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Leaving the Straits of Your Heart

"In every generation there is a Yetzias Mitzrayim matched to that generation’s particular situation"


On that first Pesach night, long ago in Egypt, questions, too, were redeemed, forever liberated together with the Jewish People.

For the question that a person asks elicits an answer. And the mediator between question and answer is dialogue. Dialogue is what brings a meeting of minds between the questioner and the respondent, between one who craves knowledge and seeks to understand, and the one who can disperse the fog of doubt and provide the answer from his storehouse of knowledge and experience. When this process takes place, the quality of both their lives is improved immeasurably.

When issuing the commandment to remember our Exodus from Egypt, the Torah expressly calls for dialogue, and this requirement is mentioned twice in the Torah: “It will be, when your son asks you tomorrow, saying…” (Shemos 13:14), and a second time in Devarim (6:21): “When your son asks you tomorrow, saying…” It is the son who asks us, the parents, about what happened in our distant past. And indeed, an explicit commandment was necessary regarding this point. For a slave does not ask questions. He does what he is made to do, without necessarily understanding it or even taking the initiative to find out what is required of him. And just as the Torah called for the redemption of the suppressed personality of the slave by addressing the mitzvah of Korban Pesach to every individual Jew with the words, “They shall take, each man, a lamb to the fathers’ house,” this was to inform Bnei Yisrael on the eve of their redemption that they are no longer to be a faceless mass of slaves. Each and every one of them is a personality in his or her own right. And so the Torah enjoins us to embrace the question, as one of the attributes of a free human being.

The Torah’s intention is not only to guide us in how to answer, if and when it should occur to one of our children to ask us about Yetzias Mitzrayim, but we are to encourage our children to ask. In fact, we require of them to ask us. The Mishnah in Maseches Pesachim (116) says, “And here the child asks. And if he lacks the acuity to ask, his father teaches him. If he has no child, his wife asks him. And if not, [the father] asks himself.”

Why all these questions? Why does it have to be this way? Why can’t the father simply tell the story of the Exodus, with various interesting commentaries, whether his child asks him or not? Won’t the son understand what his father is talking about? The child may indeed understand, yet, unless the prefacing question comes from his own mouth, he won’t fully connect with the message his parents are trying to pass on to him.

That’s because in the Torah’s eyes, the question is an integral part of the process of transferring a message. Without a question, there is no enthusiastic contemplation, no resolution, just some dry facts we’ve already heard.

Why is this so? Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz ztz”l enlightens us:

“This is why we are commanded to fulfill the mitzvah of telling the Exodus story through question and answer. For the mitzvah of relating the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim is difficult to fulfill properly, since it is all so well known, for so many years, that everyone is used to it. That being so, what can a person possibly add by repeating it over once again by rote? The point of telling the story is to bring one to feel and see oneself as if he himself just now left Egypt. And the only way to achieve this feeling is through strong emotional involvement. This is why Chazal established that the mitzvah is fulfilled through the children’s question and the father’s answer. For through the question, the answer is received as something new, and everyone will reach the desired level of emotional excitement and contemplation.” (Sichos Mussar Shaarei Chaim, p. 413)

And now we can understand a great educational truth: Passive chinuch does not allow for productive transmission of educational messages. A one-sided educational approach, from the giver to the one supposedly being influenced, without dialogue, without stimulating the student to ask questions, is more like animal training than education. And when there is no fruitful, challenging dialogue, it means a considerable portion of our students are not connecting to the important concepts we’re supposed to be transmitting to them. Because when ideas are just thrown out without dialogue, they feel irrelevant.

Questions are so important for understanding that sometimes we even have to ask them to ourselves. If a person is making the Pesach Seder all alone, as some will indeed be doing this year, he must ask himself the questions before giving the answer. It might feel contrived, but Chazal teach us the opposite — for this is the only way to arouse our feelings to the point where we can experience this story we’ve known all our lives as something new and immediate, where we can become emotionally connected to the past which, in fact, is also our present and our future.

For the real question comes from a deep, primal cry in the asker’s heart, from a hidden place where the question troubles him and leaves him no peace. And until his discomfort is released by asking, his heart remains locked, and no lecture can break that lock on his soul. But when the father or teacher listens attentively to the question, comprehending the unique essence behind it, then he is able to give an inspired, custom-made answer that will find its way into the heart of the one asking.

Years ago, a certain maggid shiur told me he’d sensed that some of his students were grappling with questions of belief, but they weren’t asking. He decided to take the initiative and ask them why. “When we asked this kind of question back in yeshivah high school, they told us it was apikorsus to talk that way,” they explained. “So we stopped asking.” Those mesivta rebbis didn’t know what Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe ztz”l taught us, that there are no heretical questions, only heretical answers. With the rosh yeshivah’s permission, this maggid shiur put aside several hours of Gemara classes to make time for open dialogue on the students’ emunah questions, restoring their souls with resolution and harmony.

This is why the Torah demands of us to evoke the question, as a prelude to the answer, so that the mitzvah of Pesach is not a static memorial to the past, but an experience of the here and now. “In every generation, a person’s obligation is to see himself as if he left Egypt.”

Then we can attain the state of mind the Sfas Emes described: “For in every generation there is a Yetzias Mitzrayim matched to that generation’s particular situation, and in accordance with a person’s belief that he himself has left Mitzrayim and that he senses the Yetzias Mitzrayim of now, each person can emerge from his own narrow straits.”

Each of us can emerge, free, from the narrow straits of habit, the narrow straits of mitzvos performed by rote, the narrow straits of doubt and unanswered questions, to the open space of our emunah, our personal mission, leading us to the Geulah Sheleimah, of which it is said (Michah 7:15), “As in the days of your departure from the land of Egypt, I will show you wonders.”

Chag kosher v’samei’ach.

Food for Thought

“When one is enslaved to anxiety, depression, worry, stress, or any emotional imbalance, he is not able to hear the redemptive voice of his G-dly soul.”

(Baal HaTanya)

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 806)

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