The Prince of Mannheim, once approached the 19th century Sage – Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin Zts’l and asked him this question: “Every year at the Seder on Pesach, Jewish children ask ‘MahNishtana…,Why is this night different from all other nights?’ But Pesach is not the only time Jews perform unusual commandments. Surely the custom of dwelling in a Sukkah is at least as bizarre as the Seder experience! So why don’t your children ask MahNishtana on Sukkot as well?”
On the spot, the Rabbi responded to the prince: “Quite the contrary: the experience of sitting joyously with one’s family at the Seder table, feasting like royalty, opening the doors wide on a LeilShimurim – a divinely protected night of safety and security – that’s a strange experience for Jews, and prompts a quizzical ‘MahNishtana?’
But sitting in a sukkah, living in a flimsy hut with no physical security, out in the cold and the rain, buffeted by the winds – this experience has been typical of Jewish history. There’s nothing unusual about it at all; hence there’s no need to ask ‘MahNishtana?’”
Unfortunately we are used to Galut – exile. To take just one period as an example: Jews were expelled from England in 1290, and during the next two centuries from almost every country in Europe, culminating in the Spanish Expulsion in 1492, and the Portuguese in 1497. They lived in a state of permanent insecurity. For us that is not unusual. What is unusual however is that we are celebrating like kings and queens on Pesach – that’s not the normal way of the Jew!?
In fact Pesach is unique in several ways and the following three questions will help us to a new understanding of this important festival.
Out of all the festivals, the Torah relates only to Pesach as a Shabbat.
When explaining the Mitsvah of Omer, the Torah states that itshould be done MimacharatHashabat – the day after Shabbat. Our sages explain this to mean the day after Pesach. I.e.Pesach equals Shabbat!
What is the connection?
Furthermore, looking at all the festivals, we note that Hallel – a special prayer of G-ds praise is sung on festivals at different intervals, yet it is never sung at night. Only one festival differs – Pesach. We sing Hallel on Seder night! Why?
Finally the Vilna Gaon notes that the word Laylah ends with a Heh. Normally words that end in a Heh in Hebrew are feminine. Yet when the children ask Ma Nishtana on Pesach – they say Halayla HaZeh (masculine) – not Halayla Hazot(feminine). Why?
In order to understand these questions we must first delve into a unique occurrence in history.
One of the largest armies ever gathered against Judea — 185,000 heads of companies, each leading a battalion with a total army of astronomical number. They laid siege to Jersualem and were prepared to invade.
Sancheriv, the Assyrian leader of his troops, had no doubt that it was all but over for the Jews of that era. With an army so vast, he was confident of his invincibility. He sent blasphemous letters to ChizkiyahuHamelech filled with mockery and reeking of arrogance. Jerusalem was devastated due to the siege and thousands of inhabitants were starving.
Sancheriv turned to his generals ridiculing them for having to bring such a large army, “Why did you bring me here, if all our soldiers were to spit in the direction of Jerusalem, it would cover the entire city.”
On Erev Pesach, the righteous Chizkiyahu (known for his resilient support of Torah and service of Hashem) went to the Bet Hamikdash and poured out his heart in Tefilah, pleading with Hashem to save Am Yisrael. He commanded the people to bring the Korban Pesach as usual. The bewildered people, joined faithfully together, and that year produced an unprecedented Korban Pesach. The Leviim sung to their best notes, the people acted with righteousness. When a Jewish traitor called Ravshakeh heard this noise, he came to Sancheriv and told him that he would be better not to attack. Sancheriv dismissed his comments and prepared for battle.
That night, the angel Gavriel descended into the camp of the Assyrians and the massive forces died an inexplicable death: their bodies remained intact but a fire consumed their insides. 185,000 generals died with only three men surviving: Sancheriv and his two sons, one of whom was the evil Nevuchadnetzar. Hashem allowed Sancheriv to survive so that he could suffer the indignity of returning to his capital city of Ninveh in disgrace. He was subsequently assassinated by his own sons.
Our Sages relate (Shemot Rabah 18 – BalaylaHahu) that night was the first night of Pesach. It is referred to as that night! When you want to show something special, you say, that person, that article. This night is a special night designated for greatness.
At the Seder night, we say Hallel, because Seder night takes on a new meaning – it is not a night (representing confusion) rather even the night takes on the dimension of a day – it’spowerfully shining bright with sanctification.
Every week we are blessed with Shabbat. Shabbat is a day designated from Hashem. Whether we change the calendar or not, Shabbat will always be on the seventh day.
Yom Tov, however is designated by us.
The Sages were given the right to define when Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of the month) occurs. Hence they command when the festivals will be.
Shabbat represents a flow of blessing from above, whilst Yom Tov is a flow of blessing from below.
Pesach is a night where the blessing flows from above. It is a night designated by Hashem, a LeilShimurim – guarded and loved by Him. He showers blessing down to us on this night.
Now we can understand why we refer to it as Halayla Hazeh in the masculine form. It is a night, but it has the connotationsof day. Moreover, just like the male is a giver in relationship, so too is Hashem the giver of bounty on this night.
Pesach we celebrate how Hashem passed over the Jewish houses whilst killing only the Egyptian first born.
Now we have a deeper understanding of Pesach and especially Seder night. It is a night designated by Hashem, the night that Avraham waged war against the kings, the night that Yitschak gave the Beracha to Yakov, the night that Sancheriv’s entire army was miraculously wiped out.
It’s a night of miracles.
We honour this night with the best cutlery, and décor, sitting as kings and queens, yet in reverence of the most important guest – G-d Almighty.
As the Zohar states on this night G-d descends so to speak and listens to what His children are speaking about. We talk about His praise and miracles, we appreciate His essence – and then He too speaks to the heavenly angels and relates our praise.
The prophet Micha (7:15) states “As in the days of your going out of Egypt, I will show you wonders”
Every year we have an opportunity to be directly with the Creator. We have an opportunity to tap into to those miracles and let Hashem shine his radiance upon us.
Who can hear this and not move to action? This year lets be prepared – read up on the miracles, relate His greatness.