Questions and Actions: Why we make this night different from all other nights

Why do Jews always answer a question with a question?
Who told you that?

That's an old joke that reflects our emphasis on asking questions, something that is fundamental to Torah study and to the transmission of the mesorah that we enact every Pesach.

The seder centers around the number four and the famous four questions. But four is the minimum, and further questions are encouraged by deliberately doing things that strike people as being out of the normal routine.

So here's a question: why go through all the question when we already know the answers?  We can simply tell the story, with all the drama built into the story of rags to rich of avdus to cheirus or of benighted ovdey avoda zara to enlightened people who witness Divine revelations in the geula.

Why the questions? I'm so glad you asked.

In the book  Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade Robert Cialdini  (p. 254) defend the underlying idea "Let me ask you a question for your information" a quote attributed to the Hollywood director Gregory Ratoff  and included in The 776 Stupidest Things Ever Said. Cialdini explains: "Posing a question can provide invaluable information to its recipient. It can spur him or her to bring to mind a piece of possessed knowledge not high in consciousness at the time but that, when made focal, change everything." Just raising the question, say about the weather, can make the person think about it enough to overcome the natural inclination to feel more optimistic on sunny days. That allows the person to adjust just that little bit and so counter the unconscious bias that creeps in.

Just raising a question that directs one's attention to a possible area of influence make one just that much more objective. This reminds me of the allegory I've heard about our own state in the world when we are confused by the great influence of all that surrounds us in exile. A king's advisor warned him that the food supply was contaminated, and they will go mad from eating it just as the whole population will. He said he had enough pure food to escape that fate. The king refused to take the opportunity to maintain his sanity when all his people would lose theirs. However, he said that he and the advisor will each put a mark on the foreheads so that when they see each other they will have a reminder that things are out of order. I heard this applied to the context of the 9th of Av -- that the day of mourning serves as the mark that reminds that we don't see clearly.

However, I think the notion of realigning one's sense of order is particularly pertinent to Pesach. This is why we have the seder in which we inverse the normal order of things. Yetzias Mitzrayaim demonstrated to the world that G-d is the One in charge, and that even the greatest empire will not stand against His will. The Isrealites reversed the normal order of things when they escaped Egypt, a place no slave had ever left before. It was not the apparently normal order that prevailed, but the one that G-d had planned.

We raise questions at the seder to think about how we fit into our contexts? What are we doing? What should we be doing? Have we simply absorbed our expectations for normative behavior from the larger surroundings? If so, we must question our motivations and decisions to be certain they fit into the true seder.

Another component of Pesach is, of course, action. In fact, it was the myriad laws associated with the korban Pesach that raises the question of the instructed youth in Sefer Hachinuch. When he asks what amounts to "Why do we need so many halachos for this?" he receives the famous answer: "Ha-adam nifal kefi peulathav" [Man is formed by his action.]

Cialdini fails to quote that maxim but comes close to it in stressing what is necessary to make a durable change in one's life. He notes the difference in the lasting effect of showing an American flag to voters in a particular context depended on whether or not it was "'locked in'" by being linked to a specific action. While there are certain assocations that can prove very influential in engendering "dramatic, immediate shifts in people" that can fade away unless they also include "commitments to them, usually in the form of related behavior" (226).

On Pesach night, we raise the fundamental question of "Why is this night different from all other nights?" It's not just about eating matzah and drinking 4 cups of wine. It's about cementing the self-awareness raised by the question with actions that form our character. And so we go through the seder every year because the ritual is not merely questions and answers but questions and actions.

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