On the night of March 25, a question will be asked in Jewish homes all over the world. With family and friends sitting around a festive table marked by the absence of bread, the youngest person will sing: "Why is this night different from all other nights?"
The day is well marked on the Jewish calendar: the first night of Passover. Its origin is the biblical story of the freeing of Hebrew slaves from the tyranny of ancient Egypt -- a story that has resonated as a motif of liberation through the ages. Indeed, the Exodus story is so potent that it has inspired not only Jews but other peoples, the world over, to read and retell and apply it to their own lives.
That moment of questioning "Why is it different?" near the beginning of the Passover Seder is one of those special times where a tradition speaks its essence with love and power. The adults eagerly await the child's voice; the child learns that she is special in their eyes. Moreover, the power of the question itself comes to the fore -- a force that drives inquiry, making searching and wondering more significant than doctrine or closure.
What is often overlooked is that this ritual is prescribed in the Torah itself -- not just eating matzah and celebrating, but the questioning too. In the book of Exodus three times, and in Deuteronomy once, the Bible speaks of answering a child's questions.
Rabbinic commentators tell us that the answer to the question is not exactly what we would expect. The Torah does not say, "We are celebrating because we were liberated" but, "You will tell your child on that day, 'For the sake of this the Lord did for me the coming out of Egypt'" (Exodus 13.8). The emphasis "on that day" and "for the sake of this" (meaning the matzah, or the ceremony) means that God had already in mind the later commemoration, and therefore constructed the liberation of slaves from Egypt!
The celebration was necessary, and so God created an event to celebrate?
Let us mull that over. Perhaps this expresses a Divine understanding of how important stories are to human beings. Certainly, we constantly invent stories, and we live by their trajectories. We tell stories of our victories and our foibles; we tell stories to honor others and to absolve ourselves from blame. We enjoy stories about others, true or fictional or simply false. We must have a story, and if we don't have a good one, we will invent a bad one.
So, on this account, God arranged an event that would become a story, one to be told and retold, generation after generation. Why? Why is this story so different from all others?
The Exodus story is not just about a group of slaves who managed a successful escape from an evil king. The biblical story tells of a reluctant prophet, slaves who couldn't listen to a word of hope, and a society enthralled by the fantasies of divine kings and magicians -- a society where slavery was so complete that liberation was impossible to conceive.
As it turns out, one group could conceive of something different -- namely women, who gave birth, and the "Hebrew midwives," those who attended to birth. The power of life called out to them, and they responded by affirming life. The story also tells of a God who listened to cries of despair, then turned the powers of nature, via the 10 plagues, into allies of those who were weeping. Both God and the women heard human cries as the sound of life.
And the story tells of all those who stood up and took the risk for a life that opened into possibility -- those who, when the moment came, followed Moses into freedom.
So the symbol of freedom is not merely matzah, the bread of slaves, but also the asking of questions. When questions are the motif of life -- when adults cherish the questions of children, and children learn that it is good to inquire -- slavery no longer has a hold on us. Human beings always have the potential to be enslaved. Think of Steven Spielberg's film "Lincoln": Not only African Americans were enslaved. People were also enslaved to prejudice and to financial interests. We can be enslaved to addictions, to habits, to modes of thought. We live inside our enslavements as though they were Pharaonic decrees: You must think like this! You must work like this! And if you do not, it will be worse for you! And we tell stories that reinforce those enthrallments.
So, God created a story that we can all relate to: the struggle to free ourselves from slaveries, again and again. Living by this story builds a foundation of open inquiry, of courage, of hope, of willingness to dream and stay the course. Telling it to our children -- what better gift could we give?
Why is this night different from all other nights? Now we can imagine.