On this Passover Eve, I think about questions, the two popping to mind, relevant to the questioners, though grating annoyances to others.
I shall open with mine, which I include first because it is inferior to the second question and I prefer to “work up.”
I am, maybe ten or eleven years old, studying “Bible” at the Toronto Hebrew Day School. We are studying Exodus. In the original Hebrew. There is something cool about reading two thousand year-old writings. These writings will lose relevance possibly by tonight.
If not sooner.
We reach the climactic moment of the “Exodus” saga. You may remember it from movies, or possibly the Universal Studios Tour.
The sea parted and the Israelites walked through on solid ground. When they reached the other side, the sea closed up, the pursuing Egyptians, drowning in the tumultuous aftermath.
For some reason, the Bible insists on describing the culminating climax this way:
“Horse and rider drowned in the water.”
My hand immediately shoots up. When my teacher, “Mar” (Mr.)… Somebody acknowledges me, I ask this troubling question:
“What did the horses do wrong?”
Confusing “Mar” Somebody and requiring further elaboration:
“I know what the Egyptians did wrong. But why did they punish the horses?”
I do not recall my teacher’s response, though it was likely “That’s ridiculous. Moving on...”
So I never learned why the Bible drowned horses in its description.
Last year, I heard an even better question about the “Exodus” experience. It came from a towering production called The Lehman Trilogy we saw at the National Theater in London.
The Lehman Trilogy concerns the generational history of a immigrant Jewish “Finance” family, covering the dynasty’s long and lucrative “Up’s” to their destruction through bankruptcy in 2008.
Later in the production, a young Lehman character appears, reminiscent of me, though demonstrably smarter. His Hebrew School question, not about horses, strikes to the heart of the “Exodus” experience.
Paraphrasing – as I do not recall the exact quote –
“If God wanted to liberate the Jews from Egypt”, the character inquires, “why did He bother killing the ‘First Born’? Why didn’t He just kill Pharaoh?”
Man! No wonder they amassed a fortune in business! (Although that kid refused to participate, winding up the compassionate governor of the State of New York.)
Passover is full of questions, most famously the traditional “Four Questions” appearing prominently in the Passover Seder (ritual dinner) proceedings.
Those questions, however, are essentially “procedural.”
“Why do we do things at the Passover Seder we do not do any other time of the year?”
Nowhere included is,
“Is this story for real?”
Though the Passover narrative is in the Old Testament – probably labeled The Testament before the arrival of The New Testament – its account is not corroboratively validated anywhere else. (Though the Egyptian library was destroyed by fire so it could possibly have burned up.)
Forget the drowned horses or God’s circuitous “Exit Strategy.”
The thing may not have happened at all.
And yet, people around the world and for thousands of years remember it one night (and for some, two nights) each year.
Following a helpful conversation with Dr. M, I am now wondering whether the Passover Seder is less about a single event than about remembering itself.
Bringing to mind a quotation I like:
“The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation.”
The recalling of (possibly) imaginary events… can still feel pretty okay.
Triggering, through the Seder experience, memories of actual people and personal experiences from the past.
So there’s that.
Along with other reasons for Seders, worthy of acknowledgement and respect.
Leaving nothing to say but Happy Passover to those who celebrate.
With varying reasons for why.