The Fifth Question

Dear Friends,

In the next 24 hours, we will gather with our families and friends to honor one of our most ancient and revered traditions by celebrating Passover.  With the symbols of our people’s past oppression and our dramatic liberation from enslavement arrayed before us, we will once again ask how this night is different from all other nights and tell the story of our pursuit of freedom from tyranny.

But the Passover Seder can be neither complete nor authentic if our story is focused only on ourselves, for Passover is not solely about our own people’s redemption.  It is a summons to work for the freedom of all oppressed people.   The ultimate and truest 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 the Pharaoh.

The Passover Seder has been described as a talk-feast in four acts.  Indeed, several aspects of the Seder come in a pattern of four, such as the drinking of four cups of wine, the tale of the four children and the asking of four questions. The Rabbinic Sages intentionally adopted this structure because, as they read the story of the Exodus in the Torah, God’s promise of redemption was made in four parts: “Therefore, say to the people of Israel…I will bring you out from under the burden of the Egyptians…I will rid you from their slavery…I will redeem you with an outstretched arm…and I will take you to me for a people.” (Exodus 6:6-7)

Some of the sages interpreted that God actually made five promises, since one verse later, in Exodus 6:8, we read: “And I will bring you to the land which I gave to Abraham and his descendants.”  As often happens in Talmudic debate, the rabbis couldn’t come to a unanimous consensus as to whether there were four or five Divine promises, and thus whether there should be four or five question cups of wine at the Seder.  So, they decided that a fifth cup of wine should be placed on the Seder table, but did not require that a blessing be said over it.  They dedicated the fifth cup to Elijah the Prophet, whom they believed would solve all such disputes at the dawn of the Messianic era.

Just as there are actually five cups of wine at the Passover Seder, perhaps there should also be five questions asked instead of four.  The Fifth Question should be this: “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.

This year, I again have the privilege of celebrating Passover with my family in Israel where the spirit of this special holiday is uniquely expressed and felt.  I am grateful for this opportunity and I eagerly look forward to the week of celebration that lies ahead.

My family joins me in wishing you a fulfilling, memorable and inspirational Pesach experience!