Mah Nishtanah—The Real Question of The Seder by Rabbi Raphi Mandelstam


For many of us, the pinnacle of the Seder is the famous Mah Nishtanah which the children ask to trigger the telling of the story of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim. Many commentators on the Haggadah notice that the four questions are more complex than they seem and require elucidation. For starters, what are the answers to these questions? Recall that our four questions are aimed at understanding why we have Matzah, Maror, the extra dipping of the vegetable into the saltwater, and the leaning at the Seder. Some answer that the paragraph following the four questions, Avadim Hayinu, answers our questions. However, Avadim Hayinu is but a one line description of how we were slaves who were freed because of Hashem’s help. The simple understanding of that paragraph does not seem to provide a comprehensive answer to the four questions. Our question remains—where do we answer our four questions?

Perhaps, the answers can be found in Rabban Gamliel’s statement that we must mention the Korban Pesach, Maror, and Matzah, in order to fulfill our requirement of Sippur Yetzi’at Mitzrayim. Although this statement can explain why we have Matzah and Maror at the Seder, it does not explain why we lean and make an extra dipping. In addition, if this explains why we eat Matzah and Maror, why was it not placed immediately following the four questions?

These perplexing questions have led many Meforashim, including the Abarbanel, to suggest that the Mah Nishtanah is not really four different questions which require four different answers; rather, it is four different applications of one major question:"Is this a night of slavery or a night of freedom?” The questions are expressions of confusion as to how we can do things which seem to contradict each other. How can we be eating Matzah, which reminds us of our freedom, and also eat Maror, which reminds us of our slavery? In addition, how can we eat the Matzah and the Maror together during Koreich, while at the same time eating Charoset, which sweetens the Maror? Also, why do we lean for certain things but not others? It seems as though we are confused as to whether we are slaves or a free nation.

To further develop our question, we can point out that in addition to the contradictions between the different aspects of the Seder, each aspect seems to contradict itself. On the one hand, Matzah is the bread that we eat to remember our freedom, yet on the other hand it is “Lachma Anya,” poor man’s bread. Seforno points out that Matzah is not only what we ate on our way out of Mitzrayim, but it is also what we ate as slaves, because we did not have time to let our dough rise when we were slaves. Matzah is a remembrance of freedom and slavery at the same time.

Even the Maror, which seems to remind us solely of our slavery, hints to freedom as well. We are familiar with the promise that Hashem made to Avraham Avinu at the Berit Bein HaBetarim that Avraham’s descendants would be slaves for four hundred years (BeReishit 15:13). However, we know that we were slaves in Mitzrayim for only 210 years. What happened to the other 190 years in which we were supposed to be in slaves? The Beit HaLevi explains that out of Hashem's kindness, he made our work harder than it was supposed to be so that we would be able to leave 190 years early. Therefore, the bitterness of the slavery, which is expressed by the Maror, actually hastened our Ge’ulah from Mitzrayim.

As we have seen, the real question of the Mah Nishtanah is not why things are different than usual, but why those differences seem to contradict each other. The answer is that “Avadim HaYinu,” we were slaves. We start the night as slaves, as we demonstrate by the poor man's bread and the Maror, but we also have elements of freedom, as we mention that "VaYotzi’anu Hashem MiSham," meaning that Hashem took us out of Mitzrayim. Although we start off the Seder as slaves, we end the night as free men who can eat the Maror together with the Matzah and Charoset, because despite the bitterness of slavery, we recognize that we became a free nation. The night is not a contradiction, but rather a transition from slavery to redemption.

The Brisker Rav used to say that the hardest Mitzvah of the year is Sippur Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, because “Chayav Adam Lir’ot Et Atzmo Ke’ilu Hu Yatzah MiMitzrayim,” meaning that we must see ourselves as if we left Mitzrayim. The only way we could imagine ourselves leaving Egypt is by realizing that the different Mitzvot and Minhagim of the Seder are meant to help us feel the transition from Avdut to Cheirut, from slavery to freedom. If we are able to truly recognize this, we will be able to conclude our Seder with a real sense of thanks and Hallel to Hashem.

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