This year it sure won’t be hard to answer the question of “why is this night different from all other nights”. While we may be used to elaborate and long Seder tables filled with family and friends, this year, we may be with just our partner or all alone in our one room apartment.
Normally, ‘Asking the Four Questions’, the “Mah Nishtanah”, is probably one of the more enjoyable moments in the Seder. And singing it alone (with a little help from the wine), can still be a moment of light heartedness. Yet, this moment of brevity is often misunderstood and holds some of the highest untapped potential in the entire Seder. If you close your eyes, and imagine the mah nishtanah moment, what do you see? Probably the youngest child standing cutely on a chair singing and everybody at the table clapping.
And that’s great. But we tend to assume that the mah nishtanah is merely just recited to keep the children involved. Yes, traditionally, it is asked by the youngest one at the table. However, the Talmud states that even if a Seder has no children present at all we still recite it. Beyond that, the Talmud continues, if the Seder only consists of the two oldest and wisest Jewish scholars – who obviously know all of the answers to all of the questions – they still must say the mah nishtanah to each other. And in fact, the law goes on, if a person is alone, they must ask themselves the mah nishtanah questions out loud and then continue with the answers… (Talmud Pesachim 116a; Shulchan Aruch 473:7.)
One can often be confused by the arbitrariness of Jewish law as it regularly lists possibilities that seem far- fetched or inapplicable to everyday life…but, here you go...the Talmud was ready for 2020. There is clearly something inherently valuable in contemplating these questions, maybe especially when by ourselves. Somehow this practice is not just about a shared tradition or the next generation.
While we normally translate “Mah nishtanah” as: “What is different…”, it also means “What has changed?”. Each holiday is not just an annual rerun but rather a call to reflect and grow (which may be why we are often resistant to it!). On Passover we ask ourselves: What has changed since the last time I heard these questions? Where do I feel enslaved in my own life and where do I feel free? Where do I hold my bitterness and is it hurting me or helping me? Can I allow myself to relax and feel deeply comfortable with where I am? Am I still caught up in my old ways of thinking? Through truly contemplating these questions, the traditional symbolism gives way to a dynamic process. Nike can inspire our workouts but not our Jewish practice – it’s never about “just doing it”. Doing something is always an invitation to grow, to open a new facet of oneself.
This Passover we have the greatest opportunity we may ever have to truly come to grips with ourselves. We can ask questions and answer in ways that may not make for great table-talk, but rather spark a piece of personal truth and a moment of inner resonance.
The philosopher Schopenhauer wrote, “A man can only be himself so long as he is alone, and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom, for it is only when he is alone that he is really free”. This year at the Seder table we are truly free from all outside pressures and expectations. We can actually just listen to ourselves, our own doubts and curiosities, solutions and goals…for, just as the Talmud displayed, the question is not for the answer it is for the one who asked.