Biblical Resonances of Mah Nishtanah

When reading the narrative of the Exodus, one cannot help but notice that, along with the three times in Shmot (and once in Devarim) when children are said to ask questions, the story itself resounds with many questions.  These questions begin with the same word that begins the Haggadah’s Four Questions: “Mah – What”.  One of these questions actually sounds very much like Mah Nisht(an)eh:  The Jews ask Moshe, “Mah nishteh? – what shall we drink?”   Here are nine questions from the text:

14:5- Mah zot asinu- What is this that we have done?  Egyptians and Pharaoh

14:11- Mah zot asita lanu- What is this that you have to us?  Bnai Yisrael to Moshe. (By the way, do the first two words of these questions remind you of anything?  Mah zot of the Tam!)

14:15- Mah titz’ak eilai- Why are you crying out to me? Hashem to Moshe.

15:24- Mah nishteh- What shall we drink? B”Y to Moshe

16:7,8- V’nachnu mah- What are we that you complain against us?  Moshe and Aharon to B”Y

16:15- Mann hu ki lo yad’u mah hu- They called it manna for they didn’t know what it was. B”Y

17:2- Mah t’rivun imadi mah t’nasun et H’- Why do you contend , why do you test H’. M to B”Y

17:3- (La)mah zeh he’elitanu- Why is this that you have brought us up? B”Y to Moshe

17:4- Mah e’eseh la’am hazeh- What shall I do for this people?  Moshe to Hashem


What is a question?  Is it simply a way to elicit information?  Are all questions “benign”?  Sure, what color is this shirt?  How many guests are we having for seder? Who was the first POTUS?


Not so fast! Avivah Zornberg cites the thesis of Aron Bodenheimer, Swiss psychiatrist who taught at U. of Tel Aviv.  He wrote Why? On the Obscenity of Questioning in which he argues that there is something obscene in the very act of asking a question, in its drive to put into words what should be left unspoken.  “What are you doing!?” is not really a simple question, it’s an indictment, an accusation, an interrogation, aiming at a point where the answer is not possible, where the word is lacking, and where the subject is exposed in his impotence.  The child asks, Why? Then why? Then why? …. And so on until there is no answer anymore, there can be none.


I think that is why the answer to the Rasha is so harsh.  On the “orthodox” level, we are outraged at his heresy.  How can he exclude himself?!  He wouldn’t have been redeemed!  We are so sure, smug, self-righteous.  Isn’t there a piece of us that is defensive?  “What is this service to you?!”It is also an accusation!  What does it mean to you?  Can you really express what it means to you?  Can we even explain to OURSELVES what Judaism, Torah, religion mean to us?  Why is it important to be shomer mitzvos?  Why is it important for our children to observe the Torah?  There is something inchoate, inexpressible, hard to articulate.  Kasheh!  The Fir Kashes.


Jewish tradition requires questioning, even hard questions.  Questioning is the basis of the Talmud.  The harder the question is the deeper and more profound our understanding can be, even at the risk of heretics!  There is a fascinating midrash of Rav Simlai and his students.

Heretics mocked the rabbi because God “took away” the free choice of Pharaoh. (God “hardened his heart”.)  Rav Simlai answered them but his students said “Rebbe, you fobbed off with a reed! What will you answer us?”  The explanation of free will requires deeper study and questions!  A similar story is told about the embarrassing language in the narrative of Creation when God uses the first person plural, “Let’s make man in Our image.”  Again, radical questions of theology can’t be easily dismissed.  


For Rashi, the Tam is worse than the Rasha, for he offends by asking a simple question, “Mah zot? What is this?”  Rashi says, “This is a stupid child who does not know how to deepen his question but blocks it, by asking “What is this?”.  Sotem.  For the Eino yodei’a lish’ol, we are told “P’tach lo, Open for him”.  Interestingly, the midrash of R. Simlai actually says that the Torah itself gives a pretext, an opening, a Pitchon Peh, to the heretics.  This passage understands that students come to texts with prejudices, preconceived notions, and filters and God doesn’t worry about it!  Even “heretical” questions have to be asked.  


Questions arise because of a lack, something is missing, there is a lack, or there is something extra.  Something is bothering us. There is an impulse to fill the void.  This theme runs through many aspects of the Exodus and the Haggadah.  Matchil bi’gnus um’sayeim b’shvach.  We have to feel the contrast, the desire.  When we feel shame there is an impulse to act in a way that will bring honor.  R. Hutner says getting up after falling is far different than standing up from a chair or bed.  According to Mei Shiloa’ch, the Jewish people could see what it was but could not fathom how this ethereal substance could sustain them.  Moshe calls this food “bread that God has given you for eating, to sustain your lives.”  The existence of Israel is defined by the knowledge that “not on bread alone does the human live, but on what comes out of God’s mouth.”  The experiences of “eating” and “taking in God’s words” coalesce and merge.  Eating/learning- I have to digest it.  Let me chew it over.  


Ritva says that we blunt the teeth of the Rasha in order to give him the sense of exclusion from the seder, the eating/learning of the Passover, which generates a feeling of a void, that something is missing, for him to experience perhaps again.  The Chacham is told the halachot of Pesach until “One may not partake of dessert after the Afikoman is eaten.”  The taste of the matzah (korban pesach) must linger on the tongue.  Ta’am also means reason.  We are saying that the Chacham not only has to learn and analyze but he also has to EXPERIENCE the mitzvah.  Study, learn, question, tell the story, but taste it, let the experience linger.  Analysis can only lead to inchoate feelings of religious experience, which have to be lived to be fully appreciated.


The relationship between man and God and between parents and children must be governed by the ability to question.  The aim of these relationships is to “create the face of one who can receive” (R. Hutner).

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