The Four Questions

Pesach 2006 / 5766

The Four Questions

A Pesach Teaching From the Sod Yesharim

as presented by A Still Small Voice

The hagada is transmitting lights and instructions on many levels.  There is information about history and many deep secrets about how the universe works and what freedom really means.  For example, according to Sod Yesharim, the hagada seeks to convey, emphatically, the importance of questions in the transformation process. The first obvious place that this message appears is through the Four Questions which commence the evening’s discussion.  Each begins with the phrase, “mah nishtana” (what is different about this night…that we do X,Y and Z instead of the usual A, B and C). The hagada then responds to those questions with its historic (and mystical) tale of exile and redemption. The Sod Yesharim brings the following passage from the Zohar to explain the deeper message behind these Four Questions:

R. Eleazar opened his discourse with the text: “Lift up your eyes on high and see, who (mi) created these?” (Is. XL, 26).   Where is the place to direct our eyes? The place to which all eyes are turned, the place that is called, Petah Enayim (“Opening of the Eyes.”) One who directs his/her consciousness up to this center will know that it was the most hidden and mysterious Ancient One, whose essence can be sought, but not found, that “created these.” … This is the lower side of the supernal realms, but the highest that our eyes can reach, and it is called Mi (Who?).  But there is another even lower extremity which is called Mah (What?). The difference between them is as follows: The first (Mi?) is the real subject of enquiry, but after search and reflection one arrives at the limit of knowledge, and one is still not even close to resolving the question or contacting the truth that was sought.  One stops at mah (what?), as if to say: What (mah) do I really know? What (mah) have my searchings achieved? Everything is as baffling as it was at the beginning.

The Sod Yesharim explains that it is the experience of impermanence that prompts the question, Mah nishtanah…? Why did things change? I was expecting things to carry on the way they have always been and suddenly, tonight, they are different.  And so it is in life: Suddenly I’m rich or poor or well or sick, suddenly the road changed, my heart opened, the job ended, etc., etc. This change (or encounter with impermanence) initiates the state of consciousness called, “having a question.” And if, in the course of seeking an answer, the person directs their gaze upward (heavenward), then it becomes an eye-opening moment (Petach Enayim). The question shifts from what (mah) to who (mi).  Who is behind all this?  Who is to thank or to blame?  To quote a poplar saying, Who moved the cheese?

The Zohar explains that the question of, who, opens a certain gate that lies behind the space between the eyebrows in the center of the head.  This is the gate called, Petach Enayim (Opening of the Eyes). It is the 6th (and second lowest) of the seven brain centers that mark the kabbalistic path of inner awakening. The question of who concedes that a consciousness permeates creation and directs it toward some higher purpose.  This admission is what enables one to encounter the level of Divinity called Holy Ancient One.

And then, says Sod Yesharim, the question of who gives way again to what. What purpose does this impermanence serve?  What does HaShem get out of this ordeal?  How does this change-of-track further the goal of creation? And this line of query snowballs into an even higher, what:  The humility of realizing that the full answer to these questions will forever elude one’s grasp. “What (mah) do I really know? What (mah) have my searchings achieved? Everything is as baffling as it was at the beginning.”  And yet it is precisely this newfound humility that opens the next gate up.

This sedar night is a ritual meditation, which includes a symbolic reenactment of our historic (and continuous) journey from exile to redemption that began nearly three and a half thousand years ago when we were born as a nation on this very eve.  The Four Questions are its starting point, because a question, if properly held, is the eye-opening moment that prepares the heart-mind to receive its higher lights.

Blessings for a healthy, joy-filled, light-filled, love-filled, holy-question-filled Passover that pulls down the lights of the final redemption and, at long last, initiates the blessed era of growth through joy.

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