Rabbi’s Message, April 4, 2024

Why is This Night Different From All Other Nights?
Two Answers (Part 1)

Illustration: The Four Questions. The Temple Institute


            Many of us have fond memories of the “The Four Questions” asked at Passover seder. In most families, the youngest child stars for that portion of the seder—or perhaps a few of the little ones, helping each other. All eyes are on the children singing “Mah Nishtanah”, and then we offer a round of congratulations when our youngest seder participants acquit themselves well. Their lilting, childlike singsong is a delightful part of the seder experience.
            Likewise, most of us know that the next paragraph of the Haggadah is an answer to the question. Why do we make changes on Passover from the nightly supper ritual? Why the matzah instead of leavened bread, why the obligatory bitter herbs, why the two-fold dipping of one food into another, why the posture of reclining instead of sitting up straight? Because we were slaves, and these behavioral specifics are part of how we celebrate our freedom. The celebration is religious because our freedom, we believe, is God’s gift.
            Less well known is that fact that, just a couple of pages later in the Haggadah, there is a second answer to the Mah Nishtanah questions. This other answer says that we make changes on Passover from the ordinary course of events because once we were idolaters, and now we are monotheists, grateful to God for having enlightened us and brought us near.
            In this message and next week’s, I will explore a series of questions with you. This week, we will establish the basic frame of knowledge that will enable us to understand the Passover seder as a whole. Next week, we will focus on the questions and the two sets of answers to them.
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            First things first.  The seder is not a biblical institution. In Bible times, the people were commanded to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, pitch a tent in the environs of the city, enjoy the sacrificial meal that had been prepared by the priests of the Temple, and then go home the next day:
            “You must not sacrifice the Passover in any town the Lord your God gives you except in the place He will choose as a dwelling for His Name. There you must sacrifice the Passover in the evening, when the sun goes down, on the anniversary of your departure from Egypt.  Roast it and eat it at the place the Lord your God will choose. Then in the morning return to your tents” (Deuteronomy 16:5-7).
            The seder as we have it is the Rabbinic response to celebrating Passover without the Jerusalem Temple, which the Romans had destroyed in 70 CE. No Temple meant no pilgrimage. But, the Rabbis insisted, no Temple did NOT mean no religious ritual, no following God’s directions, no spiritual uplift. It just had to be different.
            The secret of the seder is precisely this: The Rabbis showed the Jewish people how to accomplish the transformations needed to keep the Passover doable, relevant and inspiring: First, the seder became a home-based ceremonial.
            * Without the possibility of having sacrificial meat as the entrée, they were free to make that change. Moreover, with the Romans prohibiting Jews from visiting the ruins of Jerusalem freely, they had to make that change.
            * In the home __cpLocation, the Rabbis organized the Seder around all the other Passover regulations that could still be observed. Actual matzah and bitter herbs (marror) continued to be the mandated menu, along with the customary chutney condiment called charoset. The sacrifices were represented by two symbolic foods, the roasted shankbone (z’ro’a) and the egg (betzah).
            * The Rabbis borrowed from the elegant banquet practices of the day to show that Passover is our Feast of Freedom, a behavior that obstinately insisted that while we render many a shekel unto Caesar, what we render unto God is ultimately the more important. These Greco-Roman customs included the first-course salad (karpas) dipped in that culture’s favorite salad dressing, salt water. Reclining was likewise a sign of fine dining, as we know from a host of sword and sandal movies.
            * The Rabbis found ways to reinterpret the Gentile customs within a Jewish framework. The leading example of this is the four cups of wine we consume at the seder. Greco-Roman dining featured many toasts. The Rabbis organized the four cups of wine around the liturgical requirements of the religion—the first cup was dedicated to the sanctification of the day (kiddush), just as on the Sabbath, and so on.
            In this framework, the questions and answers of the Haggadah also emerge as a Rabbinic way of salvaging a Biblical mandate and making it part of the seder.  In four separate verses, the Bible emphasizes that we—the adult generation—teach our children the meaning of the Passover, and specifically, of its sacrifice and its substitution of unleavened for leavened bread. At the very beginning of the recitation, the Rabbis establish their basic rule: mitzvah l’sapper bi’y’tsiat mitsrayim, “It is a commandment to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.”  They established questions to be asked by the youngest or least experienced participants as the pedagogical opportunity to fulfill that basic mandate. In fact, the Rabbis extended the biblical mandate. In the Bible, adults were commanded to instruct their children. The Rabbis insisted that even in the absence of children, the adults are obligated to recount the Exodus.
            Not only did the Rabbis envision questions and answers as a necessary part of the Passover seder experience; they also regulated the shape of the answer. It was supposed to begin with the “shameful” and conclude with words of praise.  The classic Rabbinic source teaching this requirement is found in the chapter of the Mishnah detailing the Rabbinic Seder:
            “The attendants poured the second cup for the leader of the seder, and here the son asks his father the questions about the differences between Passover night and a regular night. And if the son does not have the intelligence to ask questions on his own, his father teaches him the questions… And according to the intelligence and the ability of the son, his father teaches him about the Exodus. When teaching his son about the Exodus. He begins with the Jewish people’s disgrace and concludes with their glory. And he expounds from the passage: “An Aramean tried to destroy my father” (Deuteronomy 26:5), the declaration one recites when presenting his first fruits at the Temple, until he concludes explaining the entire section” (Mishnah Pesachim 10:4).
            Later generations of Rabbis exemplified what the requirement “begin with the Jewish people’s disgrace and conclude with their glory” could mean.  And that is what gets us to the two answers to the four questions. Stay tuned! Shavua Tov—a good week to all.