Months before Passover, I started working with my daughter, Neeli, who was then four years old. Since she was not able to read Hebrew at that age, I taught her to chant the four questions by rote. To add to the excitement, we kept it as our secret.
The day before the Seder, I listened to her for the last time. She could put to shame any 10 year old. The next night we assembled at my wife’s cousin’s house – 22 people in all. When it was time for the four questions, a youngster was assigned to it, but I pulled the evening surprise, stating that Neeli was the youngest and it is she, who should ask them. Some laughed, but upon realizing that I was serious, everyone stared at her with amazement and expectation.
At my cue the four year old started chanting. Face flushed with excitement and voice initially shaky, she started, “Ma nishtanah ha-laylah hazeh mikol ha-leylot?” I was a bit tense, but at the end of the first question, I relaxed realizing that she was doing just fine. All of us were either following in the Haggadah or looking at her, smiling.
Neeli was as flawless as a thoroughbred in the Kentucky Derby and now she was turning the corner toward the finish line; that is, chanting the last question. Toward the end she made a small mistake – mispronouncing the word “mesoobin”. Instinctively, I corrected her. That was a big mistake. She stopped, pouted her lips as if she was ready to cry, and darted an indignant look at me.
“I’m sorry, sorry”, I hastened to say, but I was too late. Her face flushed again, except this time it was a different hue. She was livid.
“I knew how to say it! I knew it and you stopped me in the middle. You, meanie.” Two tears representing both, frustration and anger, appeared in her eyes as she kept protesting. I tried to soothe her unsuccessfully. Her mother did the same. Her grandparents joined in and so did a couple of aunts.
Everyone assured her that she was wonderful, but the little one was not consoled. Finally I said, “Can we continue now?”
“No!” she said.
“Okay. Would you like to repeat the last question?”
“No!” she declared. “I want to do it aaaaaall over again.”
Many years ago in my history class we were discussing world dictators, when our teacher quipped that the biggest dictators are children. That Seder night I realized exactly what he meant. The Seder came to a halt and we could not do anything about it. If we wanted to continue the Seder, we would have to acquiesce to the little dictator.
“Ma nishtanah ha-laylah hazeh,” she started all over again.
None of us dared look at her, smile, cough or bat an eye for the duration. The irony of the situation did not escape me. Here we are, three generations of Jews sitting around the festive table, celebrating freedom from tyranny, yet all of us surrender to the whim of this … this four-year-old taskmaster.