Passover is all about asking. Why this? What happened next? Who know what? When can we eat?
They are nice, contained, well-scripted questions. They all have answers. Well-scripted answers. Well, okay, maybe the not "When do we eat?" question, but the rest-- they are scripted and written and sung. They are safe.
Don't get me wrong-- they're not necessarily easy. I say they're safe because they're familiar. I don't have to think too much about them, don't have to focus on them, really. The words fall into a well-traveled pathways, smoothed after years - decades - centuries of use. They connect me across miles and generations, these questions and answers.
I remember how excited and nervous I was, when I knew it would finally be my turn to chant the Four Questions for the first time. The honor fell to the youngest girl who was able. When we finally all became of age, so to speak, everyone would have a chance to read or chant. Oh, the chaos and the tears! "It's my turn!" "Why does she always get to go first?" "When do we eat??" I don't know that the adults paid much attention. This was the section of the seder that was all ours - the kids - and they turned their attention to sopping up the last bits of charoset or chopped liver was on their plate, impatient to get through to the real part of the service - dinner.
But when the last child was through, there was applause and praise. There was an answer, sung in Hebrew by both my zaydes. While we always had Passover at my dad's folks, my mother's mom and stepfather were always there. They would stand, my grandfathers, at opposite ends of the long table (made longer by the addition of leaves and a folding or two) , and (I swear) commence dueling. It was a contest of will and speed-- which of them could chant the entire Haggadah fastest, their thick Ashkenazi accents softening the final tof into a sibilant ess, and rounding long ohs into aws. At some point, their words became indistinguishable; neither Hebrew nor English, but perhaps what was heard at Babel. I would watch, transfixed, paging through the Haggadah to figure out how much of the seder was left to do. Occasionally, the zaydes would turn, as if in concert, and ask another participant to speak. We, at the kid's table (for all those who had not yet become a bar or bat mitzvah-- or my family, who always seemed to be relegated there in deference to my Aunt and her kids, whom we knew were out-and-out favorites), would loosely pay attention, preferring to throw food at one another (if it was just us kids) or whisper loudly to our mother "How come we never get to sit at the big table?"
Through it all-- questions. Asked and answered.
It wasn't until later - much, much later - that I learned to ask more difficult, less expected questions. Or perhaps, it wasn't that the questions were unexpected, but that I demanded different, less pat answers. Why do we open the door? Why do we wait for those in need to find us? Shouldn't we be out there (wherever there was), to help those in need before they even ask for it? Shouldn't we be working to create a world where there are no hungry? What enslaves us now? What is our wilderness? Who should lead us out now? What does our freedom mean? To what are we in bondage? How can we become free? How can I make a difference? How can I change the world? How do we best serve God?
Amazing questions. They filled me and fueled me. Made me angry, Made me think. Demanded an answer. Begged for action. They took me out of the familiar and smack dab in the middle of some uncharted frontier. And then last year, as if by chance, someone asked me, as we discussed the Exodus and the journey to Sinai and beyond-- "What do you take with you? What do you leave behind?"
I have spent the last year trying to answer these. I have written about them, thought about them, wrestled with them. Every answer I've managed to find has been right, even as its been wrong. They've been almost, potential. great starts. Or maybe I'm just trying to hard. Or maybe, what I take and leave behind are the same things, again and again-- i take my pain and my fear and my grief with me, and then somehow, find that I've take it all right back. Whatever lessons, whatever redemption or forgiveness I am supposed to realize is played in an endless loop-- and will ever be thus, as long as I continue to play this out.
Perhaps this year, I can ask a bit differently-- What do I take with me? How can I leave it behind and so find healing and grace?
c Stacey Zisook Robinson
09 April 2014