By Yael Eckstein
This month, Jews around the world will celebrate the single most important event in the history of Israel and God’s children: Passover or Pesach. In rituals that have spanned generations and survived pogroms, persecutions, and even the Holocaust, we will once again gather around the table to observe the traditional Passover meal, known as the seder.
Jews and Christians alike are familiar with the biblical story of the Exodus, which chronicles the Jewish people’s escape from slavery in Egypt. Even though this pivotal event occurred thousands of years ago, we remember it today in the celebration of the Jewish holiday of Passover.
At the heart of the Passover celebration is the seder, the ritual meal held on the first night that allows us to internalize the message of the biblical Exodus. It is through the seder that we fulfill God’s command to “tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed my signs among them” (Exodus 10:2). The foods eaten at the seder all symbolize different parts of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt.
The focus of the seder is retelling the Exodus narrative and hearing the story as if for the first time. This annual storytelling energizes the Jewish people and is one of the forces that has held them together for millennia.
“The Four Questions”
One of my first childhood memories is at our family seder. I am the youngest of three daughters, and so once I was old enough to read, it was my job to ask the traditional “Four Questions” at the outset of the seder. I can remember standing on a chair in my nice new dress while the entire family looked at me in proud expectation. After I recited the four questions in Hebrew, everyone cheered, and the seder began.
At the time, I didn’t understand that what I was doing had been performed by the youngest child for thousands upon thousands of years. I was simply the next in a long line of ancestors to ask these questions on Passover eve. I also did not understand the importance or significance of asking questions. However, it was clear to me—and to every child who has recited these four questions—that asking was a good thing.
In later years, a younger cousin would assume the role of asking “The Four Questions,” and my attention turned to questions of my own. One of my most vivid memories is my father eating an entire tablespoon of traditional bitter herbs, in this case, horseradish. It was so bitter that my father’s eyes filled with tears, and it looked as though he was weeping at our holiday meal.
I asked my father why he was crying, and he responded, “So that you would ask!” One of my older sisters then explained that the purpose of eating bitter herbs was to remind us of the bitter enslavement of the Israelites and the tears that they shed. From my father’s perspective, he was just as proud of me for asking the question as he was with my sister for knowing the answer.
Another year, I watched my father help my mother meticulously clean our refrigerator in preparation for Passover. They scrubbed and cleaned every single part and got rid of food that I now know was chametz (leavened food products). I could not understand why they were doing that or what it had to do with Passover or the Exodus so I asked my father. He beamed at me with his big broad smile and replied, “I’m so glad that you asked! This is the beginning of what Passover is all about. It’s all about asking questions.”
Retelling the Passover Story
Seder literally means “order,” and the Passover seder is a deliberately designed experience containing 15 steps placed in a specific order. The main part of the seder is the fifth step, the maggid, which means “telling,” as in telling the story. This is the heart of the seder and the essence of Passover. It is here that we tell the story of the Exodus through biblical Scriptures, songs, rituals, and commentary.
Yet, when we tell the story of the Exodus, we do not begin with a description of events. Instead, at every seder, the story begins not with answers and explanations, but with questions. In many communities, the leader dresses up as an Israelite slave leaving Egypt, and the guests ask, “Where are you coming from?” The leader replies, “I am coming from Egypt.” The guests continue, “And where are you going?” The leader responds, “I am going to Jerusalem.” This question-answer format, along with visual aids and audience participation, is intended to capture the imagination of children and sets the tone for the evening.
Indeed, our children are the most important guests at the table, and the seder revolves around them. “The Four Questions,” one of the most iconic and memorable Passover passages, is traditionally sung at the seder by the youngest child able to do so. Incidentally, if no children are present, then one of the adults must recite the questions. Moreover, if a person is alone, he or she must ask themselves “The Four Questions.” Such is the value that Judaism places on asking before receiving answers.
The Four Questions highlight four unusual aspects of the seder that were instituted by the Jewish sages for the sole purpose of piquing a child’s curiosity. The text begins, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” and specifies four questions:
- On all other nights, we eat leavened bread and unleavened bread. Why do we only eat matzah (unleavened bread) on this night?
- On all other nights, we eat all kinds of vegetables. Why do we eat only bitter herbs on this night?
- On all other nights, we need not dip our vegetables at all. Why do we dip vegetables twice on this night?
- On all other nights, we can eat leaning or sitting up straight. Why on this night do we only eat reclining?
The reason we begin our story with questions is because of the verse that says: “In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt…’” (Exodus 13:14). The Bible specifies that our children should ask first, and then we should answer.
The Springboard to Faith
The Four Questions also provide the springboard to discuss with our children the fundamental ideas of the Jewish faith found in the Exodus story—that God is with us in our suffering, that he hears our prayers, that he cares about his people, and that he intervenes in human history to bring about salvation.
As the old saying goes, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn.” The seder was intelligently designed to involve children to the greatest extent, mostly by way of eliciting questions, but also through other hands-on experiences.
While the seder is a powerful educational tool we revisit every Passover, the overall objective is to encourage our children to ask questions all year long. “To be a Jewish child is to learn how to question,” explains the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who served as chief rabbi of Britain from 1991 to 2013. “Against cultures that see unquestioning obedience as the ideal behavior of a child, Jewish tradition, in the Haggadah (the written guide to the seder), regards the ‘child who has not learned to ask’ as the lowest, not the highest, stage of development.”
Judaism maintains that true faith can only come through asking questions, seeking answers, and choosing God as an act of freedom rather than an imposed state of being. Our goal is to ensure that our children will be seekers of God and the wisdom of the Bible for the rest of their lives.
Bio: Yael Eckstein (@YaelEckstein) is President and CEO of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (@TheFellowship), the largest charitable organization in Israel and the largest Christian-supported humanitarian organization helping Israel and the Jewish people. Yael stepped into this role in February 2019 following the unexpected death of her father, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who had founded The Fellowship in 1983.
Yael oversees all ministry programs and serves as the international spokesperson for The Fellowship, which raises more than $127 million annually, helping 1.5 million Jews in need in Israel and around the world. Prior to her present duties, Yael served as Global Executive Vice President, Senior Vice President, and Director of Program Development and Ministry Outreach. Based in Jerusalem with her husband and their four children, Yael is a published writer and a respected social services professional.
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