I have to confess something: for years, I’ve despised the Four Questions.
I should clarify: it’s not the questions themselves, but 🎶 Mah nishtana ha-lailah hazeh… 🎶
We all know it, I’m sure. I think my disdain came from the countless times I’ve taught it to religious school students. Over and over again… 🎶 mi-kol ha-leilot, mi-kol ha-leilot… 🎶 Every year it would wind its way into my ear and loop in my brain endlessly for two months. By the time I got to seder, dayeinu. I’d had enough.
Something different happened this year.
In 2020 and 2021, as for many of us, Ari and my sedarim looked very different. Last weekend, we were overjoyed to gather once again with his side of the family. Not quite everyone we hoped would make it did, but among the attendees were the children of the next generation.
The last time we had seder together, the youngest was still a toddler. Now she is four and a half. And she’s something of a performer. So when it came time for the Four Questions, she stood up on a chair, glanced confidently around at her audience, and sang: 🎶 Ma nishtana ha-lailah ha-zeh… 🎶
For the first time in a long time, those words—and that tune—were beautiful to me.
It’s not much of a hiddush for me to say today that there is magic in the wholehearted way children lead us, or in the enthusiastic way they encounter the world. Children perceive things as they are, making fresh meaning out of what their senses take in—without a lifetime of preconceptions most adults have to peel away in order to see something anew.
In fact, this idea is so “not new” that it can be found in the verses of Torah we experienced today. In the second verse of Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea, we read: “זֶ֤ה אֵלִי֙ וְאַנְוֵ֔הוּ This is my God, and I will glorify God” (Exodus 15:2). According to numerous midrashim, these words were sung by children.
One version of this legend begins like this: (Paraphrased from Deuteronomy Rabbah, ed. Lieberman 14f, in Rabbi Arthur Green’s The Heart of the Matter, pp. 90-92.)
At the time that Pharaoh decreed that every male child be cast into the Nile, Israelite women would go out into the fields when they were ready to give birth. After her child was born, a mother would turn her eyes heavenward and say: “I have done my part, fulfilling Your commandment: ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ (Gen. 1:28). Now You do Yours!”
Isn’t that remarkable? Another version of this story tells how the women would actually seduce their husbands into conceiving in the first place, in the face of Pharaoh’s decree. This is some holy chutzpah. (For more on this, see Sotah 11b and Rabbi Avi Strausberg’s commentary in the Hadar shiur “The Danger of Hope”.)
The Egyptians saw what was happening. They would watch from a distance, and as soon as the women got up to return to town, they would come to kill the children. But just as the Egyptians approached, the earth would open up and swallow the babies. As the Egyptians retreated, the children would reappear. Over and over this happened, until the Egyptians gave up and went home.
Here God answers the mothers’ call to help sustain the children. And God does so with a miracle that seems to continue the birthing experience: refolding the children in the womb of the earth and rebirthing them when it is safe. God’s motherly caretaking continues:
How did the children survive in the fields? According to one view: “God would send two angels to each of them, one to wash them and one to dress them. They would provide one stone from which to nurse each child and one stone to anoint them with oil, as is said in Deuteronomy: ‘God suckled him with oil from the rock, and honey from the flintstone’ (32:13). The angels would also bathe them, as it is said in Ezekiel: ‘I bathed you in water…and gave you garments of brocade’ (16:10).”
But according to another opinion: “It was not the angels who did this, but God Godself. Scripture says: ‘I bathed you,’ not ‘I caused you to be bathed.’ ‘I bathed you’ means that there was no angel involved.”
It’s hard to imagine a more intimate act of divine care.
Time passed, the children grew up, and when they were grown they returned to their homes…But how would a child know the home of their own parents? God would go along with them, and to each child God would point out their parents’ house.
The child would say to their mother: “Do you remember the day you gave birth to me?” Then the mother would ask: “Who cared for you?” And the child would answer: “A young man with beautiful curls; there is none like him. He brought me here and is waiting outside.” The mother would say: “Show him to me.” when they went outside, however, though they would search everywhere, they could never find him.
Later on, when the children saw God at the Sea of Reeds, they pointed with their fingers to show their mothers: “This is the one who raised me! ‘זֶ֤ה אֵלִי֙ וְאַנְוֵ֔הוּ This is my God and I will glorify God’ (Ex. 15:2).”
Standing at the sea, it’s not the adults who recognize their deliverer from the Egyptians. It is the children. It is the children because they had an intimate, immediate, personal experience of God—in the form of a comely young man (which is a midrashic reference to how some say God is depicted in Shir HaShirim). The same figure who led them home, that’s the divine apparition they recognize at Yam Suf.
Don’t get me wrong: I do not mean to dismiss the mothers’ role. It’s their hope, their action that enables the creation of a new generation at all. And still, at the sea, it is the children who lead the rest of the people in song.
This week, I studied this midrash with a few adult members of the congregation I serve. As we discussed the notion that children often experience divinity more directly than adults, one person made the explicit connection between children leading the singing at the sea and children leading the singing of the Four Questions. This is what got me thinking about my four-and-a-half-year-old cousin-in-law’s performance. It’s not that the tune can’t be beautiful; I just needed a child’s voice to sing it.
Maybe, at the sea, the Israelites did all know that they had a divine partner in their redemption. But maybe they, too, needed a child’s voice to sing it.