The Story

Imagine the following scenario. A person who is unfamiliar with Judaism (either Jewish or non- Jewish) is invited to a Passover Seder. He or she has never been to one of these affairs and looks forward to it eagerly. As the day approaches our guest begins to prepare – gaining familiarity with the rituals, finding the proper gifts to bring, learning what questions are apropos and which are out of line. As the evening of Passover draws near, he or she starts to get a little nervous: 'What if I say something stupid or insulting?' On the way over, armed with a bottle of good kosher wine and a healthy knowledge of the history of this meal, our now­–intrepid guest is ready for this dip into a modern version of what may be the most ancient continuous­running religious ritual in the world. The Passover Seder.

After a little ice breaking and some awkward introductions, everyone is ready to roll. The table is immaculately set with beautiful china, all the requisite foods, and enough wine and grape juice to supply... well, a large group of Jews at a Seder. A few jokes are exchanged, seating arrangements are accomplished and we are underway. A few men begin a chant of some sort. Everyone (except our nervous guest) joins in. The oldest man says what appears to be the opening paragraph in a language that sounds ancient and authentic. After a few minutes somebody announces that it's time for the four questions. At this point, our guest, who was growing a little baffled by the unfamiliar words, perks up. Despite a profound ignorance of everything Jewish, this much, at least, registers a familiar bell.

Our guest has heard of these questions even if he or she cannot recall reading exactly what the questions are. But our guest reasons that they must be important, to say nothing of deep. This is Judaism, the religion that gave the world monotheism and morality. This is the progenitor of Christianity and Islam and the supplier of 40% of the world's Nobel Prize winners. Simple Jews were reading complex legal texts when their aristocratic non­Jewish neighbors couldn't sign their own names. If anybody could come up with four whopper questions it was the Jews. This is the meal that they ask those questions. This has got to be good.

A child recites the questions, singing the words in unintelligible Hebrew in a tune that is both haunting and pleasant. Another child gets a chance, using the same tune but needing a little help. Finally, everybody sings it in a surprisingly harmonious chant. Unfortunately, our guest has not been given a Haggadah (the booklet that contains the ritual service of the meal) in a language they can follow. After much soul­searching, he or she gathers enough courage to ask what the questions were. Instantly, there are answers from all over the table. Any Passover Seder without questions from the participants is not a real Seder. It happens that our guest has asked the first non­ritual question. It also happens that its an easy one to answer so everyone wants a piece of the action. As the translation/interpretation dust settles our guest realizes that there is really one question broken into four detailed problems stated as follows:

  1. The general introductory question of 'Why is this night different from all other nights?
  2. The first detail: On other nights we eat bread, tonight we eat matzah.
  3. The second detail: On other nights we don't dip (something or other) even once, tonight we dip (something or other) twice.
  4. The third detail: On other nights we eat regular vegetables, tonight we eat horseradish (or something bitter).
  5. The fourth detail: On other nights we eat either leaning or sitting, tonight we all lean.

While these questions seem appropriate enough, they leave our esteemed guest a little nonplussed. Matzah was expected but is it really worth wasting one of the four questions on? Ditto with leaning. The dipping business seems totally pointless – who really cares one way of the other. But what really takes the cake is the horseradish. If you had four questions to ask God or some prophet or some dead relative in a dream, would you ask why we eat horseradish at some meal? It's horseradish, for crying out loud. This almost seems like something out of a Monty Python routine or maybe a line out of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Despite these disturbing questions, our guest manages to swallow them along with the bitter herbs and the matzah, and another Passover Seder passes without anybody rocking the boat too much.

What questions would our unsettled guest prefer? How's the following for a good short list:

  1. What is the meaning and purpose of life?
  2. What is God?
  3. Who are we?
  4. How do we understand good and evil?

There might be others but these are probably going to make everybody's top ten. Why aren't they asked at the Seder? Why aren't they asked every night of the year in bars, on chat rooms, in universities, or in the private confines of the mind? Why doesn't everybody ask these questions? Why does it seem that nobody, Jewish or otherwise, is asking these questions? If our four questions interest you, and if you are disturbed by the same things that disturbed our imaginary Passover guest, we welcome you to this website. Jewish or not, we invite you to participate, to read, to ask, to answer, and to debate. Please join us on what should be an amazing journey.

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