“Tatte, ich vel ba dir fregen fir kashes…” (Father, I will ask you four questions).
That is how I – and millions of other children – would begin asking the traditional four questions at the annual Passover Seder.
This year, for the first time in my life, I do not have my father before me to ask him the questions. I will not sit at his table, as I did for so many years, watching him quietly smile as we would pose the four questions.
I may be 49 years old, a father myself, but I will deeply miss asking my father the questions. Memories run deep. Deep memories are etched in the fibers of my being of Passovers bygone. Long nights, diverse conversations, special delicacies, grandparents, uncles and aunts gathering together – its all a vague fog now. But one thing that stands out, never to be forgotten, are the four questions: How we would go around the table, beginning with the youngest first, and ask the questions.
I remember how excited I was to come home from school with a special hand-made guide with pictures and all, outlining the entire Seder. How my mother would turn over the house, how we would be dressed up for the holiday with a new set of clothes and enter our homes Passover night feeling clean and fresh. But above all, I will forever remember how we, as young children, would prepare ourselves weeks, months, ahead to memorize the questions.
As we grew older, the enthusiasm perhaps waned a bit, but the tradition continued. The older I grew the more I would watch my father’s deep pride as he would listen to his children asking him the questions – something younger children simply don’t notice, or they have more important things to do than to observe others…
The four questions remain a consistent barometer of our own growth. We don’t always remember the chronology of our personal evolution as we grow from child to adult; only highlights thereof. But the Four Questions experience remains a tangible gauge of life’s progression, year after year, stage after stage: The enthusiasm and exuberance of childhood; the awkwardness and silliness of adolescence; the self-consciousness and rebelliousness (sometimes also cynicism) of the teens – giggling your way through the questions; the self-awareness and epiphanies of maturity – sometimes taking yourself too seriously; the spirituality of as we grow with experience; the feelings of pride, and new-found appreciation of tradition as you become a parent and see your own children asking you the questions.
And now, the intro and retro spection of remembering and missing my father – and all that he represents of my history and the pillars of my life. Yes, I will miss asking my father the questions.
And then, after we asked the questions, I will miss my father’s resolute “itzt, kinderlech, vel ich eich dertzeilen dem entfer. Avodim Ha’yinu… (now, my children, I will tell you the answer, and begin reciting the Haggadah: We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt…)
But the custom is that even orphans ask the questions with the said preface, “father I will ask you…”
Imagine, a 90 year old man, with great grandchildren, and many accomplishments to show for his life, sitting humbly at the Seder table, whispering “tatte” – father, remembering his father, his childhood years, The Passover Seder turns us all into children. Today I have many more than four questions to ask my father. But I guess these four include them all (after all, they correspond to the four cosmic worlds which encompass all of existence).
But this Passover, when we come to the Mah Nishtana, I will sit quietly, contemplating how indeed this night, this year, is different. I will remember my father, and ask him the four questions.
Tatte, oy tatte, and all the tattes (fathers) in heaven – your children never forget you. Thank you for being there. Thank you for telling us the story (1).
And then I will conclude, as is the tradition: “Tatte, ich hob ba dir gefregt fir kashyos. Itzt, bite, gib mir a teretz” (Father, I have asked you four questions. Now, please, give me an answer).
You see, no matter how old and mature we may be we are all in need of a father.
(1) The entire Haggada is named for telling the story. Haggada in Hebrew means “the telling,” “the story” – based on the verse (Exodus 13:8) “V’higadito l’vincho,” you shall tell your child. And the telling of the story is generated through the child’s questions: “Ki Yoshalcho bincho” – When your child will ask you (Exodus 13:14).