5757 - #13


Ma nishtana, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" This is perhaps the most famous question in all of Judaism. It would seem, though, that many nights of the Jewish calendar would be appropriate times for this question. Could one not ask on Yom Kippur or on the first night of Succot the same ma nishtana, why is this night different? Yet the question is not only asked exclusively on Pesach but, as a child, is our very first identification with Pesach. It would seem that on Pesach, it is not just that we act differently -- on other days we also, in the unique spirit of the specific day, act differently. On Pesach, ma nishtana would seem to indicate that difference itself is inherent to the day.

Rabbi Yaakov Emden, Perush HaYa'avetz on the Haggadah[1] indeed points out that the purpose of the ma nishtana is not simply to identify and question the unique behaviour of the day. Many days in the Jewish calendar have unique behaviour. To Rabbi Emden, though, what makes this day different is that the behaviour is contradictory; there are actions that mark freedom and actions that mark slavery. Many commentators share Rabbi Emden's perspective that the ma nishtana is not four separate questions but one question in four parts questioning the paradox.[2] But why not just ask directly: why do we act in such a conflicting manner? Why do we have to mark a difference, indicate that this day is different? It would seem that it is not enough that we question the paradox; we also have to question the difference, that the paradox is different than our regular behaviour. It is this difference, not the paradox, that, in fact, is the motivation of the ma nishtana. It would seem that distinguishing Pesach as a different day, apart from all other days, is a necessary conceptual component of this holiday.

In recognizing Pesach as the celebration of the birth of our nation,[3] distinction clearly can be seen as a significant aspect of the holiday. In forming a nation, it is necessary to distinguish it from other groups, from humanity as a whole. In indicating the difference of the day, we could be, subtly, intimating the necessary difference that the Jewish People must maintain in supporting its nationhood. Yet, in truth, such a hint would seem to be far removed from the dynamics of the ma nishtana. Nationhood is also built on similarity; as a group wishes to distinguish itself from a greater populace, it also wishes for congruence among individuals within the group. If reference to difference is a hint to the building blocks of nationhood, a reference to similarity as a building block would also be appropriate.

Maharal, Gevurat Hashem on the Haggadah states that the ma nishtana is the question of the talmid chacham, the Torah scholar. If this is true then the significance of difference could lie in the process of wisdom. Indeed, bina, the highest level of wisdom achievable through human ability[4] is marked by the ability l'havin davar mitoch davar, to understand one matter from another. The ability to distinguish, to see difference, is the very ability of the wise person. The ma nishtana would thus be more than a question. It introduces to the seder table the pursuit of wisdom through the ability to distinguish -- and marks this pursuit as integral to Pesach. It is not solely that Pesach is different; on Pesach we also are to recognize difference.

Clearly Torah study -- questioning and answering -- are important activities of this night. The additional insight arising from the ma nishtana would seem to be the significance of differentiation and the ability to perceive differences. Why, still, is this skill particularly important to this day?

Reference to chacham in any context connected to the Haggadah immediately brings to mind the wise son. Indeed, the question ofthe wise son is clearly marked by his ability to distinguish. What are these eidot, chukim, mishpatim? -- categories of mitzvot; he can perceive difference. Interestingly, the four sons and the ma nishtana are inherently intertwined. The differentiation between the four sons is not found in the knowledge they possess but in the question each one asks. Our ability to see and understand each son arises from their ma nishtana. The question not only projects the ability to distinguish but in itself is also the object for the analysis of distinction. Pesach is different. We perceive that difference and indicate it through the ma nishtana. How one asks the ma nishtana in turn leads us to distinguish between people -- with different answers necessary for different people.

Pesach celebrates the birth of our nation. Ultimately we mark this occasion not simply by recounting the story of the Exodus but by the inter-generational telling of the story. The essence of the seder night is the passing on of the flame. That questioning, Torah study and the pursuit of wisdom is integral to the night is understood for that is the flame of Torah.[5] Inherently, though, we must also ask how to pass on the flame. Herein the essence of wisdom -- the ability to distinguish -- must also be applied. We must see all children as different; one is not just a child, one is an individual.

And so our nation must be formed. While the group dynamics of nationhood demand some distinctions from others and some binding similarities within the group, the Jewish nation must uniquely be a nation of individuals, a nation of wise individuals. Wisdom is established through the ability to differentiate. Individuality is established through the ability to see differences in people. In the spirit of Pesach, Pesach must be seen not just as another holiday but as different - a uniquely individual day.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht


[1] Found in Rabbi J.D. Eisenstein, Otzar Perushim v'Tziyonim al Haggadah Shel Pesach.

[2] See also Abarbanel, Zevach Pesach who explains, as such, how the answer of avadim hayinu, that we were slaves to Pharaoh, is truly appropriate.

[3] See, further, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Horeb 2:23.

[4] See Malbim, Mishlei 1:2.

[5] See, further, NISHMA Spark of the Week 5756-#13.

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