Mah Nishtanah? Why is this night different…?
This year, this question doesn’t feel staged. It rings true and urgent.
This year, despite the variations in Passover customs across families, we are united in experiencing the seder through social isolation.
Our reference points for what a seder is, are shaped by our memories of seders past, which dictate what a real seder feels like.
So yes, this year it will be very different.
But will it even be a real seder?
Can we imagine a seder that feels authentic, without our extended family, friends or guests ?
But is there such a thing as the authentic seder, the real thing?
The mishnah (Pesachim 10:5) sums up the goal of the seder as:
In every generation a person is obliged to regard themselves as though they personally have been redeemed from Egypt.
The seder is a process of reenactment of the original story, largely focused on the haggadah, the moment in which we recall and retell our most important story.
But the haggadah isn’t just the retelling of our people’s journey from slavery to freedom, it is also an exercise in telling the stories of seders past.
We’re invited to do so by the haggadah itself, as it opens by narrating:
‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord our God brought us out’, but rather than continuing that story, it detours to reminisce of another seder:
‘R’ Eliezer, R’ Yehoshua, R’ Elazar ben Azaria, R’ Akiva, and R’ Tarfon were reclining in Bnei Brak…’
A story within a story: In this 1929 Vienna Haggadah, the artist recreates the Seder in Bnei Brak by imagining a gathering the five most prominent rabbis of that time: R’ Yosef Karo (Beit Yosef), R’ Jacob ben Asher (Ba’al haTurim), R’ Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi), and R’ Issac Elfasi (Rif).
The haggadah continues to weave stories and memories of other rabbis performing their seders; R’ Yehudah abbreviating the ten plagues into three sets of acronyms, R’ Gamliel capturing the essence of the seder by pointing to three symbolic foods.
And so, as we immerse ourselves in the haggadah’s narrative, we don’t find a linear, original story, but stories embedded with stories.
What the haggadah is doing is akin to frame story, a literary technique that enables us to access and connect to the main narrative through multiple side stories, or stories within stories, like a Russian doll.
The truth is that memories are themselves built in the process of retrieval. And while we may set out to retrieve the original exodus story, we can only achieve this by recalling our own stories and in so doing creating memories.
And so when we contemplate this year’s seder, rather than obsessing about how different and strange it feels compared to seders past, we can celebrate it in the knowledge that we are weaving another seder story into the rich stream of Jewish memory.
This year’s seder is certainly unprecedented, but in years to come, the memory of it, with its particular references, questions and symbols, will become an important chapter of the continually unfolding haggadah story.
Let’s write this chapter with all the joy and creativity we can summon.
Future generations will retell it with reverence.