A question about Mah Nishtana was presented to the readers not too long ago. The question, succinctly stated, is: If we do unusual things on the Seder night to inspire the children to ask questions, why wo we have a Mah Nishtana, which appears to spoonfeed the children these questions?
Thanks to the help of some readers of YOMTOV, as well as other colleagues of mine (especially R’ Aryeh Winter), I was directed towards the explanation of the Ma Nishtana presented by the Malbim. Without getting into the Malbim in great detail, the Ma Nishtana does not contain the questions we expect the children to ask later on. Each child, according to his or her level of comprehension, will ask questions when unusual events crop up during the Seder. What the Ma Nishtana does do is present a clear contrast of the two themes running throughout the Seder – slavery and freedom. The first two questions deal with the symbols of slavery on this night – Matzo and Maror, and the second two deal with symbols of freedom – dipping and reclining. This contrast allows us to realize how much we owe Hashem for allowing the latter part – our freedom – to occur. Hence, with this feeling of gratitude now swelling up inside us, we are now fullly aroused and prepared to continue with the telling of the story of our departure with the proper feeling and emotion. This is why one must say the Mah Nishtana even when alone at the Seder.
After we conclude the invitation contained in Ha Lachma, the Mah Nishtana, the Four Questions, are asked. The Aruch HaShulchan, Rav Yechiel Epstein writes that these four “questions” should not be asked, or intoned in an inquisitive manner. Rather they are to be said in a tone of wonderment (as we see in the Pasuk of “Mah Gadlu Ma’asecha Hashem – How great are your works, Hashem! ). We are saying “Look how different tonight is from other nights: We eat only matzo, we dip our food twice, we eat maror, and we recline!”
The Abarbanel comments that the Ma Nishtana is drawing our attention to a very important point. Tonight, we act in ways that represent both slavery and freedom. Our eating of the matzo and the maror commemorates the harsh and bitter slavery, from which we suffered greatly. Only moments after performing these commemorative actions, we dip our foods and recline while eating. These are signs of nobility and dignity. These are actions which represent our status as free men, servants only to Hashem. The resulting question of “Why on this night do we act in ways which are contradictory” yells out, begging for an answer.
The answer to this question is Avadim Hayinu L’Pharoah B’Mitzrayim, we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. However, on the same night that we begun as slaves, Hotzi’ainu Hashem Elokienu Misham, Hashem took us out from there, and we became a nation of free men. Only one night in history, we were both slaves, and free men. Contradictory actions on this night are very appropriate.
Rav Yaakov Emden notes that there are two contradictory elements contained in our enslavement. We were Avadim L’Pharoah, slaves to a king. A certain level of dignity existed as our enslavement was to a king, and not the Egyptians themselves. In fact, we see that the tribe of Levi was accorded respect, in their not having to perform labor. This is cause for a remembrance of our enslavement which is positive.
However, we were also slaves B’Mitzrayim, in Egypt. Mitzrayim was descended from Cham, one of the sons of Noach. Because of the lack of respect and disgrace that Cham showed towards Noach, he was cursed. This curse was that Cham and his descendants were to be eternal slaves. This meant that the B’nai Yisroel, by being slaves in Egypt, were slaves of slaves. This is a great level of lowliness and degradation. For this, we also have a remembrance. Because of these two aspects, it is fitting to have contradictory symbols during the Seder.
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