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!
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • 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.