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!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • 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.