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Rabbi Avi Shafran: The Four Answers

editorial31.jpgIt is not only the Torah’s words that hold multiple layers of meaning.  So do those of Chazal – even the words of the tefillos and matbe’os they formulated.

Such passages have their p’shat, or straightforward intent.  But they also have less obvious layers, like that of remez – or “hinting” – unexpected subtexts that can be revealed by great talmidei chachomim.

One such meaning was mined from the Seder’s “Ma Nishtana.”  The famous “Four Questions” are actually one, with four examples provided.  The overarching query is: Why is this night [of Pesach] different from all the other nights [of the year]?

“Night,” however, can mean something deeper than the hours of darkness between afternoon and dawn.  In the Gemara and Midrash it can be a metaphor for golus – like Golus Mitzrayim and Golus Bavel – when Klal Yisroel was, at least superficially, estranged from Hashem.

“Why,” goes the “remez approach” to Ma Nishtana, “is this night” – the current Jewish golus – “different” – so much longer – than previous ones?  Nearly 2000 years, after all, have passed since the Churban Bayis Sheni.

In this reading, the four examples of unusual Seder practices take on a new role; they are answers to that question.

“On all other nights,” goes the first, “we eat chometz and matza; but on this night… we eat only matza.”  Matza, of course, can also mean “strife.”  And so, through the remez-lens, we perceive the first reason for the current extended Jewish golus: personal and pointless anger among Jews.  The thought should not puzzle.  The Bayis Sheni, of course, was destroyed over sin’as chinom, “causeless hatred.”  That it has not yet been rebuilt could well reflect an inadequate addressing of its destruction’s cause.

The second: “On all other nights we eat all sorts of vegetables; but on this night, maror.”  In the Gemara, eating vegetation is a sign of simplicity and privation.  Amassing money, by contrast, is associated with worries and bitterness.  “One who has one hundred silver pieces,” Chazal say, “desires two hundred.”  So the hint in this declaration is that the golus continues in part because of misplaced focus on possessions, which brings only “bitterness” in the end.

“On all other nights,” goes the third example, “we need not dip vegetables even once; this night we do so twice.”  Dipped vegetables are intended as appetizers – means of stimulating one’s appetite to more heartily enjoy the forthcoming meal.  In the remez reading here, such “dipping” refers to the contemporary predilection to seek out new pleasures.  Hedonism, the very opposite of the Jewish ideal of “his’tapkus,” or “sufficing” with less, is thus another element extending our current exile.

And finally, “On all other nights, we sit [at meals] at times upright, at times reclining; this night we all recline.”  During other exiles, the remez approach has it, there were times when Jews felt downtrodden in relation to the surrounding society, and others when they felt exalted, respected, “arrived.”  In this exile, according to the remez approach, we have become too comfortable, constantly “reclining.”  We view ourselves at the top of the societal hill, and wax prideful over our achievements and status.

Thus, the Mah Nishtana hints at four contemporary Jewish societal ills that prolong our exile: internal strife, obsession with possessions, hedonism and haughtiness.

However one may view that approach to Mah Nishtana, looking around we certainly see that much of modern Jewish society indeed exhibits such spiritually debilitating symptoms.  Arguments, which should be principled, are all too often personal.  “Keeping up with the Cohens” has become a way of life for many.  Pleasure-seeking is often a consuming passion.  And pride is commonly taken in petty, temporal things instead of meaningful ones.

Most remarkable, though, is that the above remez approach to Mah Nishtana is that of Rav Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, best known for his pirush on Chumash, the Kli Yakar.

He died almost four hundred years ago.  Imagine what he would say today.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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