“Why is this night different from all other nights.”
It has taken this long in this Tractate to get the four questions. I have been waiting with bated breath because it is the rhythm of the questions that I remember the most from the Passovers of my childhood: Ma nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol haleilot? Why is this night different from all other nights? Today’s Daf Yomi reading is a reminder that Passover is really about the younger generation and the children. It is a time to remind them of their heritage and the pain and suffering and redemption of their ancestors that brought them to this year’s Passover table.
We are told in today’s reading portion that it is the questions that are asked during the seder that are important for instilling the sense of wonder of one’s heritage, rather than the answers that we all know by heart. We are told that if a son is unable to ask the question as to why this night is different, then his mother can step in and ask the question. This brought back memories of my brother as the youngest child in my grandparent’s home being appointed to ask the questions and the adults helping him with the Hebrew words – Ma nishtanah.
I so much wanted to be the one to sing the questions, but that honor was reserved for the youngest son – my brother – who I would help prep for the recitation. If there is a lesson to be learned from placing the honor of reciting the four questions with the young sons of the family, it is the consequences of excluding the girls from that moment. It is why some grow up with anger toward their heritage. But hopefully today, the girls can join in because it is their story too.
The questions are designed to teach the Exodus story and serve as a reminder of the pain we endeared before we were liberated and lived through the generations to find ourselves at our seder tables. It is a Socratic method of passing down our history through our children and their children, although I also remember a long recitation from the Haggadah of the liberation story that went on for hours before we were finally able to eat. We are told that if the son is not able to ask the question, his mother can do so, and if she is unable, then the leader of the seder can ask himself. And if two scholars are observing the seder on their own they ask each other.
We all know the answers to the questions, although I do not remember the one about the Paschal lamb. Why is this night different from all other nights? On this night we eat matza instead of leavened bread (Sheb’chol haleilot anu ochlin chametz umatzah, halailah hazeh, kuloh matzah); we eat bitter herbs rather than more palatable vegetables (Sheb’chol haleilot anu ochlin sh’ar y’rakot, halailah hazeh, maror); when the temple is standing, we eat Paschal lamb; and we dip the vegetables in a liquid twice when on all other nights we dip only once (Sheb’chol haleilot ein anu matbilin afilu pa’am echat; halailah hazeh, sh’tei f’amim.)
The Paschal lamb question was replaced in my grandparent’s home with a query as to why we recline on Passover when on all other nights we sit upright. On Passover we recline like kings and noblemen and rejoice in our redemption from our hard lives, if only for a night. (Sheb’chol haleilot anu ochlin bein yoshvin uvein m’subin; halailah hazeh, kulanu m’subin.)
The Exodus story is personal. It belongs to all of us. We are told that each generation must say “this is what the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.” On Passover, we step into the Exodus story and consider our personal liberation from a difficult past. Each of our families experienced a voyage that brought us to the Passover table. Many like my family, came to America from East Europe through Ellis Island, with absolutely nothing but our intellect, and grit and ability to ask the questions that led to better lives in the new land.
It is also a time to remember those that lack the opportunity to live their own redemption story, because of poverty or lack of opportunity, or illness and disease or from being broken-hearted. They have their own Exodus story to tell, and we should remember them when we sit down at our seder tables. For we cannot be truly free when there is so much pain in the world.
Here is a link to Cantor Avi Schwartz’s Passover medley which captures the spirit of the holiday: