Rivy Poupko Kletenik

Who are you this year?

So many personas and characters in the Haggadah. Moshe our teacher, hiding from sight, the scholarly rabbis sequestered, wondering about the obligation to tell the story of our redemption from Egypt – Hillel who sandwiches sacrifice with bitterness into the folds of redemption. And those we sing of – the Goat, the Cat, the Shochet and the Angel of Death – oh and the one who knows all thirteen! To be sure – there are more the four to choose from; The Wise, The Wicked, The Simple and The One Who Does Not Know How to Ask.

Bingo. There I am. I do not know how to ask. I would have loved to have been the Wise child again this year. I long to know and to be taught the answers and then I would post them on social media – maybe with some music and emoji special effects. That would have been a thrill. This Wise one is found on cameo appearances each news cycle proclaiming the solution to all. They have become the confident spokesperson of the moment, knowing everything with a frightening certainty. No, I am not soon to be that Wise one.

What of the others? The Simple one has no appeal this year. They are riding along with the Wicked one to protest world events that they cannot even begin to fathom. The Wicked ones have dragged them along very effectively. Together they are walking out of classes, blocking bridges, and freeways – scribbling hateful graffiti and spreading vitriol online. So much for those two options.

For years I fancied myself another kind of Wise child. Teaching Haggadah for weeks before the holiday in class after class. At home, writing out timelines and lists of housecleaning deadlines and the cooking regimens to come, spurning notions of hotel Pesach Programs – devising guest lists for each meal.

This year the lists are on auto pilot. The thrill is severely tempered. Deadlines come and go, and the cabinets are just barely being filled. I am the child that does not know. It is as if I am in a trance – present but not really. You see, there seem to be no answers, and no promise in the seeking for explanations.

I mean, can we ask? How did October 7 happen? Why are we losing of the most bright and brilliant on the battlefield? Why are our Wise children falling before us?  Why are we targets from the Left and the Right? The North and the South? Where are those who were so viciously stolen from us on that dreadful Shabbat day? How can we possibly heal from all this horror?

We may have ironically arrived at wisdom – there are no answers.

And we are in good company. Rabbi Hirsh of Rimanov is quoted as saying, “Take my word for it. The one who does know what to ask comes away with the best.”

How so? We who cannot ask – we have no delusions of reasons why. We are not waiting for inquests – as if there are answers. Though there are those who failed us that holiday morning, why do we continuously need to live in a constant existential state of fear of attack. Wherever the Jew goes – does hatred necessarily follow?

The years of diatribes, propaganda, and hideous cartoons of the Jews – still do not explain the universal timeless appeal of antisemitism. No answers will be satisfying enough to comfort the mourners of Zion. No answer can explain why in 2024 we are still dealing with an antisemitism as old as time – as virulent and pervasive as ever – and as baffling. Headline after headline, op-ed after op-ed and we, the Jews are as enigmatic as ever.

We are center stage, notwithstanding humanitarian crises elsewhere; Sudan, persecution of the Uyghurs, dire situations in Ukraine, Syria and Haiti.

Here’s the secret. Though we are hated, we are here for the long haul.  And that’s what bothers the Wicked child. Coming right after the Wise child, they seek supremacy. They want that Wise child out of their way – their persistent endurance is frustrating, their continued belief in Holy Ancient One, is infuriating, there exasperating attachment to their homeland, their love of the resurrected Hebrew and their annoying joyful survival is insufferable.

This year we are coming to the Seder as the child who cannot even ask – maybe that will disarm, maybe even convince the Wicked one to lay down his sword. We are a tenacious mystery.

The Child Who Cannot Ask is in good company. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev would cry out to God that he was the fourth child who cannot even ask. If the child were to ask, says Reb Levi, he would not seek answers to the big whys of Creation or the Almighty’s Presence in the world. No, he would only ask for the meaning of our suffering.

About the Author
Rivy Poupko Kletenik, a 2002 Exceptional Jewish Educator Covenant Award Winner, just completed sixteen years as Head of School at the Seattle Hebrew Academy. Rivy is an enthusiastic writer and devotee of poetry and literature. Her column “What’s Your JQ” appeared for years in the JT News and then “Jewish in Seattle Magazine” and she is thrilled and proud to be awarded the Simon Rockower American Jewish Press Association Excellence in Commentary.