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For the week ending 27 March 2021 / 14 Nisan 5781

Four More Questions: Exploring the Connection between the Number Four and Pesach

by Rabbi Nota Schiller
Library Library Library

For significant numbers of non-traditional Jews, the Pesach Seder is their last connection to ritual. Jews who build no succah, who don't know when Shavuot is, faithfully assemble year after year to eat matzah and tell about the going out of Egypt.

Mrs. S., an eighty-year-old woman from Ann Arbor, Michigan, told me that one year at her Pesach Seder she had forgotten the "shank bone" that traditionally goes on the symbolic Seder Plate, and her grandson went over to her refrigerator, took out a pork chop, and placed it on the Seder Plate.

Even at this home — however contradictory and somewhat confused — a semblance of Pesach ritual stubbornly persists. More than with other traditions, for some reason, a mysterious spiritual energy emanating from Pesach cuts deeper and longer into the collective Jewish conscience. Why?

Another question: The dominant recurring number in the Haggadah is four: We drink four cups of wine, we ask the "Four Questions," we tell of the "Four Sons." What is the connection between Pesach and the number four?

King Solomon says in Proverbs, "Listen, my son, to your father's ethic, and do not abandon the law of your mother." Without an investment of focused effort, one does not acquire the ethic of one's father. Hence the phrasing, "Listen to the ethic of your father." The "father's ethic" is encountered externally, like a voice. It must be engaged, admitted, and assimilated — and only then to be internalized.

"The law of your mother," on the other hand, is axiomatic. Innate, coming with the territory of being born Jewish, it functions intuitively. Hence the negative phrasing, "Do not abandon the law of your mother.” Every Jew is imbued with this given intuition — to abandon it requires active rejection. When passive, it lingers — at least subliminally.

This "law of your mother" can be described as “minimal Jewishness.” The Hebrew word "Uma" — nation — is from the same root as "Ima" — mother. Jewishness (apart from conversion) is established by having a Jewish mother, the giver of one's being. Whereas "listening to the ethic of one's father" is presented to us as choice, with accountability. It is an act of freewill, which at times is realized and at times is not.

Under the yoke of Egyptian slavery, only an elite core of Jews exercised this option, listening to "the ethic of your father." For the rank and file, the vast number of Jews, there remained only some vestiges of Jewish identity — minimal Jewishness, the "law of one's mother," the matriarchal mode.

Yet, this very "minimal Jewishness" was the pivot upon which the salvation would swing. That residual lingering consciousness sufficed to connect the Jewish people to their heritage and redemption. Without this minimum Jewishness, the floodgates of total assimilation would have burst open.

Providential guidance determined that history to take another course. In Egypt, minimal Jewish identity remained, and the precariousness of that identity heightened the urgency for immediate exodus.

Why is the number four a dominant recurring theme in the Haggadah? The number four symbolizes the matriarchs: Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah. This, “the matriarchal four,” this “law of our Mothers,” is what sustains us in exile.

Egypt was a paradigm for all future exiles. Having built up sufficient “antibodies” to resist the malady of the Egyptian exile, the Jewish nation could then survive all future exiles. The covenant guaranteeing Jewish continuity was made with the patriarchs. Yet, the mechanism by which the pact functions is the matriarchal mode. Wandering through the bleak valleys of dispersion, minimal Jewishness would be the bridge connecting to the next peak of mitzvah performance, to the next moment of "listening to the ethic of your Father."

Returning to our original question: Why does Pesach linger so much longer in the collective unconscious of even the so-called secular Jew? Just as a given space has its special combination of topography, minerals and climate, likewise does time have its own unique landscape. When the calendar rolls around to that place in time called Pesach, the mystical minerals of that spiritual lode can be mined. Returning to the "time-station" called Pesach, G-d reaches out to Israel just as He did on that first Pesach. Every Jew feels and senses a re-actualization, a reawakening, of the matriarchal root core, of his personal identity and our national identity.

When describing the father's dialogue with the son who "does not know how to ask a question," the Haggadah directs us: "You begin for him." The word "you" here is written in the feminine Hebrew form of aht. Here too, we see the matriarchal mode as the mechanism for maintaining minimal connection, even for the son who does not know enough to ask. That will bridge to the moment when the father can fulfill the mitzvah of: "You shall tell it to your son.” Ultimately, there will be that reunion of, “Listen, my son, to the ethic of your father, and do not abandon the Torah of your mother.” The mitzvah of the Haggadah is just such a moment of reunion.

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