I recently came across the remarkable little book written in 1903 by the German poet Rilke in response to the anguished questions of a troubled young officer and would-be-poet called Letters To a Young Poet. I was struck by his advice that we shouldn’t expect quick and easy answers to difficult questions. Try, he says to the young man, to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms you long to enter…Live with the questions now and someday you will gradually find a way to live your way into the answer.
These are wise words written when Rilke himself was a young man. I find them especially poignant at this time when so many young soldiers across Eastern Europe and people across the world are once again asking the point of war, when Israel is once again confronting acts of terror on its city streets every week. A time when there are more questions than answers. An era when there are no simple solutions to the horror of brutal warfare. Another poet, Wilfred Owen, described it as the agonising pity of war.
We Jewish people are only too familiar with the agony of unanswered questions, but we have been around for a long time and have also learnt the benefit of patience and living our way into answers. The redemption from a slavery of hundreds of years is a celebration of patience in the face of tyranny. It’s celebrated next week with the Festival of Passover or Pesach. Our history has also taught us to respect and encourage questions, to ask them even if we won’t get the answers we may be longing for.
On the first night of the festival, we will sit around the table with our families and enjoy not only a sumptuous meal but also a stupendous discussion around a text called The Haggadah or The Telling. Questions are integral to the evening – we encourage children as well as adults to participate in this in a form of Socratic dialogue, a festive Q & A.
The famous section for kids in the Haggadah is premised on questions- the fabled quartet or Mah Nishtana. They ask four questions with the opening header – how and why is this night different from all others?
These four questions for the children are some of the set ones for the evening but they are only a springboard for the unexpected and contemporaneous ways we should be interrogating the text and each other, an invitation to ask our own questions.
This year, (as I indicated in my piece last week) these are at least four of the questions I will be asking:
What’s the point of Pesach in the face of Putin?
I will argue that Pesach is about the confrontation with tyranny, that Pharaoh was a ruthless autocrat who believed only in power and ego – he saw himself as the great Ra or Sun god. Despite his allegiance to the sun, he liked nothing better than to ‘put out the sun in other people’s lives.’
The exodus was a revolutionary challenge of this ideology and a recognition that authoritarianism is extended by the capacity of a despot to sell his lie to those around him and also to garner their support of his rule; despotic rulers are supported by allies, elites and bureaucrats.
Pulitzer Prize winner, Anne Applebaum, has written a short but profound analysis of the allure of authoritarianism today and how it is threatening our democratic societies. She contends that its radically simple beliefs are inherently appealing in an age of anxiety and disruption.
The Jews gifted to the world the counter ideology that freedom is the right of every individual, that you need to constantly fight to preserve it. That’s the point of Pesach, Mr Putin.
And that guides the answer to my second question:
Why does Pesach still inform Jewishness today?
It may be the most relevant of festivals because it reminds us of our responsibility as a people to promote freedom, not to disregard our history because memory of the past drives the energy of the future. Memory shapes empathy and empathy creates hope in the face of anarchy.
We remember we were slaves in Egypt and this opens our hearts to the outsider. And so at Seder time we start the evening with an invitation to the disenfranchised, we remember how Moses burned with indignation for the dispossessed, we are awed at the birth of social consciousness on the banks of the River Nile.
We should focus on how we can make this evening and our lives more inclusive of the other especially our LGBTI+ community, those with disability, refugees and migrants …
And we think of how women have been sidelined through history and ask another question:
Are women stronger than male tyrants?
Well, say the rabbis, without the brave women of the exodus generation there would have been no exodus. The midwives stood up against Pharaoh with monumental chutzpah refusing his orders to simply kill the boy babies, his own daughter defied her father to save a Jewish child who she called Moses, and the sister of this baby, Miriam, acted with blinding boldness to save her brother and secure a future for the Jewish people, if not the world.
Writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: hope is the narrow bridge across which we must walk if we are to pass from slavery to redemption. That hope, is more likely to come from women (the bearers of new life) than men, said the sages.
These are profound and powerful ideas, but how do we translate them into action and that’s my fourth question:
What’s the point of ritual in a riotous world?
The genius of Judaism lies in its recognition that ethics need to be systematised, that ideas need to be implemented through actions. That is why Pesach is the most detailed and practical of all our festivals. It grapples with big ideas of freedom, identity, community, faith and history. It helps us action these ideas with a myriad of tiny actions or rituals on Seder night like eating bread of freedom the Matza, tasting the bitterness of slavery with sharp herbs, savouring the sweet tang of freedom by drinking four glasses of wine
These questions are relevant not only for Jewish people but for all of us as children of humanity. Martin Luther King Jr commented back in 1966 that we have moved into an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole of society such as how to give aid to the one who finds himself in misery and agony. But then, he adds, that one day we must ask the question of whether an edifice which produces such pain must not be restructured and refurbished.
The state of our troubled planet in 2022 only increases the urgency of the King’s plea to restructure the way the world responds to suffering and the angst of the innocent. We may not yet have found the reason as to why we are such serial perpetrators of pain but with faith, patient persistence and determined passion we will hopefully grow and live into the answer…