Rachel Anisfeld
Rachel Anisfeld

For Passover: Awakening through questions

We normally go through life not noticing. We are in a state of habit and automatic pilot, half asleep to the world around us.

Pesach is a holiday of awakening. Like the natural world coming to life in the spring — the trees budding, the birds singing and the animals emerging out of hibernation — we, too, come to life out of our deep slumber of everyday living.

This is why questions play such an important role in the Seder. As the musar teacher Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe points out (Alei Shor II, p. 394), questions are a way of awakening one’s soul, hitorerut nafshit, a way of stopping in one’s normal tracks and saying — wait, what is this exactly? What is going on?

And so we begin the seder with the Mah Nishtanah, the prescribed four questions, and throughout the night we do things “in order that the children should ask.” Perhaps this does not just mean literally “children,” but also that naturally curious, inquisitive, and extremely present “child-like” side of ourselves. On this night, we are to be like children, seeing the world with their fresh wonder-filled eyes. Indeed, there is no answer to many of the strange things we do on this night other than “in order that the children should ask.” The whole purpose of the seder is to help us enter this state of awakened questioning and noticing.

The Gemara says that if one does not a have a child or a wife who can ask questions, then one should ask the questions oneself; even if two scholars are holding a seder together, they should still ask questions (Pesahim 116a). The point is not the answers. These two scholars have plenty of answers all year. The point is to get back to a place of questions, back to a place of wonderment and awe and curiosity; the world looks shiny and bright, and yes, very different, suddenly, in the light of this questioning stance.

Questions are the entry point to revelation. The Haggadah tells us that on this night the Israelites experienced a gilui shekhinah, “a divine revelation.” How do we re-enact that each year? By awakening ourselves through a stance of questioning, by kindling that place inside us that views the world with intense wonder and curiosity — how did that flower come to exist? What is bread really? What is bitterness? How did we get here? What is Egypt? Are we free? Suddenly the whole world is bathed in light and wonder; we sense God in every creation, in every action, big or small. Questions are an invitation to connection, an opening to the possibility of a response.

This awakened stance may also explain why we recite Hallel in this strange way, at night, which is unheard of normally, and without an official initial brachah announcing the fulfillment of the mitzvah of Hallel. As Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz explains, we are not here to fulfill a prescribed obligation to praise God; we are instead moved, spontaneously — in the heat of this moment of intense awakening and revelation – to sing out loud “Halleluyah!” We sing because it is natural to sing in such a state of awakening; our experience of God’s graciousness and of our own good fortune and gratitude overwhelms us and comes pouring out of our mouths in song.

Pesach is not a holiday to be smart. It is a holiday to be alive and real and awake. As much preparation as there is until it arrives, in exactly the same measure should we be present and spontaneous when it comes, awake to revelation and wonder like the wide-eyed children around us. And perhaps, with this experience of one night of awakening, we will learn to be a little more awake every day.

About the Author
Rachel Anisfeld holds a PhD in Jewish Studies and studies and teaches Torah in a variety of Atlanta adult education settings.
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