Parshat Bo 5765:Monty Python and the Four Questions

Every year we go through a haggadah with the same words about Passover. Many over the years have had their favorite parts memorized, and quote them away from the Passover table. Oddly enough, there is little from parshat Bo that is actually included in the Passover seder. Although we celebrate this event in the book of Exodus, the number of quotes from the book of Exodus in the liturgy of the Passover seder, the Haggadah, is rather small. But the lines that are mentioned everybody remembers.

Exodus 12:26. And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say to you, What do you mean by this service?
Exodus 13:8 And you shall tell your son in that day, saying, This is done because of that which the Lord did to me when I came forth out of Egypt.
Exodus 13:14 And it shall be when your son asks you in time to come, saying, What is this? That you shall say to him, By strength of hand the Lord brought us out from Egypt, from the house of slavery;

These of course are three of the four sons, who were formulated into differnt archetypes by the early rabbis. The rabbis of 1900 years ago, in creating the structure of the Passover seder we celebrate today had a problem. Much of the ceremony required the Temple, the assembly of the people for sacrifices, but the Temple no longer stood. How would one use all the differing symbols and stories of the Exodus in a world where the primary thing necessary, roasting the lamb in the Temple, could not be done? We can even see the problem in the Mishnah, where the rabbis preserved the temple service [Pesachim 116a]:

They filled a second cup for him. At this stage the son questions his father; If the son is unintelligent, his father instructs him [to ask]: 'Why is this night different from all [other] nights. For on all [other] nights we eat leavened and unleavened bread, whereas on this night [we eat] only leavened bread; on all other nights we eat all kinds of herbs, on this night bitter herbs; On all other nights we eat meat roast, stewed or boiled, on this night, roast only. On all other nights we dip once, but on this night we dip twice.'
And according to the son's intelligence his father instructs him. He commences with shame and concludes with praise; and expounds from 'a wandering Aramean was my father' until he completes the whole section.

One of the four questions includes roasted lamb, which is impossible without a Temple. How does the Haggadah deal with such problems? Of all the places to think about this, it was after watching a new musical on its way to Broadway that gave me insight into this problem: Spamalot the musical based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Like a majority of the audience I had memorized every line of the movie, knew every joke and gag from beginning to end. Indeed, it is probably the most memorized film comedy ever. I kept wondering how former Python Eric Idle could put together a musical which could handle some of the material that was only possible on film, and could not translate into musical theater. Cutting in and out of Terry Gilliam's animation just could not happen, there could be no "problems" with the beginning credits, and the original ending of the film just couldn't be done. Idle realized he could not translate Grail directly, so he changed many parts to create entirely new experience with the same cherished symbols of Python lovers, even some from other Monty Python sources such as Life of Brian.

Like Monty Python on stage, how does the rabbis who no longer have their original medium, the Temple, deal with the issue of all the symbols around Passover? Like Holy Grail, everybody had memorized many of the words already, and they have special nostalgic meaning. The words of Exodus 12 and 13 had already been repeated over and over again for generations. Not only that, many of the traditions that had sprouted could not be simply put aside. Leaving out the four questions, four sons or even more importantly the haroset from the seder, much of which had little or no biblical basis, was unthinkable. It would have caused the same disaster leaving out the killer bunny rabbit in Spamalot would have. In a qualitative study of moderately affiliated Jews by Cohen and Eisen, the primary factors why people keep Jewish tend not to be spiritual, but nostalgia and grandma's cooking. The two holidays, which show the most observance, Passover and Hanukkah have home-made food associated with them. The rabbis even 1900 years ago understood that same problem all too well.

The answer is found sprinkled repeatedly in the text of Bo; everything is done for our children. The four sons and the four questions are there intentionally for one reason: to transmit the tradition from one generation to another. In a reference usually associated with tefillin, we are to do this with "a sign to you upon your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes." [Ex. 13:9] We are to do this remembering experientially, with both actions and sights. The best place to find the children, to continue the nostalgia and food is at our own dinner tables. We change a large production number in the Temple to a smaller setting -the family dining table. Along the way there is need for changes to compensate of course, new things were added, some things were changed. The third question in the Mishnah about the roasted lamb would evolve into a question of reclining when it was clear there would be no temple any time soon. The haroset would evolve into substitute to the roast lamb in the Hillel sandwich. But the elements, many of which were probably from popular observance, were preserved for generations.

I still find it funny Eric Idle's book for Spamalot is an analogy to the creation of the Passover Haggadah. But oddly enough it is. It is an important lesson: one can change things, but be careful of personal attachments to parts of what you are changing. AS we begin the festival of freedon and in a sense re-invention of ourselves, may this lesson from a musical comedy and the Torah not be far from our minds.