Judaism is an ancient and on-going conversation about the meaning of life and how best to live it. Our means of conversation include prose, poetry, song, symbol, myth, and ritual. Some of our conversation veers into the mystical, much roots itself in the rational, and all of it is tentative. There is no final answer to the questions Judaism raises; nor do we seek one. Our joy is in the conversation itself. If ever a question becomes moot, we ask a new question.
Given that we are about to celebrate Pesach (Passover), and that the reading of the Four Questions is a beloved part of the Passover seder, I thought it might be helpful to post a few more questions you might explore during Pesach.
First Set of Questions
The book of Exodus tells that “a new pharaoh arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph,” (Exodus 1:8). How is this possible? Next to the old Pharaoh Joseph had been the most powerful man in Egypt. It was Joseph who ran the country: “Without your permission no one may move hand or foot in all the land of Egypt,” (Genesis 41:44). So how is it possible that a new Pharaoh didn’t know Joseph?
The phrase should be read this way, “A new Pharaoh came to power who had no ties to Joseph and his people.” In fact, the new Pharaoh was an enemy of Joseph and the Hebrew people. Why? Because Joseph used his power under a previous Pharaoh to impoverish and enslave the Egyptian people. Joseph collected excess grain during the seven years of plenty, but rather than return the grain to the people during the ensuing famine, Joseph sold their own grain back to them. Torah tells us that when the Egyptians ran out of money and could no longer buy back their grain, Joseph took their livestock instead of cash. When the livestock had all been sold off, he took their ancestral farms, and reduced the people to surfs working lands that now belonged to Pharaoh. To limit the possibility of a peasant revolt, Joseph forcibly removed the people from their land and relocated them to the cities. To put it bluntly, Joseph enslaved all of Egypt! (Genesis 47:13–26).
Only two groups escaped Joseph’s social and economic revolution: Pharaoh and his priesthood (those devoted to proving Pharaoh was God) and Joseph and his family—the Hebrews. As Torah tells us, “Israel settled in the land of Egypt, the region of Goshen; they acquired property in it and they were fruitful and multiplied,” (Genesis 47:27). All this while the Egyptians were impoverished, displaced, and enslaved.
Could it be that a new Pharaoh didn’t know this story? Of course not. But where the old Pharaoh profited from his alignment with the Israelites, the new Pharaoh sought to overthrow the old order, establishing a new priesthood charged with affirming the new Pharaoh as God, and making sure the old order was crushed by crushing those who benefited from it: the old Pharaoh, the old priesthood, and the Israelites.
So, the first questions you might ask this Pesach are these: The story of Joseph confirms Lord Acton’s adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Where are we, as both persons and a people, placed in positions of power over others? How do we use that power? How are we corrupted by? What can we do avoid such corruption?
Second Set of Questions
Throughout the Exodus story the Hebrew God tortures the Egyptian people with ten plagues. God makes no distinction between the innocent and the guilty. All Egyptians by mere fact of being Egyptian are guilty and deserving of punishment. It is as if God learned nothing from the challenge of Abraham over God’s planned destruction of Sodom: “How can you slaughter the innocent along with the guilty? Shall the Judge of all the earth not act justly?” (Genesis 18:23–25).
Of course, Torah comprises stories written over centuries by many different authors, so the author of the Passover legend may not have heard the Sodom legend, and felt no compunction over presenting his God as a mass murderer. Nevertheless, we are stuck with both stories.
The second set of questions for Pesach Passover is this: What price freedom? If the cost of your liberation from the hands of tyrants was the slaughter of thousands of innocents, would you be willing to pay it? Many people are. I’m not telling you how to respond to this question, only saying that as a Jew taking Pesach seriously the question cannot be avoided—you must respond.
Third Set of Questions
As we recite the Ten Plagues God brought against the Egyptians, it is customary to pour out a drop of wine from our wine cups that we don’t toast the suffering of the Egyptians. But the entire Passover Seder is a celebration of their suffering. The entire Seder is based on the false premise that we were innocents wrongly enslaved, and the Egyptians were guilty because they (with the exception of the midwives) did nothing to stop our enslavement. Just as the Egyptians were silent in the face of our enslavement at the hand of the new Pharaoh, so were we silent at the enslavement of the Egyptians at the hands of Joseph and the old Pharaoh. So, our third question is this: Where are we silent in the face of another’s suffering, and how might we be benefiting from it?
Fourth Set of Questions
Pesach is one of the few holy days celebrated by most Jews. Not that most Jews eschew leavened products and observe the rigors of the week–long Festival of Freedom, but that most Jews host or attend a Passover Seder, a Passover meal. The reason for this isn’t hard to discern: Pesach is a chance for families to come together, and that alone is a rare commodity in our time. But it is a shallow reason at best. If the point of Passover is to share a meal together, why bother with a lengthy and often unintelligible reading of Haggadah? And of course, fewer and fewer Jews do read it. In time, like American Thanksgiving, Pesach will just be a dinner that has lost its capacity to make meaning. So, the fourth question of Pesach is in fact the oldest question. This one is asked by the Wise Child in Haggadah, “What do our Passover traditions mean to us?”
The questions of the Four Children invite the telling of the story of our liberation from Egypt, but merely telling the story is not enough. What does the Passover holy day mean to you? What does freedom mean? What meaning do you find in telling this story? What meaning do you glean from avoiding chumetz (food stuffs and other products forbidden on Pesach)? What does being a Jew mean to you?
Hag sameach Pesach!