When do we eat? (supposed 5th Passover question)
I used to get into hideous trouble when my Uncle Fred, z"l, who led my childhood seders, asked if anyone had any questions along the path of the seder. I did. And I got dirty looks and muttered curses from family members who wanted to move this thing along so we could get back to Brooklyn from Long Island before dawn the next day.
That may be why I eagerly anticipate the paragraph about Eleazar ben Azaria more than any other in the Haggadah. A brilliant young scholar, 16 or 18 depending on the version, the only thing he lacked to be considered a great sage was age and experience. Miraculously - or so the story goes - overnight he developed gray hair and a long gray beard, finally giving him the appearance of wisdom as well as wisdom itself ((check it out here).
But then there's that "5th question." It assumes the seder is something to endure, something to be done with as quickly as possible so we can both get to the food and get home. And yes, for some people that's exactly what the seder is: an eye-glazing chore, a mind-numbing repetition of the same-old same old, where - if we are lucky enough to encounter the same people year after year - for better or worse everyone has a role and Pavlovian responses abound, where curiosity is stamped out because the soup's getting too hot or the kugel is getting dry and "let's get this thing over with" is the prevailing theology.
But what makes E ben A stand out is his humility, his openness to learning. Wise beyond his years, and now with the imprimatur of wrinkles and gray hair, this heir to the throne of learning continued to learn from his colleagues and teachers. I bet he never asked, "When do we eat?"
I figure: if I'm going to celebrate Passover, if I'm going to be a guest or a host, I want to get my proverbial money's worth out of the experience. This isn't some rote ritual - it's a reenactment of my leaving Egypt. It's a snapshot to be pored over and over, just like we do with the ones from our childhoods or our parents' lives.
E ben A, may your memory be a blessing forever. Keep learning, my friend.