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Leil Haseder: night of questions and transformations

Nissan 5781 | March 2021

If we align ourselves with its essence (Maharal Gevurot Hashem ch. 6 ) Seder night transforms us and our consciousness through the reading of the Haggada, recounting the narrative of exile and miraculous redemption and performing the mitzvot of the night.

Maharal (Gevurot Hashem ch. 2) based on Rambam (Hilchot Chamtez and Matza ch. 7), distinguishes between the daily mitzva of zecher yetziat mizraim, remembering the exodus from Egypt, and the specific verbal mitzvah – lesaper to recount the story of leaving Egypt, verbally and dialogically  on this night.  These distinctions are debated in Rishonim and later sources.

At the heart of the Seder are questions, language, speech and song, shifting from exile to healing, communication and praise.  The Seder creates a potential space in which language functions are redeemed and celebrated, and themselves become the tools of the redemptive process. These include creating the Haggada text with Midrashic associative interpretations, and the verbal content of the Haggada narrative describing descent into Galut and slavery with the revealed miracles of the exodus with the Shechina.  These are uniquely woven together with the mitzvot of the night, thus waking the soul from the sleep of Galut.  Finally, interpersonal language functions are both trans-generational and interrogative.

The question (what?) מה, in Ma Nishtana is the initial trigger for the narration in the Haggada and the questions of the 4 sons. Rav Kook explains Ma Nishtanah as formalized questions modelling questions for the 4th son who does not yet know how to ask. What are the textual roots of this question?  מה appears twice in Lech Lecha. In Bereishit ch.12 Pharaoh, afflicted by a skin disease after capturing Sarah, asks Avraham

”What did you do to me? Why did you not tell me that Sara is your wife?”

מה זאת עשית לי? למה לא הגדת לי כי אשתך היא?

In ch. 15 when Hashem promises that Avraham will inherit Eretz Yisrael, Avraham asks:  במה אדע? ”With what (how) will I know?” He is accordingly punished for his lack of faith by the descent of his future offspring to Egypt in downward stages of exile, displacement, slavery and affliction before achieving full redemption (Nedarim 32).

Rav Kook explains that all stages require repair in the transition from slavery in Egypt to Sinai and Torah. For Rav Kook, this night coaches the Jewish people for life with attachment to Hashem and guides us towards the future Messianic redemption. Just as Yom Kippur day intrinsically brings kapara / atonement, so Pesach night reveals a powerful light and potential for releasing us from exile and brings individual and collective redemption from distress and exile, each generation with its own particular situation.

Likutei Halachot (Orach Chaim) explains (Likutei Moharan 63), quoting the Zohar passage where

Rabbi Shimon expounds that recounting certain stories reaches our deepest roots, awakening the exiled soul and shaking us out of inner slavery to free the true self. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and consequently were exiled from Eden, negative states of inner and outer exile entered human experience including mortality, sadness especially around sustenance and food, disjunctive relationships, birth and child rearing.

The narrative and mitzvot of Pesach heal us not only from the Egyptian exile but also at its profound spiritual roots and archetypal core – shaken by Adam and Eve – and repair the existential condition with the powerful life-giving force of the language and communication of redemption. Questions, recounting verbally, and singing praises at our Seder become instruments of emunah, kedusha and healing of the human condition.

Deena Garber

trained in psychology at University College, London, Tavistock Institute, and Yale Psychiatric Institute. She has taught psychology academically, and worked with Prof. Eliane Amado Levi Valensi . Deena studied Torah and Talmud widely including at Matan and researches and teaches Torah and Jewish thought emphasizing interdisciplinary issues. Deena lives in Jerusalem with her family.