What Is The Point Of The Ma Nishtana?
By: Hadassah Reich (11th Grade)
Throughout the Seder, from Kadesh to Nirtzah, it is clear that the night is quite different from all others. The Seder consists of many customs and Mitzvot unique to Pesach. A common explanation for why we do such unusual things is to prompt the children at the table to ask questions. These questions are famously synthesized into the Ma Nishtana - the four questions. However, if the goal is to spark thoughtful questions, why do we already have a list of them to read instead of the kids coming up with their own?
The Malbim explains that the purpose of Ma Nishtana is not necessarily for the children to ask questions because they will ask their questions according to their level of understanding throughout the night anyways. Rather, the four questions are to show the main themes of Pesach: slavery and freedom. Matzah and Maror, the first two questions, symbolize the bitterness of slavery in Egypt. The reclining and double-dipping in the third and fourth questions represent our freedom. Going from one end of the spectrum to the other, allows us to see the stark contrast between slavery and freedom. After asking about slavery we can fully appreciate our freedom and recognize it is from Hashem.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote in his essay The Necessity of Asking Questions, “Judaism is the rarest of phenomena: a faith-based on asking questions, sometimes deep and difficult ones that seem to shake the very foundations of faith itself.” One of the most fundamental aspects of Judaism is the importance of asking questions. Challenging questions can enable development on the personal and global level. For example, Rabbis questioned, challenged, and attacked each other in what we know today as the Talmud. Due to their debates, we can understand the halachot and the reasons behind them.
The ability to ask questions is often overlooked because it seems like such a simple concept. However, being able to doubt concepts and look for answers is a testimony to our freedom. Under government systems like dictators and tyrants, people don’t have the freedom to ask whatever they want to. Similarly, under the rule of Pharoah in Egypt, the Jews did not have this privilege. This is why the four questions specifically highlight slavery versus freedom. In this case, it is not about the content of the question. Instead, it is about having the freedom to ask questions in the first place.