Mah Nishtana? Will Anything Change?
By Maya Bernstein
In my family, at the Passover Seder, if you ask a good question, my mother or father throws a rubber frog at you. As kids, we’d compete to see who could get the most frogs by the end of the Seder. The more creative and provocative the question, the better (and bigger) the frog. As we know, so much of the Seder is designed to encourage us to ask questions, to engage in the story, to participate. Warren Berger’s bestselling 2014 book “A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas” borrows its title from the e.e. cummings quote, always the beautiful answer/who asks a more beautiful question; we are in good company – innovation, transformation, commitment, and growth all emerge from beautiful questions.
The section of Maggid, the heart of the Seder, begins with symbolic questioning – the youngest at the table, apprentice questioners, reciting the script of beautiful questions – how is this night different from all other nights – noticing what is unusual and calling it out; yea, trained in the art of “the emperor has no clothes!” But there is so much more to what has always seemed to me to be child’s play, the ‘easy frog.’ The sequence and symbols of each of the questions follows a sequence that plays out in the core plot points of the beginning of the Exodus story, in Exodus Chapter 2, and, I believe, offer profound lessons in leadership.
Question One: Observe
On all other nights we eat chametz and matzah – tonight only matzah!
There is a common denominator in the core stories of Chapter Two in the book of Exodus, which sets up the plot for Moses to be chosen by God to lead the people out of Israel. It is the verb “to see.” First, Yocheved, Moses’ mother, “saw that he was goodly” (verse 2). Next, Miriam, Moses’ sister, stations herself at a distance from his wicker basket on the Nile, “to see what would be done to him” (verse 4). Next, Pharaoh’s daughter “saw the ark amidst the reeds” (verse 5). Then, when Moses himself grows up and goes out of the palace to his brothers, he “saw their burdens, saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers.” And finally, at the end of the chapter, God imitates Man, “And God saw the Israelites, and God knew” (verse 25). All of this seeing is reminiscent of an experiment that Joshua Bell, the renowned violinist, did in the Boston subway station. He disguised himself so that nobody would recognize him, and he played his violin. People walked right by, ignorant of the fact that the man playing music attracts concertgoers to the most beautiful concert halls around the world. Day after day, people walked right by. Only children would tug at their parent’s coats, begging them to stop and listen to the music.
We are schooled not to notice. Somehow, in our socialization, it becomes polite to look away and shield our eyes from what is uncomfortable, and as we become more and more filled with our own concerns we become less and less aware of the concerns of those who surround us. Yes, technically, “on all other nights we eat chametz and matzah,” but truly our lives are filled with chametz – with the metaphoric excess, which can be interpreted as our own overflow, our own puffiness, the bubbles of the yeast of our own concerns.
On this night we are instructed to stop and to notice. To look beyond the bread to the grain. Beyond ourselves to the other. To stop and hear the music. To truly observe the world around us, like Yocheved, Miriam, Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses, and God. To listen as the child calls out in her sing-song voice – see the matzah!
Questions Two & Three: Interpret, and Interpret Again
On all other nights we eat many vegetables – tonight only marror!
On all other nights we do not dip even once – tonight we dip twice!
When we do notice, we almost always strive to solve. Human beings are problem-solvers, and we do not have strong stomachs for discomfort. We see a problem and we want to fix it. More often than not, though, we are not seeing the full picture. The Vermont lawyer John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) recast in verse an ancient Buddhist teaching, called “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” Each blind man touches a different part of the elephant’s body and is certain he knows what the elephant is – he who touched the elephant’s trunk thinks it is like a snake; he who touched its tusks claims it to be like a spear, etc. The poem ends: “though each was partly in the right, all were in the wrong.”
We get into trouble in our leadership work when we move too quickly from observations to interventions. It behooves us to spend more time interpreting – and, specifically, noticing, opening our eyes, to the more difficult interpretations, those parts of the elephant we might rather not see. Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses are examples of this. The text tells us that not only did Pharaoh’s daughter see the ark, she “opened it up and saw the child.” And Moses does not simply see his brethren, and see the Egyptian man striking the Israelite, he “turned this way and that and saw that there was no man about.” This repetition of the seeing verb is an injunction to look again. To interpret. How easy it would have been for Pharaoh’s daughter to avoid looking into that ark. In looking at baby Moses, she was facing all of the drowned baby boys brought to their deaths by her father’s decree. She was facing her own complicitness in the evil around her. And Moses could easily have avoided facing the fact that he was in a unique position, the only man about to intervene, given his upbringing in Pharaoh’s palace, his knowledge of the Egyptian world, and his connection to the Israelites. This extra level of seeing always involves seeing what is difficult, naming and noticing what we often prefer to keep hidden. It involves seeing the whole picture and our role in it.
This is the marror we are challenged by the questioning child to notice. Are we paying attention to what is bitter in what we observe? Are our interpretations sugarcoating the problem? And the child challenges us to go further. On all other nights, I don’t dip into you, and you don’t dip into me. We leave each other be. On Passover, though, we are reminded that leadership involves dipping into what is uncomfortable, and then dipping into it again. Only when we face what is difficult, what has been hidden, what is bitter, can we begin to grow and change.
Question Four: Intervene
On all other nights, we sit straight or we lean – tonight we all must lean!
In each example in the second chapter of Exodus, observation and interpretation leads to action. Yocheved hides Moses, and then sends him in his ark into the Nile. Miriam sees what is happening with Pharaoh’s daughter, and in that pivotal moment, after Pharaoh’s daughter has seen the baby, Miriam steps in and puts herself, Yocheved, and Moses at great risk by offering Yocheved as a wet nurse. Pharaoh’s daughter, who easily could have seen this baby, his sister, his mother, and sent them all to their deaths, instead takes Moses as her son and keeps the family united. Moses stands up for his brothers and strikes the Egyptian. And God intervenes after all these human beings have, and thus begins the Exodus.
Ian Ramsey, in his book Religious Language, describes this level of seeing – of observing and interpreting – as “discernment.” And he argues that, by definition, “discernments evoke commitments. If I have a discernment of what it means to be human, it becomes irresponsible to stand by while others cry out for help.” This is the last invocation the child calls out to us. On all other nights, we might lean towards one another to assist one another, but primarily we sit in our own seats, we worry about ourselves. Tonight – we are challenged to lean in. Yes! Might we interpret mesubin as leaning in?
Might we interact with one another in a way where we truly see each other, spend time acknowledging the whole, even the difficult parts, and then, having seen, lean towards one another, into the fray, and act? Mah Nishtana? Will anything truly be different after this night? Will we listen to the child’s questions?
Maya Bernstein teaches leadership, facilitation, and innovation tools at a variety of institutions.