One of the highlights of the Pesach Seder is the section on the four sons. In it, the wise son asks, “What are these testimonies (eidus)?” Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch, in his masterpiece Chorev, explains in detail that “eidus” are commandments that come to show an idea that is central to our belief. Therefore, one may ask, what is the wise son actually asking? Isn’t it obvious that he already understands that these commandments are referring to our Exodus from Egypt?
The Seder begins with four questions. The Maharal in Gevuros Hashem (chapter 52) says that the four questions are only asked by the wise son. (However, the simple reading is that these four questions could be asked anyone.) So, what is the Chacham really asking if he knows what the Exodus is?
I saw an answer to this question based on the Rashba’s explanation of “mah nishtanah”. The Exodus from Egypt seems to be a cornerstone of our religion. In fact, the Torah has tens of mitzvos which are a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt. Therefore, the wise son asks on the Seder night: “It is understandable that it is important to commemorate major moments in our formation of becoming a nation, but why to have a whole night of mitzvos dedicated to reinforce this idea?” The wise son understood that everything he saw in front of him was a “testimony” – but his question was “wouldn’t it suffice to have smaller-scale reminders, and not an entire night dedicated to this?” The Rashba says that in fact, also included in this question, is that the prohibition of chometz is by far greater than regular foods which are forbidden year-round. Why are we so concerned about such a small morsel? The answer to this question is that every building needs a strong foundation, and therefore the Exodus from Egypt was not just an historical event, but the formation of our nation. Though the direct answer to the Ma Nishtana is found later on in the Hagada, when Rebbi Gamliel dicusses Pesach, Matzah and Maror, it is important to know (right after the “Ma nishtana” is asked) where we came from and how we became a nation in order to understand our relationship and its obligations. This night, and throughout Pesach, culminating with Krias Yam Suf, we are celebrating our ultimate freedom from Egypt. This is what gave us and gives us our “Jewish identity and direction”. This is the bedrock of all our service of Hashem. All the mitzvos which refer to the Exodus from Egypt remind us of our purpose in life. When we celebrate on Seder night, it is not enough to just fulfil the mitzvos and answer the questions of our children, rather we must incorporate into this night our definition of who we are – “Ki anu avadecha vi’ata Ado-neinu”