Finding Passover Wisdom In The Work of Rainier Maria Rilke

Author Provides Surprising Insights For The Holiday

Unleavened Melancholy: At this time of year, sometimes it’s easier to ask the Four Questions than to answer them.
Getty Images
Unleavened Melancholy: At this time of year, sometimes it’s easier to ask the Four Questions than to answer them.

By Mendel Horowitz

Published March 23, 2013, issue of March 22, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Is a question profound if it has no answer? I reflected on this banality the morning after another draining Passover Seder while shuffling — fashionably late and slightly hung over — to a synagogue I found hopeful in the past. In my usual house of worship I would be recruited to lead the service in song. And while fiercely nostalgic, I was also bone-tired and weary with the sound of my voice. Throughout the night and into the early morning, I had declared platitudes in a tone resonating paternal aplomb. Now that assuredness was gone. I was desperate for inspiration and hoping to find it anonymously, among unfamiliar pews.

Lasting until 2 a.m., this year’s paschal theater had fleeting moments of tedium but was characterized by enchanting instances of story, melody and ritual. Ancestral hymns were chanted, contemporary adaptations improvised, the past made alive with solemnity and cheer. My teenage students had helped us bake matzo, and my family and I prepared maror, haroset and knaidlach. Each of my five children and four adult guests was attended to. Even my adolescent (“I don’t know, I don’t care”) son expressed satisfaction. The Exodus was celebrated. Tradition was upheld. The setting was lavish, opulent, grand.

Click to see the rest of the section, Click for more Passover stories

So why was I disconsolate, trudging to a foreign congregation in quest of affecting holiday spirit? Why did I — a rabbi to whom others turn for encouragement — have to salvage a festival that was but hours old, a festival I had anticipated for weeks? Why did this celebration of freedom create such a sensation of dread?

My melancholy was as acute as it was unseasonable. Liberty mingled with pollen in the air, homes were leaven and dust-free — and there I was, dragging my feet like a shackled slave. While neighbors, it seemed, moved buoyantly along, my movements were lifeless, weighted with the burden of those infuriating Four Questions. This year’s recital did not bode well. As my children posed their questions, I was disturbingly aware of a lack of convincing answers. Now, minus the safety of last night’s pageantry, I imagined each early spring bird mocking my apparent ignorance.

“Making Pesach” was a rite I never wanted. I was — I still am — complacent at my father’s side. I would prefer he dole out the requisite amounts of matzo and maror, conceal decoy afikomens, brandish gleaming spears of radish (why not potato?) with parsley, straighten felled goblets of viscous Manischewitz. I would rather pose the Four Questions than be made to answer them, rather respond to tradition than be saddled with the burden of preserving it.

My father, a Manhattan entrepreneur, channeled holiday spirit unabashedly, his narrative compelling for its exuberance and not its profundity. Seders lasted well past defensible hours, and I do not suppose his performance was at all rehearsed. In Jerusalem, where as a rabbi I coax visiting American teenagers toward religiously inspired lives, my interventions are designed to elicit the same spirit as my father’s but are, I surmise, less effective. My demeanor is more contemplative — a manner that sometimes yields skepticism and self-doubt.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Despite the great pain and sadness surrounding a captured soldier, this should not shape the face of this particular conflict – not in making concessions and not in negotiations, not in sobering assessments of this operation’s achievements or the need to either retreat or move forward." Do you agree?
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.