Mah Nishtana: A New Meaning and Insight for 2020

By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, Rosh Kollel, DATA

Mah Nishtana Halaylah Hazeh Mikol Ha’leilos? “Why is this night different from all other nights?”This question, usually sung by the youngest child in the home, is the most popular part of the Seder, especially for parents and grandparents “shepping nachas” from the young, excited petitioner.

The meaning of this question, which converges into four questions, punctuates the differences between this night of Pesach and all other nights of the year. It emphasizes different laws and customs we practice on Passover eve which spark the interest of child and adult alike, forcing us to think more deeply into what we are about to embark upon: the story of our birth as a nation and our uniqueness among the other peoples of the world.

We begin the Seder by wondering why do we, in fact, eat matzoh? Why do we eat bitter herbs? Why do we lean to one side and dip our vegetables? We become curious, looking for answers. This way the Seder takes on a more profound meaning. Each small facet is woven into a tapestry -the story of our pain and suffering which, through the Al-mighty’s miracles, becomes freedom and rejoicing.

I think, this year, we need to consider another meaning in this question of “Mah Nishtana”:  “Why is this night of Passover different from all other nights of Passover?” Why, this Pesach, can we not join our grandparents, or our grandchildren? Why, this Pesach, can we not pray in the synagogue, together with our communities? Why, this year, do we need to buy our Pesach products wearing gloves and facemasks? Sadly, for many, “Why do I need to do this seder all alone?” Mah Nishtanah?!

For this Mah Nishtanah we don’t have clear answers, but we need to be asking the question. The deeper meaning of this question is, what is it that G-d wants from us? Where are we lacking in our observance and service of G-d that He is sending us this message to up our game, to improve?

The Talmud says that when it rains on the first night of Sukkot, when Jews were trying to fulfill the mitzvah of eating in the Sukkah, it is a message from G-d. It is compared to a servant bringing a glass of water to his master and the master pours the water onto the servant’s head; he has done something to loose favor in the eyes of the master causing his service to be thrown back at him. Although there may be many natural reasons why it’s raining that night, the Talmud is saying that, ultimately, it has something to do with the Jewish people and their service.

To survive the plague of the firstborn, the Jews needed to put the Paschal blood on the doorposts and stay inside, signifying that they were no longer part of the decadent society of Egypt. There are many wonderful things about our society and Western civilization, but, alas, many decadent philosophies and behaviors which have permeated our society. We need to reflect upon ourselves and to what extent our thoughts and outlook remain Jewish, Torah-based philosophies and practices. Or, have our minds and hearts become tainted by the worship of creature comforts and money which has replaced religion in much of our society.

We, like the Jews in Egypt, are being told to stay in our homes, away from society, (social distancing). Let’s use this time to do a little self-reflection and contemplate, this Pesach, what it really means to be a Jew, a member of the Chosen Nation and to be a Light unto the Nations.

Rather than asking just “why this is happening?”, let’s ask “what can we learn from it?” “how can we improve?” “Mah Nishtanah?!”

May all the readers have a very healthy and, despite it all, very joyous Pesach. May we all find ways to infuse meaning into this unique holiday season, bringing us closer as families, as a people, and soon bring us to the final Redemption we so sorely await.

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