The Fifth Question

elena-flerova-pesach-01

Are you the same person today as you were yesterday?

If so, how do you know?

And what does it even mean for you to be “the same person” as you were yesterday?

Therein lies a tale. It leads us through the Passover Seder, asks the traditional four questions, and finally asks a fifth question — the question that answers all the others.

Being the Same Person

What makes you “you,” and persists throughout your life?

A first guess might be that it’s your body,1 but there are problems with that explanation. Your body changes throughout your life, and most of the atoms in your body are replaced every few years.2 Moreover, if you woke up one morning in someone else’s body, you would still be the same person, but in the wrong body.

How would you know it was the wrong body? That’s an important clue. You would remember that you previously had a different body. You have an incomplete but fairly coherent set of memories, and the person in those memories seems to be the same as the person you are now.3 That is true whether or not there is a soul distinct from the body.

You can remember facts about yourself and what you did: I had a light breakfast and then went for a drive in the country. That’s called declarative memory. You get it by observing and drawing conclusions, then reinforce it by stating your memories in language.

You can also remember how to do things, such as making breakfast and driving the car. That’s procedural memory. You get it by performing physical actions, then reinforce it by repeating those physical actions.

Whenever you remember something, your brain fires a pattern of neurons (nerve cells) corresponding to that memory.4 A stable pattern of neuron firings over time and space is the worldly manifestation of a memory.

One level up from that, a stable pattern of memories over time and space, with awareness of the present and faith in the future, is the worldly manifestation of a human soul:

“As Tennessee Williams wrote in The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, describing what we now call explicit memory, ‘Has it ever struck you that life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quickly you hardly catch it going? It’s really all memory, except for each passing moment.’”5

“Why is this night different?”

You might wonder what that has to do with Passover.

Well, what do you do in the Seder? You recall and reinforce declarative memories: “This is the bread of affliction that our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt.” You also carry out and reinforce procedural memories, such as eating bitter herbs and matzah.

Through the centuries, all over the world, we have celebrated the Seder, recalling the same memories, carrying out the same procedures, and making all of them our own. They are no longer lost in the past: They are part of us, here and now, as we teach them to our children. We have an incomplete but fairly coherent set of memories, and we declare that the memories belong to us. As a result, we know who we are.

Our pattern over time and space, recalling the same memories with awareness of the present and faith in the future, is the worldly manifestation of our people’s indomitable spirit.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle said that friends have “one heart in two bodies.” Just as continuity of memory makes an individual person, so does our collective continuity of memory make the Jewish people. It binds us together, with one heart in many bodies.

Who Are You?

And then, at last, comes the fifth question:

“Who are you?”

Only you can give your own answer, but I have a few suggestions.

You are Abraham, answering God’s call to “do what is just and right.”6 You are Sarah, risking your life and making tough decisions to protect Abraham.

You are Moses, not sure of your own strength but very sure of God’s strength as you confront the world’s most powerful emperor.

You are Hillel, standing on one foot to explain the essence of the Torah. You are Maimonides, Spinoza, and Heschel. You are Einstein, Ben-Gurion, and Golda Meir. You are half of the world’s chess champions and a fifth of its Nobel laureates.

You are sometimes admired, sometimes hated, sometimes standing alone against impossible odds — but never giving up.

The great heroes of ancient Greece did mighty deeds of war in hope of winning kleos, so that they would be remembered and glorified. Our ancestors did mighty deeds of faith and courage, not for kleos, but for the sake of doing right and worshipping God:

“I understood that to be a Jew is to be part of that journey, begun by Abraham and Sarah and continued by their children ever since – not just to a place but to a set of ideals, a way of life, a state of collective grace – and that I had caught a glimpse of the eternal people joining their voices across space and time and singing its never-ending song.”7

Works Cited

Hume, D. (2014), A Treatise of Human Nature. Toronto: HarperTorch Classics.

Kandel, E. (2006), In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Sacks, J. (2006), Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s Haggadah. New York: Continuum Publishing.

Spitzer, E. (2015), Does the Soul Survive? Woodstock: Jewish Lights Publishing.

Footnotes


  1. Spitzer, E. (2015), p. 28: “In the Five Books of Moses, there is no overt distinction drawn between body and soul. For some of the early rabbis, body and soul were viewed as separate but interdependent components.” 
  2. “Your Body Is Younger Than You Think,” The New York Times, August 2, 2005. 
  3. Hume, D. (2014), loc. 3669. 
  4. Kandel, E. (2006), loc. 4196. 
  5. Ibid, loc. 4039. 
  6. Genesis 18:19. 
  7. Sacks, J. (2006), loc. 1177. 

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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