What is classically referred to as the “four questions” may actually be a
misnomer. It looks more like one question, “Why is this night different
from all other nights?” accompanied by “four observations”. They can be
synthesized into one observation about the uniqueness of the evening. We
introduce Matzah as “poor man’s bread” and then we meet the Marror
reminding us of the bitterness of the slavery. It looks like this is one
of those very sad “oy vay” days like Tisha B’Av.
Alternately, we notice the dipping which rich folks frequently do and the
reclining which is more the custom of free people. There’s a mixed signal
here. Are we poor slaves or rich free people? The answer follows, “We were
slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and HASHEM our G-d took us out from there with
a strong hand and an outstretched arm.”
Why do we bother to focus on the unpleasantness of the past? What does
continually reenacting the ugliness of our historical experience do for
us? This is the formula prescribed by the Talmud, “Begin with denigration
and end with praise!” (Pesachim 116A) How does it work?
Here’s a story I made up for a younger group of students years back: There
was a little boy who was born blind. As he grew and matured he learned to
read Braille and adapted himself to his handicap as best he could.
However, the neighborhood kids mastered the ugly art of teasing. A day
didn’t pass that somebody didn’t play a trick on him or say something
offensive, assuming wrongly he couldn’t hear them either, but he did. He
felt more despondent each day. He would write in his Braille diary all the
terrible details on a daily basis and sometimes he would cry onto the
pages leaving them warped and stiff. One desperate day he began to express
his wish that he had never been born. He cried out to G-d for help.
A doctor arrived shortly after and told him of a new procedure that could
grant him the ability to see. He went into the hospital for months. The
great day arrived. With patches on his eyes, his parents waited anxiously
that night. Soft candle lights bathed the room. The patches were
removed, and amazingly he could see. Imagine the adulation. He looked
deeply into the faces of his loving parents, the Doctor, and nursing
staff. He couldn’t sleep an entire night because of all the excitement. He
wanted to just drink in everything he could gaze at. His curiosity and
joy knew no limit.
Months passed and he became very much like other boys his age. One day he
awoke to the sound of thunder and noticed rain beginning to pour from the
sky. “Agggghhhh!” he exclaimed in disgust, “The day is already ruined by
this ugly rain!” When he heard himself speak this way he became disgusted.
He felt he didn’t deserve to have the sight he had gained. He had lost
that feeling! He called the Doctor and told him that he wanted to go back
to being blind again claiming his unworthiness.
The wise doctor prescribed a therapeutic plan. The anniversary of the
operation was arriving. A table was set. The patches were placed on his
eyes again. The candles were lit. His parents and dear friends and the
doctor stood near. His old Braille diary was placed before him and he was
made to read aloud. The tears began to flow as he reviewed the horrors of
those early years. Then he reached that desperation point and he felt it
again as he had before. Then he read hopefully the entry about the doctor
and his proposal for an operation. The patches were lifted. He looked
again into the faces, drank in the beauty of the sumptuous meal before him
and he became intoxicated with ecstatic joy. The doctor told him, “Do this
same dramatic exercise each year at the same time and then the pleasure of
your newly gained sight will be with you “all the days of your life””