I want to write many posts, but I have far too many responsibilities to indulge in writing them. I can justify spending time on this post, though, because it is a מצוה עוברת - it is relevant for our upcoming celebration of Pesach.
I cannot recall ever liking Mah Nishtanah. The contrived set of four questions, taught to children so that they would be able to ask them, just never appealed to me. And then, just last week, my perspective changed entirely.
I was presenting a shiur which was supposed to have a brief "Pesach Halachah: Questions and Answers" component, followed by a dvar torah, but then we began talking about what counts for karpas, and then for marror, and the Q/A expanded to take over the shiur.
My thoughts on karpas are a bit outside the mainstream, as I advocate for pineapple and banana. Ditto re: marror; I believe that horseradish root should not be used for marror.
At the same time, I am a strong believer in minhag (custom), as the glue that holds Jewish families together across time. Those actions we pioneer express our individuality and concretize our special relationship with Gd and with the Torah. Whether the song we sing first at a Shabbos table, or the order in which we bless our children, or the special garment we wear when davening, we stamp our Judaism with our own seal. When our descendants keep these for themselves, that overlay of family links them back to us, merging generations of Jewish identity.
This is not something to be trifled with.
So I don't want people to change their family minhag for karpas, even as I advocate these other species. (Changing marror is more complicated, as I seriously question - echoing the words of many great poskim - the eligibility of horseradish root.) And I tried to explain that at the class. And I hit upon the perfect example of why minhag is so wonderful: Mah Nishtanah.
The script for Mah Nishtanah goes back to the Beit haMikdash (Temple) itself; one of the questions was altered when we were no longer able to bring the korban pesach (Pesach offering), but the rest remained the same. Which means that for well more than 2,000 years - we don't know just how far back, only that this text was common in Temple times, which ended in the year 68 C.E. - Jews, every year, around the world, living in a broad range of conditions, have sat at a seder table and put forth these same questions.
I try to imagine my great-grandparents in Western Europe; their great-grandparents in Poland; their great-grandparents in Turkey; before that in Spain; before that in Germany; before that in England; before that in Morocco; and so on. All of them, reclining at the table and listening to the youngest children ask these questions.
These particular questions are not a halachic requirement for the Seder; they are custom - but how could anyone remove them?
In truth, Mah Nishtanah is not the only text we have kept reciting for millenia; Shma is far older, and it is said daily. But the image of the family gathering, and the communal recitation, grabs me.
I am not fully articulating what is in my heart here; I am rushing this post, because there is no time to write it properly. But I hope I have conveyed the main point: for me, the connection is what minhag is all about. And finally, I have come to appreciate Mah Nishtanah.