Turning loneliness into solitude – opinion

This lesson is even more significant for whoever is forced to do the Seder alone, and that is why there is an obligation for one to ask himself the four questions

SPECIAL SEDER boxes include a fully loaded Seder plate (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
SPECIAL SEDER boxes include a fully loaded Seder plate
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
For many years I’ve been teaching the following Halacha of the Rambam (found also in the Talmud): “If one is alone [on Leil Haseder (the Seder night)], he should ask himself: ‘Why is this night different? (Ma Nishtana?).’”  I never thought that Halacha would be relevant to so many people, myself included.
This year, in light of the novel coronavirus world crisis, it would be very easy to answer the question: “Ma Nishtana?” Yet, the mere thought of having Seder alone is quite scary for many of us. Specifically, on Leil Haseder, which is supposed to be a celebration of togetherness, the experience of loneliness is inconceivable.
I believe, however, that this specific Halacha can teach us a meaningful lesson for times of social distancing. Why is one supposed to “ask himself” and “answer himself” rather than just reciting the text? What is the point of self-questioning? What is the added value of this ‘game?’
Let’s consider the teachings of two Lubliner Rebbes to shed some light on one of the most fundamental principles of Leil Haseder – questioning. It is no coincidence that the four sons in the Haggadah are ordered according to their ability to question. The wicked son is the second best because at least he has the courage to question though he is too impatient to wait for the answer. Hence, he is placed above the simple son. At the bottom of the scale is the apathetic son who doesn't know how to ask, since the key of Leil Haseder is the courage to question.
Rabbi Tzaddok of Lublin explains the significance of questioning: “One should not just recite [the Haggadah] rather perform it in a fashion of question and answer… Since on that night one should experience renewal as if he, himself, was redeemed from Egypt and therefore he should feel… and it should not be merely a ritual.” The educational method of Leil Haseder is based on questioning since that is the most effective way to feel and experience.
This lesson is even more significant for whoever is forced to do the Seder alone, and that is why there is an obligation for one to ask himself the four questions. In particular when facing the fear of loneliness on Leil Haseder, one has the potential to experience self-redemption, turning loneliness into solitude and fear into resilience.
Rabbi Yehuda Leib Eiger of Lublin explains in his book Torat Emet, that this is the essence of self-redemption: “The idea of slavery is someone facing major challenges without the ability to see that Hashem is with him. If he thinks that he could help himself, this very experience is imprisonment. The essence of redemption and deliverance is when his eyes are opened to the divine reality, so that he recognizes that God is with him when no one else can help him.”
Often, the fear of loneliness stems from our own insecurities. We are afraid to meet ourselves, prefering to be distracted by social scenarios that help us to escape from ourselves. Society is often a shelter for those who flee from themselves. Of course, Judaism places great emphasis on the importance of society, community and family. However, there are times at which it is important to be alone – an experience that might be very empowering in enabling us to celebrate our solitude.
Leil Haseder is, by definition, a social event. We celebrate with our family and friends. This coming Leil Haseder will be very different for many of us, and asking “Ma Nishtana” about Passover may seem quite irrelevant in comparison to the other questions that we are asking about the dramatic changes taking place throughout the entire world.
I hope and pray that none of us will ever experience this again, but this year let us try to see it as a tremendous opportunity for growth and demonstration of our complete faith in God. Let us enjoy hosting the most important guests for the Seder – ourselves and God!
Solitude can be a positive state that provides time to reflect, create and discover our own character and the journey we want to take. We can let go of our fears and let God be with us at the Seder table. It is a very real opportunity to celebrate this very profound experience of solitude and self-redemption, so let’s embrace it with both hands and approach Leil HaSeder this year with courage, resilience and endless faith.
Wishing us all, a healthy, meaningful and happy Passover!
The writer, former rabbi of the Ohel Ari Congregation in Ra'anana, is the author of The Narrow Halakhic Bridge: A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age, to be published by Urim Publications in May.