Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Why The Haggadah Tells The Story of the Exodus The Way It Does

For as long as I can remember, I've been baffled by the way the Hagadah chooses to recount the story of Passover. We read through the Four Questions, get to the section marked The Answer and ultimately read a set of cryptic verses that kind-of-sort-of tell the story of leaving Egypt.

Sure, the imagery is powerful (Not through an angel and not through a seraph and not through a messenger, but [directly by] the Holy One, blessed be He!) and the themes of freedom and miracles are clearly on display. But why retell the story this way?

What about all the juicy bits of the story that aren't included? Like baby Moses being floated down the river, or the burning bush, or the various encounters with Moses and Pharaoh. This is grade A material, why doesn't the Haggadah include it?

This year, we finally connected all the dots at our seder, and it turns out the reasoning is actually quite simple. Heck, you're probably shaking your head right now at my lack of knowledge. But for anyone else who's been through the seder dozens of times and is curious why the story is told the way it is, read on.

Exhibit A: Mishnah Pesachim. Mishnah Pesachim opens with a discussion about Chametz and quickly gets quite technical. The last chapter, chapter 10, contains a delightfully readable description of how our sages celebrated seder night. It's obvious that much of our modern Haggadah was informed by this Mishnah, and it does show a remarkable degree of continuity between our seder and those from nearly 2000 years ago.

Consider the 4th paragraph of chapter 10:

They pour a second cup [of wine] for him. And here the son questions his father. And if the son has insufficient understanding [to question], his father teaches him [to ask]: Why is this night different from all [other] nights? On all [other] nights, we eat leavened and unleavened bread, [but] on this night, [we eat] only unleavened bread. On all [other] nights, we eat all kinds of vegetables, [but] on this night, [we eat only] bitter herbs. On all [other] nights, we eat meat roasted, stewed or boiled, [but] on this night, [we eat] only roasted [meat]. On all [other] nights, we dip [vegetables] once, [but] on this night, we dip [vegetables] twice. And according to the son's intelligence, his father instructs him. He begins [answering the questions] with [the account of Israel’s] shame and concludes with [Israel’s] glory, and expounds from “My father was a wandering Aramean” until he completes the whole passage.

Again, this is almost an exact match to what we did last Friday night. We poured the second glass of wine, read the four questions and then we got into the story. In the Mishnah, we're told to expounded from "My father was a wandering Aramean"... which means, what?

The answer to this question is found in Deuteronomy, chapter 26, verse 4 which reads:

The priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of the LORD your God.

You shall then recite as follows before the LORD your God: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation.

The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us.

We cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression.

The LORD freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents.

He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O LORD, have given me.” You shall leave it before the LORD your God and bow low before the LORD your God.

Deuteronomy, chapter 26, describes the first fruits ceremony, which includes a declaration. The declaration is a pithy explanation as to how the farmer ended up with his bounty. It's also the exact text we read on seder night!

And now I have my answer.

The seder ceremony more or less follows Mishnah Pesachim, Chapter 10. Which says that the way to tell the story on Passover night is to take Deuteronomy 26 and expound on it. Which is exactly what we do, picking each verse apart and enhancing it.

The story in the Haggadah may not recount the story of the exodus as I might have guessed, but it's most certainly not random. In just a few verses, Deuteronomy 26 summarizes the entire experience of leaving Egypt.

Case closed.