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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Passover presents a distinctive challenge. Meant to present a thematic overview of the Exodus, the Seder cannot be experienced as such without creative exegesis. The Seder is symbolic, imaginative, childish. The Haggadah is dense, enigmatic, grown-up. Our holiday’s message is vague and embedded in an innocuous medium of rhyme and imagery. Questions raised by the text often seem rhetorical, and scores of Seders have left more uncertainties than resolutions.

At this year’s feast the skeptic in me was insistent, poisoning the performance with invisibly potent scorn. On this Night of Differences, I was overwhelmed by its utter sameness, by recurring exile, by sorrow, by unceasing pain. I found the text deceiving, and had no energy for charades.

Even the nostalgia was tainted. When calling attention to Bubbe M’s crystal saltshaker, I could not ignore her legacy of family discord. Zayde L’s satin cantor’s hat. which I wear to the Seder in his memory, brought to mind his not-so-subtle obstinateness. Zayde S’s colored-glass decanter became a reminder of his poverty-induced immigration to New York, where I was reared, from British Mandate Palestine. When acknowledging Bubbe J’s tablecloth I recalled her pervasive sadness. Most troubling, Bubbe B’s wartime silver rehashed our family’s recent bout with genocide and evoked 6 million misgivings. My tradition, it seemed, raised more questions than it answered.

Then along came Hallel, the resonant psalms of thanksgiving, and Nirtza, its concluding refrain, when alcohol-laced fatigue activated latent yearnings, and tears flowed, salty and free. In an instant, whatever meaning and magic were sacrificed on the altar of rationalism were breathed alive with the elixir of sentimentalism. Like my father, I sobbed to the expectant Chasal Siddur Pesach and to the unrivaled proclamation “leShana haBa’ah beYerushalayim” — “Next year in Jerusalem.” The Seder was suddenly uncomplicated and, for a suspended moment, meaningful. For eight unworried days, I could live free of deciphering the undecipherable, of explaining the inexplicable. Passover became a festival of questions, a celebration of my ability to wonder and to want.

In his “Letters to a Young Poet,” Ranier Maria Rilke likens the mystery of questions to “locked rooms” and to “books written in a very foreign tongue,” to be not avoided, but loved. To Rilke, patience “toward all that is unsolved in your heart” is virtuous, “and the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.” Instead of honoring its questions, my Passover Seder had, until then, focused on resolving them — for me a fruitless endeavor. The Seder’s stirring conclusion moved the experience from my head, where it cast about, to my heart, where it belonged.

Rilke suggests a philosophy in which questions can be more sustaining than answers, a world defined as much by negative space as by positive. For a cherished moment I was so satisfied — thirsty for answers, yet patient enough to await them. More than resolutions or zeal, my contribution to tradition would be to make its questions matter. Then, with the guests long gone and the children tucked away, my characteristic self-analysis took over, and by the time I peeled myself out of bed too few hours later, I was devastated. That morning, the warming lessons of Nirtza were a distant memory, and I trudged to synagogue, pensive and alone.

When seeking inspiration in synagogue, I was relying on a time-honored tradition that is more spiritual than musical. It is not harmonic structure I find calming, but an association of melody, meaning and memory that, when married just right, induces an emotion inimitable. In synagogue the tension between questions and answers slackens, the distance between here and there shortens, the limitation of knowledge recedes. Or so they say.

The cantor was good. Within seconds of his assuming the podium I felt relief. And when he sang, I closed my eyes and recalled the last time with my grandfather. The lesson of Nirtza warmed my core, and my garrulous reasoning was silenced. I was able again to question without feeling forced to answer. For a fleeting moment I had no tensions, and Passover was beautiful forever.

Mendel Horowitz is a rabbi and family therapist in Jerusalem, where he maintains a private practice working with adults and children.

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