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The Four Questions

The seder’s dark mysteries unfold only gradually, over decades, forming an arc of love and protection between the elders, seasoned by painful experience, and the youngest children.
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April 21, 2022
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Spring is the season of Passover, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the Israelites exodus from slavery in Egypt some thirty-six hundred years ago. To me it has always been about three things: family, food, and the recommitment to what feels like a central tenet of Jewish life; kinship with the vulnerable.

When I was a very young child, we celebrated Passover at my grandmother’s house in Florida. I remember the elegant white tablecloth and the faces and voices of my grandmother’s dear friends, a childless couple who came every year with their two pint-sized dachshunds. It was humid and hot, and the air had a torrid, green smell I easily recreate in memory. My grandfather must have been there too, but I hardly remember him. To me, it was my grandma’s house, her soft lap, her warm kitchen, her blooming orange trees and cool stone floors.

Later, we celebrated at our home in New York. By then I was old enough to wield a knife to cut up the apples for charoset, and to read the Four Questions. My mother and I cooked the same meal every year for thirty years; the same kind of apples, the same chicken broth from a family recipe, the same slippery gefilte fish and horseradish, the same flourless chocolate cake. The Rubin family came every year bringing the same jokes, made hilarious by repetition, and a few good bottles of wine. It was the only time we saw them, so it became a marker of the stages of life, like the pencil marks on the kitchen doorframe recording our heights as we grew. First the new babies, later kids and teenagers, later another generation of babies, toddlers, and children reading the Four Questions.

When I moved to California the seder moved with me. Now it was my turn to prepare the epic meal with my mother and daughter, using recipes my mother brought with her on little faded index cards. At some point the men in the family would come home and move the furniture to make room for the long table. Then my mother would go upstairs to change into a colorful, flowing dress, her signature party attire. We had different guests every year, unlike the old days. But after Laura, the youngest of the Rubin family, moved to Los Angeles she came every year, bringing wine, as her parents had in the decades in New York.

My father always led the seder. In the last few years of his life it became difficult for him to read, and he no longer seemed to enjoy the role. Then my brother took over, bringing a more serious, religious tone to what had always been our rather informal ceremony. In 2016 my father died, and soon after, my mother. Once they were gone the inspiration seemed to go out of the tradition and instead of hosting a seder we attended one. The people were welcoming and kind, but I missed the flavors of my mother’s cooking and the hectic hours with her in the kitchen before the men came home and the guests arrived. I can’t quite bring myself to make the meal, to put on the whole production, without her.

At the heart of the Passover story is the desperate flight of an enslaved people. The Israelites, in bondage for four centuries in Egypt, escaped under cover of night, crossed the Red Sea, and survived for forty years in the desert, where their leader Moses received the ten commandments. It is a tale full of old-fashioned miracles, but also one of timeless, painful relevance, as we contemplate the persistence, century upon century, of oppression and injustice.

As the story goes, “We were slaves in Egypt until God freed us with a mighty hand.” To persuade the Pharaoh to free the Jews, God inflicted ten terrible plagues upon the Egyptian people, the last and worst being the killing of every family’s firstborn child. Before this final plague God commanded Moses to tell the Israelites to mark their front doors with lamb’s blood so that death would “pass over” their homes. The Israelites, under God’s protection, fled toward freedom.

The story of the Exodus is one of immense suffering; the suffering of the oppressed, but also the suffering that is necessary to break the bonds of oppression. As a child I always struggled to understand the terrible paradox at the heart of the tale. Why did God cause the Egyptians to enslave the Israelites, only to punish them so cruelly? Weren’t they God’s people too? The seder acknowledges this mystery: As we recite the list of plagues we spill ten drops of wine on our plates to mourn the suffering of the Egyptians, saying, “So the cup of joy is lessened by the slaughter of our foe.” No explanation is offered for this seeming divine perversity, any more than faith, or reason, can explain why, some 3,600 years later, humanity is still rife with violence and oppression.

