Mah Nish’tanah? What has changed?
Although we closed the Book of Exodus a couple weeks back, with Passover around the corner, its stories linger still in our consciousness. This is the time of the year, personally, when I delight in re-opening the Passover Haggadah and in looking inside for more treasures to be revealed. A few years ago I compiled a new version of the Bet Alef Haggadah, drawing from many sources and teachers that have inspired me along the years. I thought, this year, that I would invite you into my own process of preparing myself to meet the holiday, by sharing excerpts from the Bet Alef Haggadah that call to me. Here are a few:
Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim. Mitzrayim means “narrow places.” Our Egypts are those places in our lives that have become lifeless — aspects of ourselves that feel constricted, bound up, unable to be expressed. Our Egypts [also] represent our falling into the dullness of everyday life, the deadening routine of an existence where we have lost consciousness. The Haggadah tells the story not only of our Exodus from a physical Egypt, but perhaps most importantly, our exodus from an Egypt of a deadening mindless rut, where things lose their taste and meaning as a consequence of repetitiveness. Delving into the Hebrew for the word “Haggadah” suggests a way out of our enslavement. The word comes from the root “nagod” which means “to oppose”— to go against that which exists within the repetitive banality of our day-to-day existence.
To me this is a critical point. Am I even aware of my Mitzrayim? When Moses comes to tell our ancestors that it is time for them to leave Egypt, to break free from slavery: “…they could not hear him, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” [Exodus 6:9] The Chasidic masters teach that the darkest depth of enslavement is when we have grown accustomed to it; we then no longer know we are enslaved. This portion of our Haggadah concludes with a powerful quote from Harriet Tubman that says: “I could have saved thousands more if I could have convinced them they were slaves.” Our first step toward freedom, therefore, is to know that we are enslaved; enslaved to our routine, enslaved to our old stories, enslaved to our rigid views. Our second step is to ask Mah Nish’tanah?
[Our story telling begins] with astonishment: “Ma nish’tanah? …How is this night different from other nights?” By astonishment and questioning, we are able to liberate ourselves from the grip of certain habits of thought, convictions, theories, opinions, and prejudices that are held toward self, toward others, and toward the many readily-accepted ways of the world. This question, however, has another dimension. “Mah nish’tanah?” “What has changed?” “What has shifted?” Because the question is even possible, we know that it is our awareness that has shifted. The questioning itself implies awareness. Whatever our enslavement is, our questioning implies that we are now able to step outside of it, and look at it as a “what” — as an object in our consciousness. Our ability to question means that this “what” no longer owns us.
A key aspect of our enslavement is that we have given up questioning. We have settled into our version of reality, of truth, of right and wrong and we have stopped questioning our own assumptions, we have stopped listening to the other side. Our teachers are, therefore, challenging us: “You want to be free? Question everything! Challenge all your truths! Doubt all your certainties!” Judaism itself is, at its core, a tradition of iconoclasts, of revolutionaries, of provocative questioners. So I start my process this year, embracing my lineage, with “Mah Nish’tanah?” What has changed in me? Am I still growing? Am I still evolving? Am I still questioning and challenging the inner status quo?