I was (and still am) the youngest in my family. Do you know what that means? I get stuck with the four questions every year.
I remember one year – I was probably in fourth grade – I had just learned them in Hebrew, so I thought I was a superstar. I recited the four questions with pride. Every year since, I’ve been miserable about having to deliver them (and pretty miserable at it, given my terrible singing voice). Some years, I’ve even refused. I know = bad rabbi.
The four questions of Passover are (loosely translated):
Why is this night different from all other nights?
Why, on this night, do we eat only matzah?
Why, on this night, do we eat bitter herbs?
Why, on this night, do we dip twice?
Why, on this night, do we recline at our meal?
If you’re savvy (which I’m sure you are), you probably noticed there are actually five questions. I guess the first one is best understood as a header: Why is this night different from all other nights?
And, frankly, that’s my favorite question. Bottom line about the other four: I know the answers to #1 and #2, I don’t care about #3 (it’s a remnant from Roman banquets), and I don’t actually do #4.
Good news – we’re not stuck with these four questions. It turns out that the rabbis never intended for the four questions to be a fixed text. Rather, they were supposed to change over time.
In fact, in ancient times, the questions were intended to be spontaneous… There’s a great story in the Babylonian Talmud (edited around 500 CE, found in Pesachim 115b). At the beginning of the seder Rabbah ordered the servants to clear all the dishes from the table. Surprised, Abaye (one of Rabbah’s students) asked, “Why are you removing stuff before we have even eaten?” Rabbah responded, “Your question has served the same function as the usual four questions of Ma Nishtanah. Let’s dispense with those set questions and continue directly with the telling of the story!” (Talmud Pesachim 115b)
We can – and should – each ask our own questions. This year, I want to challenge us all to something. You may or may not attend a seder and you may or may not recite the four questions. Regardless, there’s one thing you can do – you can answer the question: Why is this night different from all other nights?
Some answers off the top of my head (ok, I’m lying, I’ve actually been thinking about this for a couple of days)…
- This night – this Passover – is different because we live in a different world. It is one in which the economy (and many people) are struggling and meeting difficulty, awaiting liberation.
- Passover is different from all other nights, because on Passover, everyone can feel Jewish. I was thinking about this on St. Patrick’s Day – a day on which people wear buttons and t-shirts that say “On St. Patty’s Day, everyone is Irish!” Let’s declare everyone a “Jew for a day” and share the message of liberation that Passover has at its core.
- Passover is different because we are encouraged to invite strangers into our home – to be warm and welcoming. This year, as Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s likely new Foreign Minister, is known to favor bigoted and xenophobic policies – Jews need to show that we are not like that. We welcome Jews and non-Jews into our homes and our lives.
- This night is different because it reminds us of the importance of not letting people live in slavery – we must be mensches, acting with human decency and respect.
What are your answers for why this night is different? You can respond here by commenting (register and login first) – or you can respond on Twitter including the hashtag #4QS in your message. (If you’re not on Twitter, I recommend it. If you don’t know what a hashtag is, read here).
Please respond before April 9th. Let’s see how many different answers we can get! C’mon people – hurry up – we have to leave Egypt quickly! No time to bake!