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Lessons For Living: Celebrating our capacity to question

Celebrating our capacity to question

As we remember historical liberation, we dare not shy away from asking and letting our kids ask the hard questions about the future of Israel.

Published: 18 April 2024 by The Jewish Independent 

Jewish people are not only the People of the Book, we are surely also the People of the Question. Inquiry, debate, and argument are part of our culture. This is evident in our feisty communal interactions, our boldness and our bolshiness. It is a source of strength but can also be dangerous when confronting rigid and authoritarian individuals or leaders.

We have been questioning people from our very inception. The story of the Jewish people starts with Abraham who is the Master Questioner. Abraham has the audacity to question God himself: Will not the creator of Justice act justly? And ever since then, we have not stopped questioning the world around us.

Judaism is in love with questioning and rarely tries to silence a question asked by a genuine enquirer. Religious faith, for us, is certainly not blind and accepting.

The ability to live with difficult questions is a sign of a mature mind. If anything characterises the festival of Pesach, it is the capacity to question. On the first night of the festival, we begin our journey through the Seder or festive meal with what’s called the iconic four questions, ‘Mah Nishtana’, we then proceed to the four enquirers or children and in many ways, the entire evening is held together by questions both formal and informal.

The ability to live with difficult questions is a sign of a mature mind. As the Yiddish expression reminds us, ‘we don't die from asking questions.’

The most famous query of the Seder night and its Haggadah handbook is undoubtedly: Why or how is this night different from all other nights? It is far more than a technical enquiry about the basic symbolic activities of the evening - matza, bitter herbs and double dipping. It's an existential, cri de coeur evoking the long black nights of Jewish history. One commentator sees it as referring to four different dark periods of our past, empires that lorded it over us - Egypt, Persia, Greece and Rome.

This year we dare not shy away from asking and letting our kids ask the hard questions about the future of Israel and what has changed for us as a people, as a community and as individuals. We need to confront the questions and eat the bitter herbs, taste the despair.

One question a young colleague was recently asked by her six-year-old child tears at my soul: Why does our school have guards at the gate when all the others we walk past don’t? That too is a Pesach question. I don’t think we need to add another symbol on our Seder plates but this year for many Jewish families a picture of a hostage being held in captivity in Gaza (ironically part of Egypt not that long ago), an empty chair at the table or a yellow ribbon wouldn’t be out of place.

After October 7 we have another ‘Ma Nishtana’, another question about why this night is different, and we sorrowfully know the answer. Nothing is the same. We feel different about our place in the world, we are wondering about the support of our friends and neighbours and our very place in Australian society. This is a dark and dreadful time unlike any we have experienced since the Holocaust. Our wise sages embedded in the Seder saga the reminders not to rejoice at the downfall of our enemies.

Indeed, as we recount the story of the slavery of Egypt, we may feel we are back in that dreadful dark plague that immobilised the Egyptian people in the Biblical Book of Exodus, described as one of the fearful disconnections between human beings. They felt so paralysed by the encompassing darkness, they could not even reach out to one another. Perhaps it was the moment of sheer horror, the awful realisation of the barbarism the human heart is capable of. You plumb the depth of darkness when you cannot see the other. From Kibbutz Beeri to the baying mob at the Sydney Opera House, we have come face to face with Pharaoh’s blackened face.

Another twist to the Pesach question requires us to ask: Are we any different from our enemies? Our tradition has always asserted that we didn’t lose our moral compass in Egypt despite the brutality of our enemies and that we heeded the warning of Nietzsche that one who fights monsters must be careful not to become a monster. So, our wise sages embedded in the Seder saga the reminders not to rejoice at the downfall of our enemies. That is why we let the wine dribble out at the mention of each plague and the suffering of God’s wayward sons and daughters. The loss of human life even in a struggle for your own life is always a tragedy, a failure of humanity.

It is easy for Jewish people to feel demoralised and dismayed by the antisemitism, the hatred and antipathy towards Israel, the propaganda and often aggressive protestors blocking streets from Flinders Street Station to Trafalgar Square. It’s so easy this year to relate to the words of the Haggadah: In every generation, they rise up to destroy us…

It is however imperative that we also recognise both the overriding message and the denouement of the Passover story: it began in shame and pain, but it ended in gain and fame. It became the most celebrated narrative of freedom and liberation. It is ultimately a story of human courage, forbearance, and hope. It is also the story of the resilience enduring optimism and strength of the Jewish people. That egg on the Seder plate is also about what eggheads we are; the more you boil us up, the harder and tougher we get! Or more seriously and poetically: Don’t they know the more you burn us, the more you ignite us?

Judaism has always taught us that disasters and obstacles are temporary and that we have the power to overcome them. Echoing Martin Luther King’s famous words that hatred is not beaten by hatred but love, the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said we don't vanquish evil with hate, we vanquish it with faith in life. Faith in life and faith in humanity is what should linger at the end of our Seder evening. The strains of ‘LeShanah Haba B’Yerushalayim’ (Next year in Jerusalem) should hover, pointing us towards a better, more peaceful Jerusalem, a healed world and the next year in the golden city of our dreams and hopes.

Chag Sameach to all our Jewish staff and a happy week to all,

Rabbi Ralph