Ma nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol halailot …? How do we read that phrase? How is this night different from all other nights … or, How different this night is from all other nights! The first is what we are taught, the latter is how it could be better (more literally) translated.
But wait a minute rabbi, isn’t that phrase from the Passover Haggadah, the introduction to the Four Questions?
Yes it is.
So why are you bringing it up now when we are in the midst of the High Holy Days and preparing for the beginning of the New Year of 5777?
I am bringing it up because of the ambiguity of the translation and how it can help us get the most out of this time of the New Year.
The truth of the matter is, the literal translation (to read the words as a statement) is more accurate in terms of both form and function, as much at this time of the year as it was at Passover.
The night of the Passover seder, the “Ma Nishtanah” really is an exclamation of wonder and amazement. Look at how different everything is: the table is set with the finest linens, dishes and silverware … the meal consists of foods that we rarely see much less eat … (for many) instead of staring at electronic screens while we eat, we will bask in the glow of family and friends. The evening is incredibly different from our normal fare — if we actually sit down to dinner at all during the rest of the year.
And on this “night” (at this time of the year), aren’t things very similar? We find ourselves in synagogues, immersed in a liturgy, or meditation, that strives to enable us to create a very special moment … we dress in our finer clothes, according to the idea that we are about to “meet the King” and as children of the King, are royalty ourselves … we find ourselves defined by our communities (family, congregations, friends) rather than ourselves alone.
The experience for most of us at this time of the year is very different from how we normally live from day to day.
However, in response to the wonder and the amazement of the moment, the “Ma Nishtanah” enables us to ask a question as well: How different can we make this night (time of the year), and, if successful, ourselves as well?
When asked in the context of Passover, the “Ma Nishtanah” leads us to explore the responsibilities that are part and parcel of what it means to be free … how we can and should best respond to all that God has provided us as a people. At this time of the year, we are charged to ask the question in terms of ourselves, as individuals.
In the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) we are taught that to save one life is to save an entire world. Each of us is unique … each of us is of ultimate value.
When that Mishnah is applied to this time of the year, when we stand before The Holy One Who Is to Be Blessed … considering how our fate and the fate of the entire world balances on the edge of our presence … we might also read it as, to change one life is to change the entire world. That is to say, “Ma Nishtanah”: What difference does this time of the year make? What difference will what I may or may not begin to change in this New Year now opening up before us make in the greater scheme of things? And the only answer that makes sense is everything!
“Ma nishtanah”: How different this moment is from all other moments of the year! It is filled with opportunity, and the hope and prayer that we might take advantage of everything it offers us.
“Ma Nishtanah”: How different will this moment be from all other moments of the year? Well, that will depend on us.
The statement: the opportunity is here!
The question: will we take advantage of it?
To change one life is to change the world. “Ma Nishtanah?” This “night” calls on us to begin with ourselves.
May we all find ourselves answering the challenge and finding ourselves inscribed for a year of health … a year of happiness … a year of peace … a year where we find all of our prayers fulfilled.