It is not only the Torah’s words that hold multiple layers of meaning. So do those of the Talmudic and Midrashic Sages – even the words of the prayers and rituals they formulated.
Such passages have their p’shat, or straightforward intent. But they also have less obvious layers, like that of remez – or “hinting” – unexpected subtexts that can be revealed by learned, insightful scholars.
One such meaning was mined from the Four Questions that are asked, usually by a child, at the Passover Seder service. The famous questions are actually one, with four examples provided. The overarching query is: Why is this night [of Passover] different from all the other nights [of the year]?
“Night,” however, can mean something deeper than the hours of darkness between afternoon and dawn. In Talmudic literature it can be a metaphor for exile, specifically the periods of history when the Jewish People were, at least superficially, estranged from G-d. The sojourn in Egypt is known as the “Egyptian Exile,” and the years between the destruction of the First Holy Temple in Jerusalem and its rebuilding is the “Babylonian Exile.”
“Why,” goes the “‘hinting’ approach” to the Four Questions, “is this night” – the current Jewish exile – “different” – so much longer – than previous ones? Nearly 2000 years, after all, have passed since the Second Temple’s destruction.
In this reading, the four examples of unusual Seder practices take on a new role; they are answers to that question.
“On all other nights,” goes the first, “we eat leavened and unleavened bread; but on this night… we eat only unleavened.” The Hebrew word for unleavened bread, matza, can also mean “strife.” And so, through the remez-lens, we perceive the first reason for the current extended Jewish exile: personal and pointless anger among Jews. The thought should not puzzle. The Second Temple, the Talmud teaches, was destroyed over “causeless hatred.” That it has not yet been rebuilt could well reflect an inadequate addressing of its destruction’s cause.
The second: “On all other nights we eat all sorts of vegetables; but on this night, bitter ones.” In the Talmud, eating vegetation is a sign of simplicity and privation. Amassing money, by contrast, is associated with worries and bitterness. “One who has one hundred silver pieces,” the Talmudic rabbis said, “desires two hundred.” So the hint in this declaration is that the exile continues in part because of misplaced focus on possessions, which brings only “bitterness” in the end.
“On all other nights,” goes the third example, “we need not dip vegetables [in relish or saltwater] even once; this night we do so twice.” Dipped vegetables are intended as appetizers – means of stimulating one’s appetite to more heartily enjoy the forthcoming meal. In the remez reading here, such “dipping” refers to the contemporary predilection to seek out new pleasures. Hedonism, the very opposite of the Jewish ideal of “his’tapkut,” or “sufficing” with less, is thus another element extending our current exile.
And finally, “On all other nights, we sit [at meals] at times upright, at times reclining; this night we all recline.” During other exiles, the “hint” approach has it, there were times when Jews felt downtrodden in relation to the surrounding society, and others when they felt exalted, respected, “arrived.” In this exile, according to the remez approach, we have become too comfortable, constantly “reclining.” We view ourselves at the top of the societal hill, and wax prideful over our achievements and status.
Thus, the Four Questions hint at four contemporary Jewish societal ills that prolong our exile: internal strife, obsession with possessions, hedonism and haughtiness.
However one may view that “hint” approach to the Seder’s Four Questions, looking around we certainly see that much of modern Jewish society indeed exhibits such spiritually debilitating symptoms. Arguments, which should be principled, are all too often personal. “Keeping up with the Cohens” has become a way of life for many. Pleasure-seeking is often a consuming passion. And pride is commonly taken in petty, temporal things instead of meaningful ones.
Most remarkable, though, is that the above remez approach to the Four Questions is that of Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, best known for his commentary on the Bible, the Kli Yakar.
He died in 1619. Imagine what he would say today.
© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]