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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Pesach 5772 "How Unusual"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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The Seder has an inextricable connection with questions. In fact, there are many unusual customs and rituals that we perform at the Seder solely so that the children will be motivated to ask. Some even have the custom to disseminate nuts to the children to play with and eat. Rambam writes that there is a custom to remove the Seder plate from the table during the recitation of the hagaadah. Thus, one can easily imagine the frustration of the Belzer Rebbe when, one year at the Seder, he could not motivate his son to ask any questions. After trying all sorts of methods, the Rebbe finally resorted to donning a tattered robe and a walking stick and pretending to be a wandering beggar leaving Egypt. When the child continued to watch in silence the Rebbe finally asked him, “Doesn’t something look strange? Don’t you want to ask me something?” The boy shook his head, “No Totti (Father), we were taught that we never question our father!”

Arguably, the highlight of the seder for children is their opportunity to recite the Mah Nishtanah, “Why is this night different from all other nights?[1]” The child then mentions four particular anomalies endemic to the seder: the obligation to eat matzah, the obligation to ear marror, our custom to dip twice before the meal[2], and the obligation for one to eat the matzaoh and drink the four cups of wine while reclining.

When the children finish asking the Mah Nishtanah, we continue by reciting the paragraph Avodim hayinu, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but Hashem our G-d took us out from there with a Strong Hand and an Outstretched Arm. Had G-d not taken our forefathers out of Egypt, then we and our children and our children’s children would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt…the more one increases his recounting of the exodus from Egypt, the more he is praiseworthy.”

Simply understood, Avodim Hayinu is the answer to the Mah Nishtanah. It is our attempt to explain why this night is indeed so unique and unusual. However, if that is true, our response seems to be remiss. In the Avodim Hayinu paragraph, we do not directly address any of the specific points that the child mentioned in Mah Nishtanah. We do not explain what our servitude has to do with matzah, marror, dipping, or reclining?

The Be’er Yosef, Rabbi Yosef Salant zt’l, explains that the Mah Nishtanah is not four separate questions but one general inquiry with four examples that help emphasize the main question.

It behooves us to understand why we invest so much energy trying to prod our children to ask. On Succos we sit in the succah and shake the Four Species, and Purim is a one day celebration fiasco in a most unique and unusual manner and yet we do not place strong emphasis on questions. Although we surely passionately explain the significance of each holiday and ensure that the children have some understanding of the uniqueness of the day, we do not make it our goal to try to get them to question our actions and customs. In fact, we want them to understand the essence of the holiday before it arrives. Furthermore, there are many mitzvos that we perform although we are not privy to understanding the reason why we are commanded to do them. We teach our children to perform those mitzvos anyway, simply because G-d has decreed that we do so.

Yet, on Seder night we seek to generate an atmosphere of befuddlement and eccentricity. What is the reason that we try to encourage questions?

The Be’er Yosef explains that essentially this is the child’s underlying question: “Why are you acting strangely just so that I should ask? Why are my questions tonight such an integral part of the seder?” He then proceeds to list four of the abnormalities of the evening to back up his point:

1. Normally when one bakes bread, he adds yeast or another leavening agent to stimulate the bread’s growth and to give it its characteristic texture. There were historically many times when leavening agents were hard to come by and people endured great difficulty trying to obtain them. So why tonight do we demand that none of these normally sought-after leavening agents be used and insist instead on flat, plain, almost tasteless matzah?

2. Salad is a normal staple of our diet and we carefully choose our vegetables to create the best salads. If so, why tonight do we look for bitter marror?

3. Although we often dip our foods in special dips, we never dip foods before the meal even begins. In fact, the whole point of a dip is to dip the food prior to eating the meal. Why tonight do we dip twice before the meal even commences?

4. There was a time when reclining symbolized royalty and aristocracy. In contemporary times however, reclining is uncomfortable and tedious. Even the wealthiest noblemen today do not recline while eating. Why is there an obligation to recline at the Seder even if one is impoverished or uncomfortable?

Thus the overriding question is: Why do we try to be different tonight?

The Be’er Yosef explains that the key to understanding the response of Avodim Hayinu lies in understanding the words, “And he took us out with a strong Hand.” What does it mean that G-d used ‘a strong Hand’ when taking us out of Egypt? For an Omnipotent G-d, splitting the sea is no different than making trees grow.. Why would the exodus require a ‘strong hand’, as if to say that it necessitated greater exertion and effort?

When G-d created the world, He created the laws of nature, wherein the world runs its course based on certain rules, ensuring a balance and homeostasis. The sun rises and sets each day, the ocean tides wax and wane, plants grow through photosynthesis, and human life thrives based on those natural rules. When G-d ‘interferes’ with the rules of nature that He Himself employed, He is breaching His own system, as it were. In that sense, it requires a ‘strong hand’, not because it is any more difficult for G-d, but because - as far as the world is concerned - G-d is overriding His own system.

