We often refer to the Four Questions that play a central role in the Seder service, a closer look however will reveal that we are actually asking five, the first question in its guise as an introduction is actually posing the most profound question of all; “Why is this night different from all other nights?” מה נשתנה הלילה הזה מכל הלילות.
This first question is an invitation and it ingeniously enables us to perform a fundamental obligation, the commandment to “Remember the day that you left Egypt” זכוֹר את היוֹם הזה אשׁר יצאתם ממצרים (Shemot 13:3). The זכור parallels the way the Shabbat is evoked; זכוֹר את יוֹם השׁבת לקדשו – Remember the Shabbat to keep it holy. Rashi, the renowned Biblical and Talmudic commentator of the middle Ages, when explaining the concept of kedusha in the opening verse of the sedra of Kedoshim (Vayikra 19:1), translates it as separation. The Shabbat is in a sense separate, different from other days (of the week). Pesach too is different from other days and some would suggest other Festivals too.
Pedagogically our capacity to remember rests on making the event different, unique, bearing insights that speak specifically to those occurrences. When things resemble one another, that is when we forget, or perhaps more poignantly we forgo the distinctiveness of that particular moment.
The phrase מה נשתנה itself is particularly curious. It speaks not only of difference but also of deference; awe. The word is a derivative of the term Mishna מִשְׁנָה, “study by repetition”, from the verb shanah שנה, לשנות “to study and review”, review is implicit in the שניים two, or more importantly secondary. The art of study is through repetition. The opening question is asking what is it we learn, what will we discover about this night? Rabbi Soloveitchik teaches us that this process of amazement and explanation, of intrigue and elucidation, is the foundation of the Haggadah. This is the source of procurement of knowledge. It is the question of questions. Our capacity to be free rests in our competence to question.
An additional aspect that is noteworthy is in the act of questioning itself. It is only possible to accomplish with someone else, it is relational education at its best. We learn about an event not just through the review of contents but through our discussion with others. Barry Chazan suggests this is fundamental to Israel Education in his recently published book A Philosophy of Israel Education – A Relational Approach.
The first and too often overlooked question of Mah Nishtana creates Chavruta, friendship, companionship, community. We relive the journey from slavery to freedom through moving from and actualizing what was improbable to what is imperative; the formation of community that becomes a people. A people of slaves that at the inception of their journey to freedom through the Paschal Lamb, shares their food, a people reliving this moment at the outset of the Seder that invites the poor to join their meal. Again Rabbi Soloveitchik reminds us the term עם Am- people is from that of עם – Im -with, denoting togetherness and solidarity. This and so much more is captured in the Big Ask of Mah Nishtana.