Why is this night different?

A central element of the Seder experience is the recitation of the four questions, along with the refrain: Why is this night different than all other nights?  My question is, why is this question so central.
.
.
To answer that, let me share with you an amazing Rabbinic teaching about the splitting of the Red Sea.  At first, the Rabbis taught, the Sea refused to split; it was only upon seeing the bones of Joseph – the bones that Moses was implored to carry up to Israel – that the Sea relented.  Why?
.
.
According to the Rabbis, it might have something to do with the language used by the Torah.  In describing the splitting of the Sea, the somewhat oddly phrased term VaYanosu – and they (the waters) fled – is employed.  I say ‘oddly’ because waters do not flee, and if they did, the more appropriate Hebrew word VaYivrachu would make more sense.  Better still, of course, would be words like and they split or and they separated.  Why VaYanosu?  The Rabbis suggest it has something to do with the last time this word was employed, albeit in the singular — namely, when Joseph fled (VaYanos) from the wife of Potiphar as she attempted to seduce him and betray his master.  It is to recall this earlier fleeing, the Rabbis argue, that the Torah chose to use this term to describe the miracle of the splitting of the Sea.
.
.
Why?  What is the connection between Joseph fleeing and the Sea splitting?  The answer is this: In many respects, Joseph’s actions were miraculous.  After all, it would have been quite natural for him to succumb to the temptation, to give in to his natural desires and tendencies.  That he refused to do so, that he changed his nature, is not only impressive but also paradigmatic of what freedom truly means.  He proved he was not bound by his situation, not limited by his environment, and not governed by supposed destiny.
.
.
And thus the Sea had great respect for Joseph — and by extension, his bones.  Observing the hoards of Jews approaching its shore did not move the Sea, spiritually and thus not physically either.  “So they want to be free,” I imagine the waters murmuring.  “We doubt they have what it takes, so why should we be bothered to assist.”  But then they see Joseph’s bones and recall his overcoming nature.  “We guess they have it – at least potentially – after all.  And if Joseph is able to overcome his nature, so we too can overcome our nature.”  And the waters split.   [Interesting to note: The word for miracle in Hebrew, Nes, shares the same root as the word VaYanos.]
.
.
In other words, the great miracle of our Egyptian story is not the splitting of the Sea, but rather the ability of a human being to change, to overcome his surroundings, and to become a better person.  That’s the real lesson of the Exodus, and the real inspiration we are to derive from our experience.  That’s the real liberation that took place.  The physical liberation is what we remember, but it was only made possible by the spiritual one that preceded it.
.
.
With this idea in mind, let us return to the question of why the “Why is this night different” question is so important.  According to the Vilna Gaon, the essence of that question is not what follows – it’s not about the maror or the dipping or the leaning.  Rather, it’s about why — or perhaps more appropriately, how – is this night different than last year’s seder experience.  How have I changed over the previous 365 days?  What improvements have I made?  What progress have I made in becoming the person I was destined to become?  If the answer is ‘in no way’ is tonight different, than I have not fulfilled the words of the Hagada at all.  I have engaged in the personal liberation that must necessarily precede the national liberation that took place at the Sea.
.
.
And that’s why it is such a central feature of the Seder experience.  It is not to be rushed through or recited by rote.  It is a great challenge to each and everyone one of us.  And a great opportunity for reflection, and cause for inspiration for future action.
.
.
May we all have the courage to ask that question in earnest this year.  And if we are not satisfied with our answer, let us be propelled to action to insure next year we are proud of our answer.
Advertisements

One Response to Why is this night different?

  1. Kenny and Sandy Lerner says:

    We wish you, Rachel and your family a happy and health Passover, Chag Kasher V’Sameach,
    We wish you Hatzlacha in building the Family Activity Center, Thanks for the very meaningful Devar Torah,
    Kenny and Sandy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: