Getting to the point
by Jonathan Rosenblum
April 21, 2005
I'm just the kind of guy you do not want to have at your Seder. I once taught the Haggadah, and remember too many of the brilliant vertlach I know on ha lachma anya.
People like me tend to get bogged down early on in the Seder. By the time that they arrive at the actual telling of the going out of Egypt, however, there are only 45 minutes left to discuss the three Pesach symbols, eat Matzah and Maror, and complete the multi-course meal into which so much wasted effort has gone. Something is wrong with this scenario.
Surely Chazal did not want us to spend the evening talking about the mitzvah of telling of the Exodus; they wanted us to actually do so. Perhaps that is the reason for the custom of reciting the Haggadah on Shabbos HaGadol: It provides an opportunity to share new insights on the Haggadah, and to leave the Seder night for the actual telling of the story of our Exodus. A popular new Haggadah this year helps in this task by collecting a large number of midrashim. on topics such as the Ten Plagues and the Splitting of the Sea, in order to facilitate our focus on relating all the miracles that Hashem did for us.
But if we are not supposed to spend the evening on the first four paragraphs of the Haggadah, why have so many Torah giants spilled so much ink extracting every possible insight from them? With the exception of the Chumash itself, no Jewish text has inspired so many commentaries.
And many of these commentaries tend to focus as much on the structure of the Haggadah as they do on the actual story of the Exodus: Why does the opening paragraph switch back and forth between Aramaic and Hebrew? Why is night in ma nishtana masculine – haleila hazeh – rather than feminine? What is the significance of the fact that the Tannaim who spent the entire evening relating the Exodux were in Bnei Brak? Why is the same answer given to the evil son and the one who does not how to ask?
At one level, the answer to why so many of the finest minds of the Jewish people have addressed these questions is that the Haggadah is largely Mishnaic material. And that is what the greatest Jewish minds have always done: Puzzle out every difficulty and ambiguity in the Mishnaic texts.
But that only pushes the question back one step. Why then did Chazal write the Haggadah as they did rather than focusing in a more straightforward fashion on the Exodus? How does the text work pedagogically?
The goal of the Seder night is for each participant to view himself, both intellectually and emotionally, as if he himself is going out of Egypt. Retelling becomes reliving. The more we expand upon every detail of what Hashem did for us the closer we come to the experience itself.
To fully rejoice in our new found freedom we must first experience its absence. We never fully appreciate anything until we have felt the lack of it. As someone who had just emerged from a prolonged depression once remarked to me, no one can be as happy as someone who has known what it is to be without happiness. His joy is always twofold, for it includes the joy of having removed the previous pain as well.
That is why Chazal determined that the form in which we tell of our going out from Egypt must start with our degradation as lowly slaves (or even before that as descendants of idol worshippers) and end with the fact that Hashem took us out of Egypt and brought us close to serve Him. We dwell on our enslavement as well as on the miracles Hashem did for us. And the symbol of that servitude – the bitter herbs – is one of the fundamental requirements of the Seder.
To have a question is another way of experiencing the absence of something. And just as we only fully appreciate that which we missed, so do we remember best the knowledge gained in response to a question. The halachos that we know best, for instance, are often those in which we previously erred.
We do everything possible at the Seder to arouse the curiosity of the children at the table and to put them in a questioning frame of mind: the removal of the Seder plate almost at the beginning of the Seder before anything has yet taken place; the recitation of the Four Questions.
The questions aroused by the structure of the Haggadah are, in some sense, the adult equivalent of the removal of the Seder plate. They are designed to put us in a curious, questioning state a mind, and thus make the information to come all that more precious to us.
That is why Chazal decreed that the telling of the going out from Egypt must be told in the form of question and answer. Even a great Torah sage celebrating the Seder by himself is required to begin by reciting the Four Questions.
At another deeper level, the questions that we ask are themselves a reliving of the Egyptian exile, which was itself one long series of questions. Yosef's brothers could not make sense of the cruel viceroy who confronted them when they came to Egypt to buy grain. Only when Yosef revealed himself did everything become instantly clear.
And when the generation of Yosef and his brothers passed from the scene, and there arose a new Pharoah "who knew not Yosef," their descendants could not understand the brutality inflicted upon them. Even Moshe Rabbeinu asked why Hashem had so cruelly afflicted the bnei Yisrael.
Only when the questions reached their peak did Hashem respond, "Now you will begin to see what I will do to Pharoah," followed by the Ten Plagues.
Just as Hashem answered all our built up questions in a flash when He took us out of Egypt on eagles' wings, may He soon send His redeemer and answer all the pent up questions of our generation.
A Chag Kasher Ve'Sameach
Related Topics: Pesach
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