I’d Like to Solve the Puzzle, Please


Seven of the most famous lines on American television are: “I’d like to solve the puzzle, please.” We are familiar with these words from “Wheel of Fortune.” The contestant has accumulated enough clues so that she can take a guess at what the missing letters are and win the game.

From the time that we are very young, we love puzzles and we are driven to solve them. Little children put their puzzles together, then break them, then do them again. Millions of people around the world are addicted to the daily crossword puzzle. And, the most famous of all fairy tales, Cinderella, is essentially about an unsolved puzzle.

It drives Prince Charming crazy that he cannot find the missing piece, the foot that will fit the glass slipper left behind. And, that’s because love itself is a puzzle to be solved. Adam can’t sleep at night until he finds his missing piece, Eve. Then the puzzle is complete, and he is finally whole.

Underneath all this puzzle solving behavior is a need for order in our lives. We don’t like loose ends. We have a powerful need for wholeness. We want our world to make sense, for all the loose ends of the story to be tied together. It’s what drives us to keep reading a good novel. There is a sense of tremendous satisfaction when the puzzle is solved, and all is in order.

This powerful need for order explains a very peculiar feature of Passover. Passover thrives on our need for order. And, we see this in all kinds of ways. First of all, the preparation for Passover is a big production. And, it requires a person to be incredibly organized.

You have to have a battle plan many weeks in advance. There are lists upon lists of tasks to be done. There is the planning of the menu. There is the setting of the table and the guest list, and the turning over the kitchen, and the winding down of your chametz inventory.

And, then there is the Seder itself. Seder as we know means order. There are 15 steps to the Seder and they are in a precise order. There is a script to follow and it’s the same every year. Even the birth of spring which we celebrate at this time of year follows a carefully calibrated script. The flowers and the trees bloom on a pre-arranged schedule at just the right time, just as they have done from time immemorial.

And, the question is: why all this order? Passover is the holiday of freedom. Shouldn’t his holiday be all about spontaneity? And, the answer is: We can’t really fully appreciate the message of freedom, unless we start the holiday with our overwhelming need for order. Once we’ve established that, elements of disorder are introduced into our celebration.

There is the ma nishtana which calls attention to the fact that we do things in a weird order on Passover. There is the Cup of Elijah which calls attention to a loose end, a problem which we cannot solve, namely whether we’re supposed to have 4 or 5 cups of wine on Passover. We leave it hanging by having a fifth cup that’s different. Elijah’s cup is a reminder to us that there are many unsolved problems in our lives that won’t be solved until Elijah comes. That’s very disconcerting.

Most important of all, there is the stealing of the afikoman by the children. The afikoman is the missing piece of the matza. We cannot go on with the Seder until this missing piece is found. There is a search. There is uncertainty. We have lost control of the Seder. And, we are dependent on running, jumping, excited children for the restoration of that missing piece.

It’s no accident that the key moments of the Seder depend on unruly children. Children are messy. When my son David was three, he loved to play in a dirt pile outside our house. There was a little girl next door whose parents were a little OCD and they used to dress her to the nines, and they didn’t like her to get dirty. One day, Alyn walked out the door, and David, covered from head to toe in dust, ran to greet her with open arms. And, I could see the look of panic that crossed her parents’ faces.

Children are messy. We cannot raise children unless we have a high tolerance for disorder. They leave their toys on the floor. Their rooms look like a disaster. They get up in the middle of the night. And, as much as we may try to schedule them out of our great need for order, their needs resist scheduling. Things happen to them during the day that require us to drop everything we are doing and respond to them.

This is why children disrupt the Seder. Passover asks the question: what is the biggest obstacle to freedom? It’s not Pharoah. It’s something that is in each one of us. It’s our overwhelming need for order.

Passover is about change, just like Rosh Hashanah. That’s why at the key moment we ask: Ma nishtana? What’s going to be different? How are we going to be different? And, just like on Rosh Hashanah, we know that the greatest obstacle to change is that we are creatures of habit. We like things to stay the same. When the schedule that we have arranged for our lives is thrown off , we go into a tailspin.

So, on Passover, we act out our fear of change. We start out by magnifying our own very deep need for order in our lives. And, against this background, our Tradition introduces little doses of disorder—unanswered questions, broken matza pieces, stolen matza, wild children – as if to say to us: Can you handle it? Can we overcome our need for order enough to be able to welcome the new, the unprecedented and the surprising into our lives.

The fun we have around the missing afikoman is a way for us to laugh at our own anxiety, our own desperate need for order. Only if we can tolerate some unruliness in our lives will we have the courage to make a change for the better.

In this context, I’d like to comment on the Israeli elections. There is not a lot of tolerance for unruliness in Israel right now. That’s actually unusual. Israel lives in a very unruly neighborhood, and for all of Israel’s young history, Israelis have shown a remarkably high tolerance for chaos. But, the Middle East right now is more chaotic than it has ever been since the founding of the State. And, the fear of that chaos was reflected in this week’s election.

When the dust clears, what is likely to emerge is the most extreme Israeli government in the history of the state – extreme politically and extreme religiously. Why? Fear was the reigning emotion. When we are afraid, we crave order and stability. When we are afraid, we are not big on taking risks. When we are afraid, we build high walls around ourselves to shut out the world—not just physical walls, but emotional walls, too. But, that can only take us so far. Israel needs a realistic long term vision for peace. And, Israel needs a spiritual life that is broader than Ultra-Orthodoxy.

I don’t want to pre-judge an Israeli government that hasn’t even been formed yet. The new government deserves to be judged by its actions, not by election rhetoric. But, this election is a departure from the tide of Israeli history. The creation of the State of Israel was more about hope than about fear. And, that world view has deep roots in the Passover story.

When our people were trapped at the Red Sea, God opened the waters, and we walked through the sea on dry land. All around us was the chaos of the raging waters. But, we didn’t let that chaos intimidate us. We found a safe space in the midst of that chaos to leave Egypt behind and to embrace something new.

We left behind the rigidity of Egypt, Pharoah’s fear of change. We left behind Egypt’s fear of difference, of a people that didn’t fit their mold. We taught the world that sometimes you have to shake up the order, to challenge the status quo, in order to create a more inclusive society and a more just and compassionate world.

No amount of chaos can shake these core beliefs from the depths of our souls. If ever there were a people that has had the courage to walk calmly through the raging sea, it’s the modern nation of Israel.

In our personal lives and in our national lives, may Passover’s message of freedom inspire in us the courage to step out of the box, to entertain a new idea and to embrace a new person or a new people with an open mind and an open heart.