04/11/2014 03:08 pm ET Updated Jun 11, 2014

A Different Four Questions

One of the most well-known Passover traditions is the reciting of the four questions, typically sung by the youngest in attendance. Leaving aside the curiosity that none of what the children ask about has actually occurred at that point in the evening -- in fact, the questions used to take place at the end of the meal, but the Rabbis moved them because kids were often asleep by then! -- I'd like to suggest four different questions for adults to ponder (if not sing) this year.

First, the oft-repeated refrain during the famous four questions is
ma nishtana -- "how different is this night from all other nights." And there's no question that it is -- it's a special meal replete with a host of unique rituals. But my first question isn't about what we do during the Seder, it's about the word itself. Seder means "order." Well, there is no doubting the value that structure and discipline have on individual performance, and there is overwhelming evidence of the positive impact that organized, regularly-scheduled family time has on children's development. So maybe nights like this shouldn't be quite so rare; let's ask, "Is there sufficient Seder in our lives?"

Second, we eat bitter herbs (typically horseradish) to recall the harshness that the ancient Israelites experienced as slaves. In short, the
marror is meant to prompt collective memory. But on a personal level, how do we balance the value of reflecting on past disappointments, hurt and even anger with the need to forgive and let go? Growing from all experiences, especially the bad ones, is a perpetual human challenge. So let's ask, "How can bitter make us better?"

Third, and closely related, we come to the holiday's most famed food -- matzah. Notwithstanding the slightly inconsistent explanations of why we eat the unleavened cracker -- that in their haste to leave Egypt, the Israelites didn't have time to allow the yeast to rise versus it was what Pharaoh fed to the Jewish slaves because it was cheap and filling -- matzah is referred to as "the bread of affliction." But what's the purpose or lasting value in recalling that we were once slaves? It must be to create empathy. And because people can be held captive not only by cruel tyrants, but also by unjust conditions, we should ask, "Who's enslaved today and how can we help liberate them?"

Finally, I've always been less interested in the parsley we eat -- an obvious sign of spring -- and more intrigued by the pillow my father leans on. The soft padding is an extension of the idea related to reclining at the table. On this night, we're allowed to sit with poor posture because the Rabbis say it's a sign of being free. Of course, as middle and upper class Americans, we're exceedingly free -- arguably to a fault. So I'd respectfully suggest that instead of leaning back, this year we sit up straight (at least for a few minutes), recognize the bounty of our blessings and opportunities and ask, "Are we grateful?"

As always, the learning is in the asking. Best wishes for a happy Passover.