irons.
Freedom, true freedom, comes together with the willingness and even the determination to scour accepted notions and revisit them from various angles.
Of course, as the Haggadah subtly reminds us, such questioning must be done out of innocence and inquisitiveness rather than spite. If you look at the wording of the queries posed by the wise son and the wicked one, they appear at first glance to be startlingly similar, with both wondering about the meaning of the various rituals. But the difference between the two lies in their approach. The wise son wonders about "the testimonies, the statutes and the laws which the Lord our God has commanded you," whereas the wicked son refers to them with the Hebrew word avoda, which means work, implying something that is tiring and even burdensome.
We are encouraged to question, but the approach we take in doing so is no less important than the nature of the query itself.
ANOTHER LESSON of the Haggadah is that questions can be a form of courage. To ask is to implicitly admit that you do not know, that you need someone or something outside yourself, be it God or one's fellow man.
And questions are also indicative of resilience and sometimes even heroism.
In 1944, as Passover approached, the Jews confined in Bergen-Belsen, the Nazi concentration camp in northern Germany, faced a troubling dilemma. On the one hand, they were being given starvation-level rations consisting of crumbs of bread that barely kept some of them alive. On the other hand, it was impossible to obtain matzah under the harsh German rule and forgoing their daily bread during the festival would mean certain death.
So what did they do?
With all their liberties taken away from them, they resorted to the one freedom that even the Nazi beasts could not deprive them of: the freedom to ask.
They approached Rabbi Avraham Levisson from Holland and Rabbi Aaron Davids, the former Chief Rabbi of Rotterdam, both of whom were being held at Bergen-Belsen, and sought halachic guidance for what to do. Realizing this was a matter of life and death, the two rabbis courageously decided to permit the Jews of the concentration camp to eat bread. But they went one step further and penned a short prayer which was to be recited prior to eating it!
The moving text, which was released by the Ghetto Fighters' Museum nearly a decade ago, is a testimony to the valor and durability of the Jewish people.
Addressed to the "Master of the Universe," it reaffirms the desire to observe Passover properly by eating matzah and refraining from hametz. "But to our great sorrow, our servitude prevents us from fulfilling these mitzvot," it reads, adding poignantly that, "we are not masters of our own fate and our lives are in danger."
Therefore, the prayer continues, "We are ready and willing to keep the commandment of 'you shall live by them' (Leviticus 18:5) and not perish because of observing the mitzvot." It goes on to note, "We are commanded to do what we must in order to remain alive, thus by eating hametz we will be keeping Your other precept, 'Be very careful about your lives' (Deuteronomy 4:9)," before concluding with a plaintive plea. "We pray that You keep us alive and sustain us so that we merit to survive to fulfill Your commandments wholeheartedly in the future."
By asking what to do under those horrifying circumstances, the Jews of Bergen-Belsen were reaffirming that Passover, Judaism, faith and God's will mattered to them, even in the darkest of moments. The spiritual tenacity embodied in that act is something that should inspire us all. Not merely to believe in Jewish destiny and deliverance, but to keep it alive by persevering in that most simple yet profound of actions: to seek truth with the power of a question mark.