The Four Questions, recited by the youngest child, encapsulate the harshness of life under slavery, the urgent haste of the Israelites escape, and the privilege of freedom. Perhaps this responsibility is given to the youngest because of her innocence, her remoteness from the dark side of human nature. It is poignant to hear a child earnestly reciting the questions, clearly concerned only with getting them right, understanding little of the story conveyed in their deceptive simplicity. The seder’s dark mysteries unfold only gradually, over decades, forming an arc of love and protection between the elders, seasoned by painful experience, and the youngest children.

When I started thinking about the meaning of Passover as a young adult, I was puzzled that the questions were so strangely focused on food. Why do we eat matzoh, not bread? Why do we eat bitter herbs dipped in salt, why do we (at least in orthodox families) recline during the meal? My friend Rabbi Lori Shapiro recently explained that the “Four Questions” are really just one question: Why is this night different from other nights? And the answer is that we gather for this highly ritualized meal with specific foods eaten in specific ways so that we observe the celebration with appropriate somberness and joy.

For me, the question Passover asks is one of identity. Who are we, the Jewish people? Deep in the text of the seder is a quote from Deuteronomy: “You shall not turn your back on the widow, or the orphan or the stranger in your midst, for you yourself were a stranger in the land of Egypt.” Seven centuries before Christ, Jews were enjoined to remember the feelings of the oppressed, to truly inhabit them, with full empathy and understanding. Had I not heard this sacred vow of compassion recited every Passover since I was a child, I would be merely an accidental Jew; Jewish by birth but without a deep connection to the faith. Passover reminds us that we ourselves have been hunted and robbed of our humanity and driven from our homes. The difference between modern Jews and others who struggle on the margins is a single generation, or national border or election cycle. The oppressed and disenfranchised, wherever they may be, are our people.

Passover is celebrated in spring, the season of renewal. Its repetition reminds us of beloved continuities: of families, of planting and harvest, of earth’s reawakening after the darkness of winter. It also reminds us that the journey from servitude to freedom is cyclic, not straight. The prayer, “Next year in Jerusalem! Next year may all be free!”, is an acknowledgment that all are not, in fact, free. The path to freedom continues to loop back on itself as if the Red Sea had never been crossed, as if we had never received the Ten Commandments. Centuries from now, people will regard us – our episodic lapses into brutality, our dark chapters of racism and oppression – with bafflement, as we do the long-ago Egyptians.

Last year, in 2021, Passover happened to coincide with the trial of Derek Chauvin. His crime was a stark reminder of the undercurrent of negation that drags against any movement toward freedom. That he was convicted on three murder charges provides some reassurance that we are trending in the right direction. Many of us drew a sigh of relief, as if, once again, the angel of death had passed over our houses; as if the scourge of racism might finally be coming to an end.

But even as the jury was deliberating, Georgia enacted a slate of laws designed to prevent Black people from voting. Among many other restrictions, these laws made it illegal to offer water to people waiting in line to vote, while also severely reducing the number of polling places in minority neighborhoods, ensuring that people would wait outside for hours in the sun. The intent, to dehumanize and disenfranchise people of color is, as the lawyers say, prima facie; evident on first impression.

This year the world is limping to the end of a near-biblical plague that has already claimed over 6 million lives, a number with excruciating resonance for Jewish people. Although the similarity between the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust and the death toll of covid is merely a painful coincidence, there are significant historical parallels as well. In both eras large swaths of the population were under the sway of malignant demagogues who poisoned the public domain with lies, virulent nationalism, and pointless, unhinged aggression. Civil discourse collapsed, minorities were persecuted, rank paranoia superseded information, and the institutions that ensure stability teetered on the verge of failure.