As a general rule, G-d does not ‘change or bend the rules’. However, when His beloved nation is in need of salvation which requires miraculous intervention, G-d will indeed utilize a ‘mighty hand’ and breach the rule in order to save them.

Throughout the plagues that ravaged Egypt, G-d uninhibitedly employed such a ‘mighty hand’. Each plague candidly challenged the norms of nature, clearly demonstrating G-d’s Supreme Power. Water in a Jew’s cup changing into blood as it entered the mouth of an Egyptian, frogs jumping into ovens, wild beasts from around the world coming to Egypt although they were not physically adapted to Egypt’s climate, hailstones with water and fire combined etc., were all clearly abnormal events.

With this in mind, we can understand our response to the child’s inquiry of Mah Nishtanah. The child asks: “Why is this night different and why do we seek to emphasize its eccentricity?” Our unequivocal response is, “Because G-d took us out of Egypt with a Mighty Hand!”

In other words, G-d orchestrated the redemption by causing myriad abnormal and supernatural events to occur. In so doing, G-d demonstrated that the love He feels towards His nation was, and is, paramount to all of creation. Despite the fact that He Himself employed certain laws and forces of nature to control the world and despite the fact that as a matter of policy He does not alter those rules, when it came to saving His children - nature not withstanding – all rules and norms were subject to change.

In order for us to generate an appreciation of how G-d drastically altered the rules of normalcy on our behalf, to a certain extent we act strange and eccentric as well. Then, when our child asks why this night is so ‘purposely’ different, our response is because that is how G-d orchestrated the exodus.

The Torah mentions that the exodus was performed ‘with a strong hand’ numerous times[3]. It serves to remind us of G-d’s infinite love for us as His People. This is also why there is a mitzvah to remember the exodus every day of our lives[4]. The mitzvah is not merely to express appreciation to G-d for all the kindness He performed on our behalf when He redeemed our bodies and souls. If that was the purpose, a once-a-year mentioning would suffice. Rather, the purpose is also to infuse within ourselves and our children an appreciation of who we are, how G-d values us, and (therefore) our obligation to live up to our greatness in fulfilling G-d’s Will.

In other words, we indeed do not address the specific points that the child mentioned in Mah Nishtanah[5]. Rather, the paragraph Avodim Hayinu is addressing the more encompassing question of why on this night do we stress eccentricity.

Perhaps this is what we refer to in the later paragraph V’hee Sheamdah, “And it is what has stood by our forefathers and us; for in every generation they have stood up against us to destroy us… but the Holy One, Blessed is He, has saved us from their hand.” What is the ‘it’ that has stood up for us in our darkest moments? G-d’s commitment and love for us, and His readiness to alter all of creation and its rules to preserve us and ensure that we will endure.

At times, G-d has bent all the rules against us, utilizing the unabashed enmity of our enemies to remind us of who we are. The Nazi Holocaust was an example of how an evil man was granted almost supernatural ability to inflict the most horrific and heinous atrocities on an innocent people, while the world stood idly by. Despite the fact that how it could occur is beyond our puny comprehension, we are aware that it was G-d’s Will.

On the other hand, we have survived, persevered, and rebuilt from the ashes in a manner beyond belief and with resilience that belies human capacity. Torah Judaism is thriving in the Diaspora, with shuls and yeshivos growing and expanding constantly. Kiruv movements are experiencing uncanny success, and - despite its constant travails and vicissitudes - Eretz Yisroel is a haven for Torah learning and Torah life. All of that too, is a clear manifestation of G-d’s ‘strong hand’.

There is no question that we are still in exile and that we have a long way to go. But just as we have come this far through the grace of G-d’s “Mighty Hand” so will we merit the ultimate redemption when the world will once again recognize the “Mighty Hand” of G-d - this time eternally.

Perhaps even this year, we will merit the words we recite at the end of our recitation of Maggid, “And we will eat there from the Paschal Sacrifices and from the holiday sacrifices, whose blood will touch the corner of the altar, to fulfill Your Will”.

“And he took us out with a strong hand”

“Like when I took you out of Egypt I will show you wonders”

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[1] Some commentators understand this opening line to be a statement of wonderment rather than a question. In other words, it is a passionate observation, “How different is this night from all other nights!”

[2] the karpas vegetable in salt-water and the marror into charoses

[3] E.g. it is mentioned in all four of the parshios of tefillin, in the Ten Commandments in Parshas Vaeschnan

[4] and, as we know from the opinion of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah and Ben Zoma, every night of as well

[5] Some of those points, such as the matzah and marror, are addressed toward the end of the recitation of the haggadah. It is worthy to note that according to Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Aurebach zt’l the leader of the Seder should himself, in his own words, explain the other two points- the reason why we dip twice and why we recline at the seder at some point during the Seder

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