Mah Nishtanah? Everything

father and son celebrating passover reading the Hagada
father and son celebrating passover reading the Hagada

(Translation from the work of Rabbi Lior Engelman) 

Both in the text   used and in the rituals performed, the child’s importance at the Seder is clear; for example, a whole section of the Haggadah is devoted to “The Four Sons,” and the youngest present recites the “Mah Nishtanah.” What is less obvious is that the Seder night is also supposed to work its magic upon the adults. Adults lack a certain faith perspective that comes naturally to a child. At the Seder, as we gather around the story of the Exodus of Egypt.

In the course of our lives we often find ourselves looking at reality in a cynical way. Life doesn’t look as optimistic to us as we viewed it in childhood.  We are not convinced, as we were in the past, that the future looks rosy. Even if we believe in the Master of the World, we do not believe in His world. We are suspicious of other people. But we secretly want to experience again the world from the eyes of a small child; eyes that can appreciate the good; eyes that are not constantly seeking out dark motives; eyes that look upon the story of the Exodus from Egypt as is–and resonating deep within the eyes, an innocent soul that has complete faith in the One who said “Let there Be.” The parent in his heart of hearts wants to make use of the precious hours of the Seder night to exchange cynicism with innocence and complexity with simplicity; the presence of the small child who sits before him fulfils this wish.

The main threat to the world of faith is the world of routine, the feeling that what lies ahead in the future already was in the past. Laws of nature blind the eyes from seeing the hand that directs the world with beneficence.  The adult finds himself cynically asking “mah nishtanah” (“what has changed”) and answers decisively to himself: “Nothing has changed; whatever will be, already was!”  It’s hard for the adult to identify renewal; it’s hard for him to acknowledge “the One who renews daily, perpetually, the work of creation” [from the morning liturgy]. The regular laws of nature cause the created to forget their creator. Only on Seder night, a time to remember clear-cut miracles that violated the laws of nature, is the adult able to feel renewal.

But what will happen to this feeling as one returns to day-to-day life? Here is where the child can help. An adult needs the eyes of a small child. There in those curious eyes, everything is new and renewed, everything is wondrous and miraculous. The child’s heart is not yet hardened to the world; nothing is natural for him or routine. The child who asks mah nishtanah is not only asking about the maror and the matzah. From a child’s perspective, everything has changed because everything changes and is renewed all the time. For a child, the biblical phrase

“His mercies are renewed every morning” (Lamentations 3.23) is not just a saying.  The adult who listens carefully to the questions of the child suddenly discovers that really everything has indeed changed, that the miracles of the story of the Exodus are but the disclosure of the secret that the world is renewed every day, every hour. On Seder night we need to look inward, into the astonished eyes of our children, and perhaps in their eyes we will also discover ourselves. Happy Passover!


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