Now, in the spring of 2022, the desperate flight of the Ukrainians links us through history all the way back to the Exodus. In our technological age we can observe intimately, in real time, the suffering of people who, but for an accident of geography, could be our neighbors and cousins and friends. The veil between security and terror is infinitesimally thin. We can’t help but see ourselves staring back at us from the other side.

Primo Levi said that every age has its own fascism. With the right combination of economic and social forces, leadership, and popular sentiment, a kind of negative alchemy can take place and an eruption of savagery will crack the façade of civilization. Every age, no matter how intent on its own virtue, caries the potential for this darkness.

Writing in the early 20th century, the psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, described the repressed and therefore unknown aspects of personality as Shadow. He explained that we bury many instinctual drives, like sexuality and aggression, in the psyche to enable us to function effectively as a society. Through intensive conditioning we come to feel that these drives are bad and that by purging them we become good. But the energy of the instincts remains and festers. The more severely we repress our disowned qualities the more explosive they become, and the more intensely we project the most negative and extreme versions of those qualities on others. Instincts are part of nature, but Shadow contains an element of nihilism. It doesn’t care what it breaks.

Shadow is both an individual and a collective phenomenon. Individually, a hardworking sister may loath her “slacker” brother, while the brother considers his sister a soulless grind. In reality, she may be sensitive and emotional. He may work like a demon on his painting or music. But each sees in the other their own disowned, impermissable selves. At a collective level societies project ignorance or violence, criminality or brutish sexuality on people who seem different. Shadow produces anti-semitism and racism, ethnic cleansing and genital mutilation. Fascism is collective Shadow unleashed by malignant demagogues.

The cycle of repression and explosion of Shadow is one possible lens for viewing history. Whenever there is a movement toward freedom or the expansion of rights, there is a backlash toward domination and control. The cycles can take place over days or centuries. Often there are many overlapping cycles. Barack Obama, America’s first Black president, is followed by Donald Trump: A short cycle. The liberalization of social norms in the 60’s and 70’s is followed by the emergence of the religious right: A medium cycle. The increasing presence of women in positions of power is followed by an overpowering push to revoke Roe V. Wade: A medium cycle. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty is followed by the largest enrichment of the already wealthy in history under Reagan: Another medium cycle. The end of slavery followed by centuries of efforts to diminish African Americans: A very long cycle with countless variations. These cycles overlap and mingle. In every case, both sides have their own projections. Each demonizes the other. Each feels real fear.

To me, Passover is not just a historical tale, or a parable of humanity’s journey from oppression to freedom. It is a capsule of the human condition, the dialogue between dark and light contained within each personality. If we think about history as a dialogue between these forces we can perhaps see an opportunity to guide the pattern. At any given moment, we are somewhere in the cycle. If we know that we are in the grip of innate human forces, can that knowledge provide an element of choice?

Passover is laden with images of the sea. God parts the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to flee, then inundates the pursuing Egyptian army. We dip bitter herbs in salt water to symbolize the harshness of slavery. The sea is the mother of all life but an excess of salt kills everything.

The seder recapitulates the story of the Exodus to remind Jews that we were once refugees. Now the greatest refugee crisis humanity ever known is impending. Climate change denial is the ultimate manifestation of the nihilism of Shadow. It doesn’t care if it breaks the world.

The most mysterious and fascinating aspect of Shadow, as Jung defines it, is the Golden Shadow, the qualities of excellence we deny in ourselves and project on others. Brilliance, heroism, vision, generosity, and nobility of character are all aspects of the Golden Shadow. Few of us see ourselves in those terms. We don’t believe that we are capable of great things. But our times require that we internalize some of the excellence we project. Passover asks us to behave as if all refugees, present and future, are our own people, to attain greatness by concerning ourselves with the future good of all, not only ourselves. If we do this now, we will flourish. If not, we will bring about our own inundation.


Rachel Hoffman is a longtime student of Jungian psychology and recently published an essay in Psychological Perspectives, the quarterly journal of the C.G. Jung Institute.

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