Four Existential Questions (Part 1)

By : March 30, 2012: Category Decoding the Tradition


Werner Heisenberg once said: “what we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our methods of questioning.” When understood in this way, the types of questions that we pose selectively affect the reality that we focus upon while simultaneously filtering the reality which comes into focus. If you have ever participated in an exchange with a friend who has not succeeded in communicating his or her position clearly but then subsequently breaks through your wall of resistance or cloud of confusion with a reframing of the issue. ‘Let me pose the question this way…” may result in a response like “well now that you put it to me like that….”

Let’s face it, despite that seemingly subversive nature of the question, there has developed a kind of social conformity with our queries. Scientists are not immune. The facticity of certain enshrined theories may give the pretense of their veracity ‘without question.’ Perhaps this is why there is far more reluctance to challenge what we think we know. On a personal level, can we not purchase some form of transient relief at the price of insulating ourselves from the really difficult questions in life? The practice of escapism, the desire to remove ourselves from psychic discomfort, often stems from the unwillingness to interrogate ourselves.

Yet, the question changes everything.

The question has the potential to change the one who asks it as much as it changes that which it is asked of.

Passover, which commemorates the exodus from Egypt of the Jewish people, is understood in Jewish mysticism to be a model for all redemptions. It speaks to the universality of the human condition from out of the particularly of Jewish experience. Egypt, as is commonly taught in Kabbalah, presents more than a geographic and historical setting. The figural Egypt (mitzrayim) reflects a state of confinement and limitation (maitzar).

During the traditional reading and retelling of the exodus story at a Passover seder—a festive meal whose paradoxical name implies jumping out of order (a reflection of the non-linear narrative amongst other things)—we encounter an often highlighted passage known as the ‘Mah Nishtanah’. This expression is the lead in to the famous four questions which on the surface appear to deal with the unusual customs of the meal and the encoding of collective historical memory. Mah nishtanah simply means: ‘why is this night different’ or ‘how has this night become different.’

Here is the full text below (according to the custom of the famous 16th century Kabbalist known as the Arizal):

Why is this night different from all other nights?

On all other nights we do not dip [matbilin] even once, but on this night we do so twice. [Note that this refers to the dipping of bitter herbs into the charoset (a paste made up of a ground up apple, nuts and pears as well as wine which is added latter.)]

On all other nights we eat chametz [leavened foods] or matzah [unleavened bread], but on this night only matzah.

On all other nights we eat any kind of vegetables, but on this night maror [bitter herbs].

On all other nights we eat sitting upright or reclining, but on this night we all recline [m’subim].

To open up the esoteric dimensions of this passage is to discover the essential and inescapable questions that permeate human existence. The simple possibility of asking these questions without fear testifies to a new found freedom. Sometimes the fear preventing us from asking is the fear that there will be no response, or more specifically that there will be no sufficient response. Torn between silence and dissatisfaction we might be inclined to run away from the questions that are too difficult to ask. Yet, that would be to admit that we aren’t free. Summoning the courage to claim this freedom is no easy task. We have to open our minds. From the commonly held notion that even when one’s body is imprisoned, the mind can still potentially remain free, we can gather our strength.

The intimate tie that identifies the mind with freedom (at least with its beginnings) is further evidenced in Kabbalah with the following equation:

Freedom (cherut) = 614 = wisdom (chomah) 73 + understanding (binah) 67 + knowledge (da’at) 474

חרות = דעת + בינה + חכמה

In other words, the cognitive suite that defines our mental abilities in Kabbalah alludes to the concept of freedom in that the words for wisdom, understanding and knowledge are equivalent to the word for freedom in gematria. Even without recourse to this mathematical reference, experience alone qualifies our mental acumen as the catalyst for redefining our situation or giving us a leg up on our environment.

Returning to the first expression which sets up the other four as questions (why is this night different from all other nights?) we can decipher a number of nuances in its meaning just by joining a close reading of the original Hebrew with a few of the insights of the commentary tradition. For those who are familiar, the more basic and straightforward approach would be to conclude that the actual customs of dipping, eating matzah, bitter herbs and reclining are more than enough to draw the attention of children and adults alike. Difference solicits questions. ‘We don’t we normally do that this way and why are we doing it this way now?’ demonstrates the specialness of the temporal context within which we are accomplishing these activities. Behavioral modification triggers an automatic mental review.

However, there is another way to edit the flow here. Beginning with the word mah or ‘what’ (sometimes why or how), we find that the kabbalists attach enormous significance to this word as the archetypal form of a question as in: “what is x?” The second word nishtanah which we have rendered as ‘difference’ stems from the root shin-nun-hei which also forms the word shinui meaning change. But “what” is the nature of this “change” (mah affects the nishtanah), the question produces the alteration; it engenders the difference possibly as much as the perception of difference creates questions.

Further support for this reading can be traced to the commentary of Rabbi Shabetai Sofer of Przemysl (1565-1635) who points out that the word nishtanah is a hybridization of the passive and passive reflexive verb constructions (nif’al and hitpa’el). This implies that the change comes about automatically. The question folds back on the questioner. It is self-integrative and autogenous. The mah or asking ‘what, why and how’ opens the door to a transformed reality.

Couple this revised translation with the rest of the expression and we can harvest still more fruit.

“This night” and how it stands out from “all other nights” addresses more than the actual time of Passover. Night in the rabbinic tradition always signifies exile. More broadly, we can render ‘night‘ as ‘unclarified reality.’ Generally speaking, in Jewish mystical terms, there are four nights, four exiles, four strata of unclarified reality. These, in turn correspond to the kabbalistic system of four worlds: the world of Emanation (Atzilut), the world of Creation (Beriah), the world of Formation (Yetzirah) and the world of Action (Asiyah). Without diverting our attention to an extended discussion of the four worlds, let us give each of them a brief description.

The world of Emanation can be defined as a frame of reference that is concerned solely with Divinity. To add a more philosophic label we might take it to be the domain of metaphysical inquiry. It is a world concerned with questions of ultimate reality.

The worlds of Creation, Formation and Action respectively denote the garbing of ultimate reality in the representative media of thought, speech and action. In reverse order, the night of each world (“all other nights”) would refer to the unclarified dimensions of our doing, speaking, and thinking, while “this night” as the highest (i.e. most abstract) level pertains to our essential “being” or more precisely to our unclarified being [hence the “existential” nature of the questions here]. Each world has a level of outer appearance—the way in which it is expressed to the outside—that is the relative night of that world. And of course, appearances can be misleading. We are exiled in the falsity of appearances that conceal a more profound reality underneath them.

This is to say that the night of the world of Action implies uncertainty as to what I am doing. Night, of the world of Formation, problematizes what I am saying. And the night of the world of Creation casts suspicion on what I am thinking.

To recap: The posing of the question differentiates the as of yet unclarified reality of the ultimate nature of our existence which is an inquiry that this singular time invites us to ask. Propelled by the question, we are able to transcend our limitations, be they of self or world, knowledge or perception.

In part two we will address the specifics of the four questions transposed into the vernacular of our times.


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