October 14, 2019

Frequently Asked Questions

I was the oldest child at the Passover table during two decades of social turmoil, and so invariably I was the one to whom questions were directed.

"Why does your generation think it can have everything its way?" my relatives began after the afikomen was eaten. They wanted my opinion on everything: civil rights, interracial dating, Vietnam, communism, women’s rights. Seder after seder, their questions reflected a world turning upside down fast. And I was expected to account for it.

Passover is only days away. Decades after my childhood seders, the world is still spinning, and I am still doing my accounting.

The young men and women at this year’s seder table might ask about Osama bin Laden, Yasser Arafat or Enron.

But young and old alike are just as likely to ask other more personal questions. They may ask about cancer.

In a year of dealing with lung cancer, I continually face the ultimate decisions of illness. But disease, like history, does not belong to me alone. I inevitably report to my daughter, parents and brother, my cousins and wide extended family and friends whose love and concern make every night a seder and every phone call a meeting with the Four Children. They ask:

What is your prognosis?

Do you know how long you have to live?

Do you know about X or Y secret treatment in Germany/Mexico/Canada?

How do you feel?

No matter how well-intended these questions, they always cut to the bone. It can be no other way. There are always Four Questions, themselves angry, brash, insouciant and designed to one-up the self-satisfied, reflecting the Four Children of love.

A question in Hebrew is kasheh (difficult), and it is anything but the softball, Larry King-type of inquiry designed to keep people superficially serene. "Kasheh," writes Avivah Zornberg, is the hard-edge of resistance that changes worlds. A question is a radical act. When we ask each other questions, we go to the wall of what life and love can bear. A father who asks a daughter what is your prognosis has to be — fears to be — prepared for the worst. He cannot tolerate anything but the truth.

We are trained at the seder table to ask about the worst. Why were we slaves? How were we freed? If the questions mean anything, they are about essential connections: between parent and child, between Jew and non-Jew, between God and ourselves. They shake us up, set us free.

I have struggled with this hard-edged, radical, rude, crude, know-it-all Jewish tradition all my life. Every questioner is an expert; every probe comes from yet another Wise Child second-guessing and undermining some of the most difficult judgments a person can ever make.

Yet how could it be otherwise? The seder table pits the Wicked Child, the "I" who makes decisions for herself, against the Wise Child, the "we" who wins liberation as a group. This tension between the "I" and the "we" is the undercurrent of Jewish life. No wonder we relentlessly ask our questions, pushing and probing the limits of the truth, hoping and praying for the Outstretched Arm to liberate us once again.

Anxiety is the tremor of the powerless. Questions are the weapons of self-control.

I have never asked my doctors for a prognosis, and, gratefully, they’ve never offered one.

I have no idea how long I have to live. And neither do you.

I am open to all scientific wisdom; Western medicine, including that in the United States, has a lot to offer.

I am feeling fine, thank God.