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.
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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.
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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.

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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.


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