Mah Nishtanah? Of all the many songs that encapsulate the Passover spirit, this arguably hits the top of the chart. That simple, pure and sweet sound that pierces through when we hear those words. It warms our hearts and draws us into the beginning of our seder, readying us for engagement, thought and interaction.
Let’s take a few moments to analyze and discuss this central text. We start by asking: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Although the Haggadah will highlight in the next four questions what is indeed different, perhaps there is a more general question we are asking. We should be asking ourselves: ‘How am I going to make this night different from all other nights’? During our busy lives, we rush from program to meeting (even on Zoom), from work call to our workout, but how often do we carve out some core time to sit with our family and friends and discuss the issues surrounding the very essence of life: why we are here, how we got here and our individual purpose?
On these seder nights we sit, ponder and resolve ‘how I am going to make the next hour of my life focused, quality and meaningful?’ That is the essence of Mah Nishtanah — we ask ourselves what is different. As Jews, we should always be thinking, probing and questioning. We should never be lulled into a state of absolute comfort, but rather should be constantly seeking change, growth and improvement — what is different tonight? That is, how can I make a difference and ensure the seder experience becomes primary and paramount? This is how we start.
There are two contrasting themes within the Four Questions. Regarding matzah and maror, the questions represent the concept of slavery and oppression, hardship and bitterness. The last two questions regarding dipping food and reclining, on the other hand, correspond to the concept of emancipation and liberty, redemption and freedom.
The purpose of the seder is to step into a time simulator, and to the best extent possible, recreate the feelings, emotions and tastes of Egypt and the departure from it. The seder is essentially a flight simulator. We get inside, travel back in time, and imagine what the Hebrew slaves experienced. The four questions of the ‘Mah Nishtanah’ take us right into that simulator. It sets the stage for what we are now going to experience — recreating the feeling of sadness and slavery through the matzah and marror, then transitioning to emotions of freedom through dipping and reclining.
As the Malbim Haggadah explains, when we face the facts that at one moment we were eating matzah and marror — living painful and frustrated lives as slaves to a persecuting Pharaoh — and at the next moment our lives were turned around and we were dipping our food and reclining during our meals like noble aristocrats, our natural reaction is to feel full of gratitude to Hashem for His magnificent magnanimity.
It is notable that even one who celebrates Passover alone must still ask the Four Questions and recite the Haggadah. The purpose of the Four Questions is to generate a spiritual and intellectual awakening that will help us proceed to the next section of the Haggadah. These very questions help us recognize the sudden and massive change which took place at the Exodus. Matzah is called the bread of affliction and was the food of slaves — this reminds us of the subjugation we suffered. Similarly, the bitter herbs remind us of the affliction we endured. However, dipping and reclining are signs of freedom and nobility.
“The Four Questions…recreate the feeling of sadness and slavery through the matzah and marror, then transitioning to emotions of freedom through dipping and reclining.”
Seder night is not about long expositions or detailed explanations that perhaps are beyond the understanding of younger children, or even of ourselves. It is about talking about the stories of our ancestors and relating them to the next generation. We kick off the seder with the younger members — traditionally — asking these short but probing questions that stimulate our journey into the flight simulator.
What is the answer to these four questions? Rabbinic text can often be so complex and yet also very simple and pure. In one simple response the Haggadah says: “We were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt, and the Lord, our God, took us out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm…” In other words, all these rituals, strange as they may seem, add up to one thing: remembering the Exodus from Eygpt and re-experiencing our transition from slavery to freedom. This is the essence of seder night and Passover. And this concept is neatly wrapped up in the sweet, pure and innocent melody of Mah Nishtanah.