The Fifth Question

Tonight marks the beginning of Passover. Hopefully, the house is clean of chametz, the table is set, and everyone is excited for the Seder. More than any moment in the calendar year, the Passover Seder points to the vitality of Jewish life in America. Seventy percent of American Jewish adults will likely participate in this ritual, which dates back to antiquity. This makes the Passover Seder one of the most frequently practiced and durable Jewish rituals in America. And that experience makes a difference!
What is so interesting is that the largest study of American Jewish teens ever, garnering over 17,500 respondents, was just completed. The study was designed to understand how teens’ participation in Jewish activities related to their attitudes toward being Jewish, as well as to their sense of connection and responsibility to others. Surprisingly, the study found that Jewish teens who reported regular attendance at a Passover Seder rated themselves higher on almost every outcome measured. An activity that a child participated in once a year seems to make a measurable contribution to their attitudes about being Jewish as a teenager, and in some cases greater than more intensive experiences.
So why is this night different from all others?
The Passover Seder includes a number of features that position it to be an especially important Jewish practice for contemporary American Jews, especially a younger generation currently coming of age. For one, it is a home-based ritual, centered around the family table; research shows that Jewish teens primarily connect their Jewishness to things they do in their own homes with their family. With many not participating in synagogues, Jewish rituals that take place in the home take on increased importance. And because the Passover Seder takes place in the privacy of one’s own home, it lends itself to flexibility and improvisation including, what you want to sing or skip in the Hagaddah. What foods best capture their heritage and tastes, and how they will navigate tradition and the new. This do-it-yourself approach appeals especially to younger American Jews who want some autonomy in determining how to lead a Jewish life.
A key aspect of the study of American Jewish adolescents showed that Jewish teens love and respect their parents and grandparents and see themselves as generally in sync with their values and traditions. American Jewish teens, perhaps like all teens, want opportunities to talk with their families about what matters most in life. The Seder is an extraordinary family dinner that helps teens and their families do just that. Essentially, the Haggadah serves to ensure that the Seder is a scripted conversation between generations.
During Passover, I am reminded why I do this work –it is a sacred obligation! And the Seder experience is a communal one. The Haggadah begins with the declaration, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” I am proud that our community was able to raise $6300 to provide Passover food boxes to 140 families in our community. Last Sunday, my son and I joined dozens of volunteers to pack the food boxes and then deliver them to people’s homes. Together we packed:
  • 1,400 pounds of potatoes
  • 700 pounds of matzah
  • 420 dozen eggs
  • 280 boxes of matzah ball soup mix
  • 140 bottles of wine, frozen chickens, boxes of candy, jars of gefilte fish and jars of horseradish 
In addition, I am delighted by the number of community Seders taking place tonight and tomorrow via Chabad and local synagogues. In addition, young adults via OneTable will be hosting 10 Seders throughout various Portland neighborhoods, including: Lake Oswego, Beaverton, Mt. Tabor, Alphabet District, Sandy, Roseway, and more.
As you begin your Seder tonight, know that Jews around the world will read the Haggadah telling the story of the exodus from Egypt. The Passover story is not solely about our people’s redemption from the land of Egypt. It is a summons to work for the freedom of all oppressed people. It is the Jewish people’s original story of becoming strangers in a strange land. It is the story that reminds us that we, too, have stood in the shoes of those seeking safety and liberty. Perhaps the ultimate purpose of the Passover Seder is not merely to tell what happened to our ancestors 3,000 years ago, but to inspire every person who participates in the ritual to demand freedom for all who are denied it, just as Moses demanded freedom for the Israelites from Pharaoh.
We know that one of the highlights of the Seder is the reciting of the Four Questions by the youngest child, followed by the adults answering. Rabbi Marc Cooper in New Jersey wrote we should add a fifth question -- “What will you do to help alleviate the suffering of another person?” Put differently, what act of kindness and justice will we commit to doing that will redeem someone from hunger, from homelessness, from insecurity, from fear, and from oppression? Just as the Seder experience cannot be completed without answering the classic Four Questions, we ought not to end the evening without answering the crucial Fifth Question about how each of us will fight modern-day oppression in all its ugly forms. The Passover Seder is an urgent call to work for freedom for all, and we must answer the summons.
Shabbat shalom and may you and your family have a joyful and meaningful Seder. Chag Pesach kasher vesame'ach – a kosher and joyous Passover.


Add Comment