Passover: Reflecting on miracles and wonders

Passover is all about asking questions; not only by the youngest at the Seder who stands to recite the “Ma Nishtana,” but by all of us.

April 11, 2019 16:07
4 minute read.
Passover: Reflecting on miracles and wonders

‘HAD GADYA’ illustration by El Lissitzky, 1919: ‘The cat (Egypt?) attacks the kid, but then along comes the dog (Persia?) and and bites the cat.’. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Now that the election is finally over – though the political fun is only just beginning – it’s time to set our sights on fast-approaching Passover, the first and arguably the most pervasive of all our many holy days.

Passover is all about asking questions; not only by the youngest at the Seder who stands to recite the “Ma Nishtana,” but by all of us. In fact, Jewish law states that even if a person is alone at the Seder, he must ask himself the questions, and then answer them! For it is in the asking of probing questions – the talmudic or Socratic method – that we arrive at essential truths and profound lessons.

Having already referenced the “Ma Nishtana,” let’s begin by asking why we don’t have a similar set of “Four Questions” on Sukkot, the longest of the biblical holidays. Why don’t we ask, “Why is this night – when we move out of our stately, sturdy homes, into shaky shacks – different from all other nights?” What is so unique about Passover?

To answer – you guessed it! – we have to ask another question. One of the key moments in the Seder is when we lift our cups of wine and recite the passage in the Hagada: “In every generation, enemies rise up to destroy us, but the Almighty saves us from their hand.” Now, do we really need to inject this rather gloomy thought – that we are perpetually in danger – on such a joyous and uplifting night? Can’t we, just for once, forget the dark cloud and revel in the silver lining?

But the primary point of Passover – among its many vital lessons, such as the importance of sharing our history and reaching out to all of our children – is that of hakarot hatov, gratitude for all that God did, does and will do in our behalf. That theme of thankfulness is the centerpiece that runs through the entire text of the Hagada. It explains why we say “Dayenu” for each and every kindness performed for us in the Exodus, even as new danger lurked just ahead. It is why we toast God no less than four times, pronouncing a blessing on every cup of wine; it is why, at the Seder, we recite the Hallel, lavish psalms of praise that normally are said only in the course of daytime prayers. And it is why we make a point of acknowledging the constant threats against us, and the God who saves us each and every time.

From the moment we begin the Seder – from the opening kiddush, focusing (this year) both on our creation as well as our miraculous deliverance from slavery – to its very end, we constantly remind ourselves of just how dependent we are on the Almighty, and how blessed we are with His providence.

The last song we recite before closing the Hagada until next year is “Had Gadya.” More than just a whimsical nursery rhyme, it is a walk through Jewish history, cataloging the many civilizations that sought our demise, yet in the end were themselves vanquished. The “one kid” is Israel, of course, “bought” by our Father in heaven for “two zuzim,” the two tablets of the covenant (these tablets are good for what ails you!). Successive creatures threaten us, but each is dismissed by a more powerful force.

Yet one point here is perplexing: The cat (Egypt?) attacks the kid, but then along comes the dog (Persia?) and bites the cat. That makes sense. But then comes the stick (Alexander the Great, perhaps?), and it beats the dog. But the dog helped the kid, the Jewish people – why should it be punished? It should be rewarded!

Some suggest that while the dog did indeed rid us of the attacking cat, it didn’t do so out of any great love for us; it was just a function of dogs not liking cats. But more to the point is the essential idea that the dog is not our savior, our rescuer; the dog – or any of those who come to our aid, may they be blessed – are emissaries of God, who is the one, true source of our ability to survive in an all too hostile world. As we conclude our Seder, we don’t want to leave with the impression that our primary protector is anyone but Hashem.

And now we can finally return to our initial question, about the “Ma Nishtana” and its exclusive connection to Passover. On a holiday like Sukkot, when we are sitting in meager huts, exposed to the elements, there is nothing all that unusual to pique our curiosity. That has been a condition of the Jewish people throughout our history – living in temporary, unpredictable exiles that at any moment could collapse upon our heads. It is, rather, the occasion of sitting at a royal table, set with the finest chinaware and crystal, sumptuous entrées and premium wines, that is the anomaly, that prompts us to gaze incredulously and ask, “What is going on here?”

And so, dear reader, precisely because we have reached such an elevated status in the world, precisely because we are now enjoying the true golden age of Judaism, we must sing the praises of God and wax poetic over our amazingly good fortune. To live in a world that contains the renewed and rebuilt State of Israel, with its courageous armed forces, its bountiful prosperity and, yes, its democratically elected government, is an outright wonder and miracle that we should be toasting – at the Seder and at every other meal.

Hag Pessah kasher v’same’ah to all!

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.

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