Thursday, March 29, 2007

Pesah and Matsah and Maror - But Why?

One peculiar feature of the Haggada stands out year after year:

Rabban Gamliel used to say: Anyone who fails to mention three things on the night of Passover has not fulfilled his obligation. And what are they? The Paschal Sacrifice, Matsa and Maror.

The simplest interpretation of Rabban Gamliel's statement is that he is referring to the commandment to tell the story of the Exodus on the first night of Passover. Rabban Gamliel informs us that, unless the mitsvot of the Paschal offering, Matsa and Maror are discussed, one has not discharged one's obligation to speak about the Exodus. It is imperative that we identify the purpose of each one of these rituals on the Seder night.

This, however, poses an obvious problem. The mitsvot we are doing on the Seder night are not a part of the story! If Rabban Gamliel had insisted that anyone who forgets to mention the Ten Plagues has not done justice to the Exodus narrative, we would understand why. If he had ruled that anyone who fails to draw attention to the harshness of Pharaoh's oppression or the swiftness of the redemption had not captured the essence of the dramatic tale, we would accept it.

But explaining the commandments that we are about to perform on the night of Pesah - though important - is not a component of telling the story. Why should skipping that part of the Haggada invalidate our discussion of God's deliverance of His people from bondage?

Fascinatingly, this difficulty is not limited to the statement of Rabban Gamliel. There are several noteworthy instances in which the Haggada appears to value the discussion of the mitsvot of Passover more than the discussion of the Exodus itself. For example, consider the Haggada's instructions on how to respond to the query of the Wise Son:

You shall tell him the Laws of Passover, that we do not have dessert after the Paschal offering.

What happened to the story of the Exodus? Why are we entering into a conversation about the rules and regulations of Pesah, when it seems we should be focused on gaining insight into the most fundamental event in our nation's history?

(Another memorable example is the discussion of the Rabbis in Bene Brak, which revolves around a practical halachic issue only tangentially related to Pesah).

I believe that the answer to this basic problem is surprisingly simple. It is contained in the language of the Torah itself:

When your son asks you tomorrow, saying, 'What are the testimonies, the statutes and the ordinances that Hashem our God commanded you?' And you shall say to your son, 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and Hashem took us out of Egypt with a strong hand. And Hashem placed signs and wonders - great and terrible - in Egypt, against Pharaoh and his entire household before our eyes. And we He took out from there...And Hashem commanded us to do all of these statutes, to fear Hashem our God; for our benefit all of our days...

A close examination of the Bible reveals that the mitsvah to retell the story of the Exodus is always mentioned in conjunction with the performance of the commandments of the Torah. A parent is typically portrayed as justifying his commitment to the halachic system based upon the historical experience of oppression and redemption in Egypt.

This indicates that the function of discussing the Exodus on Passover is not to entertain the family with historical trivia or midrashic tales. The Seder is not meant to transport us into the ancient past so that we can reminisce about a bygone era. Rather, the objective of Passover night is to draw from history so as to shed light on the reasons for our current observance of Judaism.

This is precisely the message Rabban Gamliel is sending us. Our exploration of the Exodus must revolve around deepening our sense of commitment as Jews in the here-and-now. Otherwise, the dramatic narrative is reduced to an historical relic. The ultimate goal of Pesah is to revitalize our dedication to God each year through the performance of the mitsvot of the holiday. In order for this to happen, we must delve into the historical genesis of these commandments and reflect upon their relevance to the experience of our ancestors in Egypt.

The offering of the Paschal Lamb represented the Jews' rejection of the idolatrous worldview of the Egyptians, who worshipped the sheep as a god. The consumption of unleavened bread was a demonstration of our forefathers' rejection of the materialistic value system of Egypt. The Egyptian culture revolved around bread, the staple food of the wealthy man who lived luxuriously. Slaves, on the other hand, were sustained by unleavened products that were easier and less time-consuming to prepare. Through eating the "bread of affliction", our ancestors expressed their desire to live a life of service to God rather than a life of self-indulgence. Although free, they still saw themselves as dedicated to a purpose nobler than that of sensual gratification.

However, when all is said and done, this historical background must serve as a springboard for us to understand the significance of the mitsvot for our families today. What modern forms of idolatry must we liberate ourselves from in this day and age? What are the symptoms of our own attachment to the decadence of Western culture and its deification of pleasure, wealth and power? What steps can we take to root it out?

If we walk away from the Seder table with beautiful new explanations of the Haggada text but without a better sense of why the Paschal Lamb, Matsah and Maror are relevant to our lives, then we have not fulfilled the mitsvah of discussing the Exodus. The experience has entertained us but has not tranformed us.

This is why the more advanced a child is, the more we divert our attention from the story and spend time analyzing the Laws of Passover in depth. A wise youngster who is capable of appreciating the beauty of the mitsvot and their purpose will discover that the concepts, values and ideals expressed in the Exodus narrative manifest themselves in the mitsvot that we perform on Passover and all year round. The themes of the story are not vague philosophical notions about God or platitudes about freedom; rather, they are profound, highly practical ideas that are translated into rigorous halachic form and "lived" in realtime. A child who is the beneficiary of such a sophisticated Seder will have a qualitatively different experience of Pesah observance and of Jewish life in general.

The upshot of this analysis of the Haggada is that the ultimate aim of the Seder is the enrichment of our observance of Judaism. We cannot allow the annual retelling of our ancestors dramatic Exodus to be reduced to an historical study. Our goal should be to utilize the Haggada as a means of enhancing our family's appreciation of the eternal significance of the mitsvot of Pesah.

In an upcoming post, I hope to discuss additional aspects of Pesah observance and their deeper meaning.


Anonymous said...

Hello Rabbi,

Dan Levine here. Hope all is well by you and your family. I have been enjoying your Torah on this blog and "ask the rabbi" for some time now. I found it through a link in Yehuda's Thoughts.
I am so glad you answered the question of Raban Gamliel Omer - it bothers me every year. I think you answered it beautifully and I will no doubt utilize the idea at this years seder. All the best. Chag sameach.


Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Hi Dan! How is married life treating you? It's great to hear from you and I'm glad you've explored my blogs. I am always appreciative of feedback. Feel free to email me any time.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Dan, you would also probably enjoy these blogs: (great 'lomdus' style pieces) and (excellent philosophical posts in the tradition of the Rambam.)

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameah.

David Guttmann said...

Very good! It is quite obvious why Rishonim were not too taken with history for its own sake. Without a practical translation into our own lives it has no more than passing interest.

What is intersting though in the case of the Haggadah is that normally the performance of the mitzvah precedes the reason for it, na'asseh venishmah, here it is reversed. Your idea of bringing it back to the present which is applying the teachings and the performance to our daily life brings it full circle.

Shabbat Shalom.

Oh and thanks for the plug.

Rabban Gamliel said...

"Rabban Gamliel used to say: Anyone who fails to mention three things on the night of Passover has not fulfilled his obligation. And what are they? The Paschal Sacrifice, Matsa and Maror."

One of the highlights of my Seder.

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