In schools, nurseries, and Jewish homes around the world, little children are being coached, coaxed, and cajoled into learning to sing or recite ma nishtana, aka “The Four Questions”. Last night, after attending a pre-Pesach shiur that was an absolute tour de force, it suddenly dawned on me how different this Seder night will be from all the others I have experienced so far. Apart from anything else, despite earning a place on the NHS vaccine priority list due to my advanced years, I will be the youngest person at our Seder.
In most households, I guess that would mean that I need to be prepared to perform a Seder night solo. Fortunately, as anyone who has visited us visited our home knows, we tend to do things differently. When our children were young, there was never any pressure on anyone to “perform” ma nishtana. On the contrary, we saw it as the responsibility of the adults at the table to pique the interest of the children and provoke genuine questions from them. A favourite question, which then became part of family ritual, was “why is Daddy wearing a dress?” (My husband wears a traditional, somewhat frilly, kittel on Seder night.) The rules of our Seder stated that the recitation of ma nishtana was only obligatory if we had reached that point in the Haggadah and no one had yet asked a question – something that never, ever happened – and even in that hypothetical situation, it would be sung in unison. (Something we always did anyway, for the sake of tradition.)
Elliott Malamet’s shiur last night brought home to me just how different this year’s zeman cheruteinu (season of freedom) will be. Wherever we are in the world, over the last year we have experienced, to a greater or lesser degree, limitations on our freedom that would normally have been unimaginable in peacetime. Compared to genuine, literal slavery that even today affects something like 40 million people, limitations on our ability to travel, shop, work out in a gym or spend the evening in a pub are, of course, trivial. Nevertheless, these deprivations may well be enough to lead us to a greater appreciation of freedom. As Joni Mitchell sang, “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”
We've lost some of our freedoms, and we are gradually getting them back. In my capacity as youngest child at the Seder, I will be asking “what have I learnt about freedom in the last year?” and, “how do I want to use my precious freedom in the future?” They are big questions, and unlikely to be fully addressed at the Seder itself, evening if we keep talking until it’s “time for the morning shema”.
Fortunately, Elliott reminded us that although each Jewish festival is designed to help us focus on a different aspect of our life, that season should be the starting point, not the end, of our reflections. Pesach gives us the special prompts and opportunity to focus on freedom, but remembering the Exodus is also part and parcel of our daily prayers, prayers that can become that much more meaningful when we focus on the personal and contemporary relevance of freedom.