Putting Ourselves Into the Haggadah

Fourteen Nisan

Tonight’s the night. All the work we’ve done these past two weeks will be put to the test, to see if we indeed walk away feeling more like we ourselves left Egypt. As one last piece, allow me to share some of the insights my father shared at his Seder, insights I find helpful each year in once again reliving our Exodus from Egypt.

If Hashem Hadn’t Taken Us Out

There were many enjoyable elements to my father’s Seder (the insights here are adapted from a larger memoir, about 100 pages long; those interested in a PDF of My Father’s Seder, Foundation of My Faith can email me. The address is ‘g’ the first six letters of my last name, at Gmail.). I limit myself here to those aspects that contribute to tonight’s Seder being a releaving of Egypt.

The first of my father’s indelible Seder comments that I will share here came when the Haggadah says (in the paragraph of עבדים היינו, we were slaves) that if the Holy One Blessed Be He had not taken our forefathers out of Egypt, we, our children, and our grandchildren would still be slaves to Par’oh in Egypt.

My father had a bit of the actor to him, and when we read that, he’d say, wide-eyed, “Really?” I’d say, sure, that’s what it says, we’d still be slaves to Par’oh in Egypt.

He’d say, “Do you see slaves in the world today?” (I was too young to be aware of human trafficking, and he’d have had an answer had I brought it up, something like “do you see slaves in Egypt today?” or “do you see a nation in slavery for over three thousand years?”)

From there, he’d tell us that we mistranslate משועבדים היינו as “we would be slaves,” when it really means “we would have been enslaved.” While enslaved can mean be slaves to, it can also mean “be deeply indebted.”

Had Hashem not taken us out, my father would say, we’d have eventually gotten out somehow (his example was Lincoln freeing the slaves, and the indebtedness those slaves felt to Lincoln; which is a more complicated story, but that wasn’t our focus on Seder night). Taking us out Himself, as it were, freed us radically and completely, leaving only indebtedness to Hashem.

That was true culturally as well, he would say. We were freed to strip ourselves of the negative elements of Egyptian culture and of any other culture we would encounter (as we will see when we discuss mitzvot that specifically reject other cultures, and remind us of the Exodus as a way of avoiding becoming caught up in those cultures).

I should stress that this wasn’t a rejection of other cultures—my father was a voracious reader, broadly interested in all sorts of intellectual and cultural moments. It was a stress on our freedom to engage those cultures critically, to take only that which was in line with what Hashem wanted of and for us, and leave the rest behind, in Egypt or wherever.

The Meaning of All

After the Haggadah tells the story of five rabbis who became so engrossed in the telling that they didn’t notice the advent of morning, the Haggadah reproduces Berachot 1;5, where R. Elazar b. Azaryah tells of failing to convince his colleagues that the daily recall of the Exodus should happen at night as well. It took Ben Zoma to find a Scriptural inference, Devarim16;3’ssaying that we need to remember the day we left Egypt כל ימי חייך. Ben Zoma said the word כל, all, indicated not just the days (that would have been ימי חייך, the days of your lives).

In that Mishnah, the other sages respond that the verse referring to all was to include the Messianic era. While we might have thought those later events would overshadow the original Exodus, the verse tells us to recall the Exodus daily even in that time.

My father would relate that his father would point out that the dispute here was over the meaning of the word כל. All can mean “every one of” or it can mean “the whole of.” Ben Zoma was saying that “all” meant “the whole of,” that we should recall the Exodus over the whole of each of our days, not just in the day, but in the night as well. The other sages read it as telling us that we should recall the Exodus every one of the days of our lives, including days when we might have thought it no longer necessary.

It was the kind of textual focus that came up a lot at our Seder, and that sits at the heart of my PhD dissertation, but that’s a different story. It is a reminder that Judaism is a derived religion, a religion of sources, a religion where the validity of our claims about the religion depend on the strength of the sources and/or interpretations adduced to support it (defining validity of interpretation was part of the focus of my dissertation). A reminder my father a”h gave me but is often lost today, when people make claims about Torah (on the left and on the right) without providing anything approaching a legitimate justification for that claim.

Ben Zoma’s use of כל keeps me grounded in the sources of tradition as what they are, sources, the foundation upon which we have to build our Judaism.

Indirect Parenting

We had long Sedarim in my father a”h’s house, and I don’t want to keep you beyond your patience point. Let me close with one last idea my father shared each year, also starting with a textual note. The Haggadah posits four sons (or children), four kinds of ways a child might ask a parent about the hullabaloo surrounding Pesach.

As many have noted (including my father), the Haggadah is playing with the original text, because the Torah does not editorialize about these questions. In three places, the Torah mentions that our children will ask us a question about the services of Pesach, and gives us an answer (and those are not necessarily the answers the Haggadah tells us to give).

The Haggadah assumes the fourth child, the one who does not know to ask, is the intended target of Shmot13;8, which says to tell our child on that day that Hashem took us out of Egypt because of all this. Since the verse doesn’t precede that with a child’s question, the Haggadah assumes the child did not or could not ask a question.

The oddity my father would note was that the Haggadah already used that verse as the answer to the wicked son. Since he had implicitly excluded himself from the services, we had cited this verse for its reference to Hashem taking me out, implying not him.

But if that’s the reading the Haggadah has adopted, why say it to the child who doesn’t know how to ask? What did he do wrong?

Some answer that the child’s inability to ask shows he has not been interested enough to educate himself, putting him on the road to wickedness. My father preferred a different answer; he assumed the child was too young to ask, not too disinterested. He would also note that the Haggadah’s recommended strategy for the wicked child isn’t always feasible. Sometimes a wicked child is sensitive to a hint of criticism, such that even referring to Hashem taking me out of Egypt (and not him or her, by implication) would spark an unproductive fight.

Instead, he said, the Haggadah tells us to use the younger child as a foil. By turning to that child and saying the verse, “because of all this, Hashem took me out of Egypt,” the wicked child will hear what he needs to, without being able to take offense (since we weren’t speaking to him). The child to whom we address these words, on the other hand, is too young to pick up on the subtext, and will only hear the message we want him to hear, that our service on Pesach is because it was the reason Hashem took us out of Egypt. My father enjoyed the subtlety of the approach, the idea that we find a way to make our point even to those who don’t want to hear it.

As I close this part our attempt to change our Pesach and change our life—the next pieces will focus on mitzvot that tell us to recall the Exodus in surprising contexts, starting with tomorrow’s selection—I do it with the hopes that you have found these pieces thought-provoking, and that you find your Seder enriched by some of them, and find yourself, as I hope to find myself, ending the Seder with the feelings of elation and jubilation that we would certainly have felt had we historically lived through the Exodus, a sign we have successfully relived the Exodus this year.