Why are these 4 Pesach questions different

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So this day will be different. Why? Elizheva Hurvich "will transport myself by foot or by non-fuel-burning means."

That's one of four new questions for Passover that Hurvich, the religious school principal of Berkeley's Kehilla Community Synagogue, recently posed in response to a request by the Jewish Bulletin. She was one of several Bay Area Jews asked to rewrite the four questions in order to make them more personally relevant this year.

Like Hurvich, most came up with questions about how, on Pesach, one could make a greater contribution to the world. But others took a different kind of contemporary approach, in light of the ongoing violence in the Middle East.

"If God saved the Jews in Egypt, why won't He save them from suicide bombers?" asked Rabbi H. David Teitelbaum, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California.

Joe Pessah, acting rabbi of the Karaite Jews, a sect from Egypt, pointed out that in the Karaite seder, there are no questions. "Our story is told directly from the Torah," he explained. "The portions we read are sentences in the Torah with little additions."

But if he could ask four questions, one would be, "Why do Palestinians live in apartment buildings that are referred to as refugee camps?" Or, "Why does Reuters news announce in the headline something like 'Israel Kills Palestinians' and when Palestinians kill Jews, the headline says 'Violence in the Middle East'?"

Rabbi Pam Frydman Baugh, spiritual leader of San Francisco's Or Shalom Jewish Community, wanted to know, "Why must we point fingers of blame for the violence in the Middle East; why must two peoples cause each other so much pain in the name of freedom and security?"

Baugh said she posed the question to her mentor, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of Jewish Renewal. He wondered, "On all other years, we didn't have to dip in blood and this year, we have to dip twice; once in the blood of the Israeli people, and once in the blood of the Palestinian people."

Baugh, who serves as president of Ohala, the national association of Renewal rabbis, further asked, "Why does it not come naturally to us to dip into two points of view — our own and the other's? Why do we always feel our way of Judaism is right; why can't we automatically open our hearts to one another and the point of view of others?"

Rabbi Oren Postrel threw the question out to members of his Jewish world discussion group, all residents of the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville.

They came up with both questions and answers, such as: "Why is Israel different from all other nations?"

"All other nations are not the Jewish state. Israel was born from the ashes of Auschwitz."

And a second query. "We have made mistakes toward our ancient and Arab neighbors. Why does this happen?" Their answer: "All other nations need not work for peace every day. If governments had more women leaders, war would be eliminated. We have no proof, but it would be a wonderful world with peace!"

When Christine Tachner, the United Synagogue Youth adviser at San Francisco's Congregation B'nai Emunah, got the assignment, she noted that she always thought the themes of the four questions were applicable to Jews and non-Jews alike. "Matzah, the bread of slavery, brings up thoughts of hunger and privation," she said. "The bitter herbs are a symbol of natural resources and ecology; dipping in saltwater brings to mind tears, sorrow and strife; and leaning on cushions, to me, symbolizes hope for a better, more comfortable, more hopeful future, and present, too!" Tachner, a Jew-by-choice, gave her four questions as follows: "How can we, who have an abundance of matzah and other good things to eat, help ensure that others have bread as well? As we eat the bitter herbs, how can we help the earth stay green and healthy? When we dip our karpas into saltwater, which are like tears, what can we do to decrease strife and sorrow in our own lives? As we recline on cushions and enjoy our Jewish heritage, what are some ways that we can increase our delight in the beauty of life and of Judaism, not just tonight but every night?"

Hurvich's responses were in a similar vein. "On all other days, I wear and use products that are within my financial means and fashion consciousness; on this holiday, I will wear clothes and use products from natural sources and which are made by laborers who are equitably compensated for their work."

And she used the dipping of karpas into saltwater as a metaphor for dipping into her checkbook. "At all other times I think about giving tzedakah, and often even do so; at this time I will do a double dip into my checkbook and heart, believing that my contributions can make a difference."

Teitelbaum couldn't resist ending on a humorous note: "At the seder we drink four cups of wine. Why, then, does Elijah refuse his cup each year?"

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."