Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            This year I'm going to have four of my eight grandchildren at my Seder.  And I can hardly wait to hear one of them chant the Mah Nishtanah.  It won't be the youngest; she's only two months old. This recitation by the youngest capable member of those assembled is always the cutest moment of the evening.  So, please, forgive me if I take this sweet moment and ruin it by getting serious and pedantic about the pedagogic point of this paragraph.  We usually refer to this song as the Four Questions., but even a quick look at these sentences reveals that there's only one question, namely:  Why is this night different from all other nights?  The other four statements elucidate four of the major differences we experience that special night. So, now that we only have one question, let's try to figure out the answer.

            Before we get to the crux of the matter, please, allow one brief digression.  Why these questions?  I mean there are many other changes this unique evening.  Even though I could make a whole article out of this (as a matter of fact I did), here's the short answer.  These four differences reflect the oppression to redemption experience.  We have two questions (namely about the matzah and maror) which reflect the slavery, and we have two (dipping and reclining) which reflect the freedom.  There are two of each because we must discuss both the physical (enslavement) and spiritual (becoming ethical monotheists) revolutions embodied in the exodus from Egypt.  

            I believe that it's ironic that most Seders don't actually respond to this critical question.  We tell the story and perform the many customs with explanations of why we do these activities, but most of us ignore this core issue.  So, what is the crucial difference between this night and all other nights of the year?   According to Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (the Rav, 1903-1993), in a class I heard from him forty years ago, the answer is deceptively simple.  It is embedded in the paragraph describing Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah's (first century CE) attempt to confirm the twice daily obligation to mention the exodus from Egypt.  You see every other night of the year we only have to mention in passing that God redeemed us from Egypt, and we accomplish that by declaring the last verse in the Shma:  I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I am the Lord, your God (Numbers 15:41).  However, this first night of Pesach we have the obligation of retelling the tale in such detail that everyone present identifies with the account, so that history becomes our own story.  A successful Seder reenacts the exodus.

            All the varied customs and props (like all the stuff on the Seder plate and cute plague paraphernalia) of the night are the supporting cast in this endeavor.   But it's the explanations which must really make the drama come to life.  That's why we have the examples of the four children which remind us that we must follow the pedagogic direction of King Solomon:  Instruct the child according to his path (Proverbs 22:6).  We must prepare our presentation with the needs of our audience in mind.  The role of the leader is to inspire not impress.   

            Reb Chayim Soloveitchik of Brisk (1853-1918, grandfather of the Rav) clearly stated what the distinctions between the mere mentioning of the exodus daily and the retelling at the Seder are.  He specified that there are three disparities.  First of all, the daily recitation is only for the individual who is making the statement.  The mitzvah of the Haggadah requires the leader to inform others in a dialogue built upon a question and answer format.  Even if one is all alone there is an obligation to ask the questions as if the story were being related to another (Rambam, Laws of Chametz and Matzah, 7:5).  Stories come to life with an audience.  The second obligation of the retelling, which is not required in the simple daily narration, is the necessity of expanding the story.  It is only during the Seder that we are expected to tell the story at great length and depth.  The Haggadah itself tells us that whoever expands upon the recounting of the exodus is deemed praiseworthy.  We can't just recite verses; we must devise homilies (drashot) upon them.  The Mishneh (Pesachim 10:4)) specifies that we use hermeneutic methodology on the source verses (Deuteronomy 26:5-8) of the story.

            The third distinction, I believe, is the crucial one.  The narration must be experiential.  It's not just that the narration must describe a journey from a degrading situation (slavery and idolatry) to an admirable status (freemen and worshippers of the one true God), we, the participants, must feel that same spiritual movement.  It's only by feeling this personal growth that we can accomplish the ultimate goal of the Seder, namely:  In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he personally had come out of Egypt, as it is said: "You shall tell your child on that day, it is because of this that the Lord did for me when I left Egypt (Exodus 13:8)."  Unlike the simply stated daily recitation of belief in the exodus event, at the Seder we personalize and internalize this historical event until it becomes part of my life's experience.

            Differences and changes are important.  They take us out of our comfort zone and routine.  This hopefully is a catalyst to new and creative thinking.  However, if we're not aware of the nature of this divergence from habit, we may not arrive at the desired destination.   So, it's vital that we contemplate the essence of the Seder night's changes in our customary behavior, and the unique role of this extraordinary evening.  Then our efforts will be crowned by a triumphant arrival at a new and exalted status.  May the journey be pleasurable and meaningful.  Chag kasher v'sameach!


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