Rabbi Batsheva Appel
An emphasis on questions is part of Jewish learning. When we study Jewish texts we begin with our own questions. For commentaries on the text, a suggested approach is to ask – what is the question that this commentator is answering? By emphasizing questions rather than answers, we begin to value the journey more than the destination and soon see that we learn more in looking for an answer than in learning the answer.
Each year at Passover, an emphasis on questions is formalized and made part of the Seder as the Four Questions. We spend time at our Seders with questions, formal and informal, but there is a fifth question built into the Seder, and it arises from our Torah portion this week, Parashat Va’era.
Another “four” in the Seder is the four cups of wine that we drink to correspond with the four promises that God makes to us in Exodus 6:6 – 8.
1 I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians
2 I will deliver you from their bondage
3 I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements
4 I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God.
5 I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and I will give it to you as a possession
Just as the Four Questions seem to be one question with four statements, this series of four promises seems to be different than advertised. How many promises are there? Five? Seven, which would be one for each verb? For the rabbis, the promises numbered five, four of which were fulfilled and one of which would be fulfilled in the future. But many cups of wine are there at the Seder? Five and a question. Four cups we drink and the fifth cup is in the center for Elijah the Prophet and to function as a string around our finger.
Elijah is the one who will bring advance word of the Messiah, and the final redemption. That is why we invite him to every Seder and every bris, and sing about him at the end of Shabbat. We are looking to the day when the final promise will be fulfilled. Elijah is also the one who will answer the questions that we can’t. When the rabbis at the time of the Talmud came up against a whopper of a problem that they were unable to solve, they would record the discussion and then say Teiku, which is an acronym for “Elijah will solve such puzzles and problems”. So Elijah’s cup is not just there for him to drink from, but to remind us of the first question we want to ask him when he comes through the door to join us at Seder.
Jews question and wrestle with problems and it is inevitable that we will face insoluble questions. But we need to remember that there is nothing beyond questioning, not even God. We are Israel, which comes from the Hebrew word meaning “they will wrestle with God”. Our questions about God and about our relationship with God as individuals and as Jews are part of our wrestling and therefore part of who we are. We may not get the answers to all of our questions until Elijah comes, but until then there is much to learn from the process of questioning.