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Why Is This Exile Different?

Passover (first day) (Exodus 12:21-51 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

One of the most famous elements of the Passover Seder is the "Ma Nishtana" paragraph, more commonly known as "The Four Questions." After asking, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" the paragraph continues by listing four differences:

  1. On all other nights we eat bread or matzah, but tonight we eat only matzah.
  2. On all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables, but tonight we eat only marror (bitter herbs).
  3. On all other nights we don't dip our food even once, but tonight we dip it twice.
  4. On all other nights we sit or recline at the table, but tonight we all recline.

It is generally assumed that the "Avadim Hayinu" ("We were slaves") paragraph that follows the Four Questions is an explanation for the puzzling differences that have just been mentioned.

The commentator Ol'lot Ephraim offers a different approach to understanding the Four Questions. He notes that the Torah often uses the words "night" and "day," beyond their literal meanings, to hint to the concepts of exile and redemption. Based on this remark, we can understand the beginning of the Four Questions as actually asking, "Why is this exile different from all other exiles?"

We already know two elements that distinguish our current Jewish exile (now 2,000 years) from previous ones. First, it is much longer than any other exile we have experienced, and we also don't know when it will end. (Previous generations in exile had prophets who could foresee when redemption would come.) Why is this exile so much longer than previous exiles, and why were we not informed of its end?

* * *


According to the Ol'lot Ephraim, the Four Questions are actually Four Answers to this single question regarding the exile. Each part addresses a different element of the Jewish people's current situation:

  1. Matzah, which contains only the simplest of ingredients (flour and water), represents unity. Leavened bread (chametz) contains many more ingredients. This represents many different opinions, which can lead to dissent and fragmentation. In all other exiles, we ate both matza and chametz; sometimes we were more unified, and sometimes we were less. Tonight, in this exile, the situation is different. We have so much fragmentation that we need to eat only matzah! We are so filled with chametz that we must eat matzah in order to counteract all the disunity around us.

  2. Marror represents the pursuit of money and materialism. In all other exiles, people ate many different kinds of vegetables, meaning that they were able to get by with the bare necessities. Tonight, in this exile, we eat only marror, representing the bitterness of people who spend their lives chasing after material wealth. The Sages in Pirkei Avot say, "Who is rich? The one who is happy with his portion." This exile is especially bitter because we are perpetually dissatisfied with what we have.

  3. Dipping represents physical pleasures and passions. Previous generations were not as thoroughly directed by their passions as we are in this exile. In previous exiles, people didn't dip their food even once. Tonight, in this exile, we dip it twice! We are steeped in a culture that glorifies the pursuit of pleasure.

  4. Reclining represents pride and haughtiness. Previous generations either sat or reclined; at times, people were arrogant and other times people were humble. Tonight, in this exile, we all recline. We are so proud of our possessions and accomplishments that we don't even feel we are in exile.

Based on this approach, the "Avadim Hayinu" paragraph does not answer the Four Questions. Rather, it simply fulfills the Talmud's requirement that the recounting of the Exodus story "begin by mentioning the Jewish people's lowly state, and end with an outpouring of praise."

May we all be blessed this Passover to climb the spiritual ladder of success that is outlined in the 15 stages of the Seder. May we rid ourselves of disputes, materialism, passions and pride. May we let go of all the spiritual impurity we have picked up during this long exile, and celebrate redemption by purging ourselves of the "Egypt" that has taken root within us.

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