The Questions of Leil HaSeder

Rabbi Chananya Chollak, the founder of Ezer MiTzion, was menachem avel recently at the home of a certain talmid chacham whose Rebbetzin was niftar. She was only 48, and left four orphans. It was the second time this talmid chacham had been widowed; his first wife left behind ten orphans.

Rabbi Chollak related a conversation he once had with the Steipler Gaon about bikur cholim and nichum aveilim. In the course of his great project of providing free medical services in Eretz Yisrael, these were mitzvos which he had frequent opportunity to fulfill.

The Steipler listened as he explained that the bereaved and the sick and their families, as they struggled with their tragedies, would ask him, “Why? Why did this happen? Why to such a wonderful person? Why at such a young age?”

How, Rabbi Chollak asked, could he explain the ways of Hashem to those with such a nisayon?

The face of the Steipler Gaon filled with astonishment. He stretched out his hands and asked in return, “Do they think they can know such things just by asking?”

The avel nodded his understanding to Rabbi Chollak. He wasn’t asking such questions.

We are all faced with questions in life and in Torah. The questions can arise at any time; but Leil HaSeder is the time in the Jewish calendar in which the asking of questions has an especially prominent place.

The four sons ask basic questions about the meaning of Pesach. There are minhagim designed specifically to stimulate the children to ask their own questions. And then there are countless questions posed by the poskim and meforshim, down through the ages to our own time.

Yet the answers to the questions are not always apparent. For example, the karpas. Once children are prompted to ask why we are eating karpas, what is the answer we should give?

Harav Moshe Wolfson, shlita, answers that we give no answer. This is to teach the children that we have emunah in Hashem even when we have no answers to our questions. Serving Him does not depend on having all the answers (Torah V’Daas Haggadah, Vol. II, p. 136).

The grandson of the Michtav Sofer asked about the reason for the minhag observed in many homes of the children “stealing” the afikoman. The Michtav Sofer did not immediately reply for the same reason: to teach the child the principle that one can live with a question without an answer.

However, after the Seder, he did offer an explanation. Why is it that we have remembrances for the various nissim that occurred in Mitzrayim, but not for that which “not a dog whet his tongue” during Yetzias Mitzrayim?

The Michtav Sofer quoted the Gemara (Pesachim 113) which says that one should not live in a town where no dog barks. Rashi explains the reason is that barking dogs alert residents to enemies and thieves. Thus, the stealing of the afikoman is a remembrance of the miracle that no dog whet its tongue that night: since no dog barked, thieves were on the prowl. So too they are on the prowl at Leil HaSeder, snatching the afikoman (Introduction to Michtav Sofer, quoted in Minhag Yisrael Torah, Vol. II, P. 121).

On Leil HaSeder each of us is obligated to feel as if he himself went out from Mitzrayim. The question is asked, how is it possible, since we were not there to witness the great events ourselves?

In most cases, it is assumed that the events referred to are the Ten Plagues and the Splitting of the Sea. But there is another dimension, which is no less a part of that historical experience: the questions which must have troubled the Jewish people even in the midst of deliverance.

The Midrash says that no more than one-fifth of the entire Jewish people merited to leave Egypt alive; the rest perished during the Plague of Darkness. Whatever the failings of those who died, however much they may have assimilated — Egyptianized — they were the relatives and neighbors, the flesh and blood, of the Jews who left. Surely many wondered why certain people perished and others survived. Why him, and not me?

And how were they to cross the Sea with the army of Pharaoh about to fall upon them? And, if somehow they survived that, how were they to survive in the barren wilderness?

The procession of that multitude into a hostile, unknown environment was the supreme act of faith, which is immortalized in the words of Yirmiyahu that we quote from on the Yamim Nora’im: “Lechtech acharai bamidbar b’eretz lo zarua — You followed after Me into a barren land.”

The Jews of Yetzias Mitzrayim lived through those days with burning questions, questions that had no immediate answers. But they carried on, following Moshe Rabbeinu, until the sea split, and until the manna rained down from the skies.

May we be zocheh to serve Hashem faithfully in these difficult times, to carry on, faithfully keeping Toras Moshe, even though we, too, carry with us questions that as yet have no answers, until the ultimate redemption.

If we do so, then we can feel as if we ourselves have gone out from Mitzrayim.