Questioning Tradition

by Josh Yarden Mirror

The ‘four questions’ are among the most memorable readings in the traditional Passover Haggadah. The answers are not particularly interesting, however, especially if we let them suffice as our children transition to adulthood. Unless we dig deep below the surface of why we ask these questions, and unless we search for new ways to answer them, the exercise of reading the Haggadah is merely about providing predetermined correct answers to standardized questions. Our children may well leave them behind as they search for meaning in their lives.

The Haggadah is a book of answers for a night of questions. It tells a rather limited version of the emancipation of the Hebrew slaves, one that is quite different from the Book of Exodus. It tells a certain story about oppression, miracles and memory, but the rituals prescribed in the traditional Haggadah do not raise—let alone answer—the most meaningful questions we might ask concerning our liberation. In fact, it rather blatantly avoids asking any questions about securing our liberty or grappling with oppression in the future. Those questions may not have answers, which is precisely why we need to ask them.

We can re-interpret the annual ritual of retelling the Exodus narrative so that it can be a recurring act of learning to ask meaningful questions and searching together for liberating answers. Not all questions or answers can serve that purpose. There are basically three kinds of questions: 1) Simple questions are about requesting information. They are the questions we ask when we want assistance or permission. 2) There are more involved questions, which require more detailed explanations. They are the questions we ask when we are curious, confused or unsatisfied with what we know. 3) Then there are truly liberating questions, the type we pose when we have come to understand that the answers we have are the cause of our discontent, and we demand legitimate answers. These are the questions which investigate why things are as they are, how they got that way, and whose interests are being served. They are the questions we ask on a quest for the meaning of liberty and justice.

Let’s ask some difficult questions that don’t have clear answers. The environment, for example, is one topic that reveals our dire need for constructive answers to increasingly challenging questions. Let's take a moment to consider how deeply the theme of sustainability is embedded in the holiday of Passover and really in all of human history.

According to the Book of Genesis, drought and then famine in the region brought Joseph to prominence as an economic planner who anticipated a climate crisis and prepared the nation to withstand it. His brothers later went down to Egypt where food was more plentiful, and their descendants ending up enslaved there in later generations. (Beware of the law of unintended consequences!)

After the emancipation from slavery, experiencing freedom meant enduring life in the desert. The Exodus narrative has several references to the problems of finding sufficient food and clean water, and the return to Canaan was described as going not only to the “Promised Land,” but also to a land of plenty.

Fast forward a couple of millennia, and so many of our parents and grandparents left the countries of their homes escaping anti-semitism and also searching for a more comfortable life in the “Golden Medina,” America – where the streets were supposedly “paved with gold.” The Exodus doesn’t quite repeat itself, but much of our history is about the waves of immigrants looking for safe places where they can be free of oppression, and places where they will find sustenance.

Here are three simple sustainability questions about our people and our planet.

1) What might a leader like Joseph ask in our day?

He might begin by wondering what crises we should be planning for in the foreseeable future so that we can sustain our society in the face of drought, famine, scarcity and conflicts over resources.

2) What might a leader like Miriam ask in our day?

She might begin by asking how we can sustain our resources to ensure that everyone in the world will have enough water to drink.

3) What might a leader like Moses ask in our day?

He might begin by asking how one individual can resist injustice in the world, but he'll have to ask and answer many more questions if he is to bring about any sustainable change. In each case, we can dig deeper to reveal more probing questions and meaningful answers. Whose interests are being served by the current state of affairs? How do we engage the people responsible for the problems in generating the solutions? What is the right combination of freedom and responsibility we need to establish and to sustain a just society in the face of the threats we face?

Remember teenage Joseph, sitting in the bottom of a water cistern, imprisoned by his own brothers. He had no idea that future Joseph would end up in Egypt, where he would discover that he was prepared to lead in a time of crisis. And Miriam had no idea as a young girl that she would be the one to save Moses' life and work with her baby brother to lead their people. And Moses the fugitive had no idea that he would return to Egypt to lead the emancipation of the People of Israel. Until each of them came face to face with the dilemmas that pushed them to make difficult decisions, they were unaware of their own potential to become transformational leaders.

A set of the most important questions cannot be complete if it looks only to the past or examines only the actions of others. The stories of these biblical archetypes and others suggest that anyone might come face to face with a momentous decision in a moment of critical awakening. While most of us fade anonymously into the crowd most of the time, there are countless instances when the actions of individuals shape the futures of families, communities and entire societies. When such a moment arrives, will you be prepared to ask the fourth and most important question?

4) How will I change the world?

Begin by asking yourself, “What will I question?” And demand an answer.