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The Lullaby of the Haggadah
Sometimes there are parts of Jewish practice that we know so well that we cease to think about them anymore. We don’t ask the obvious questions about them because we just take it for granted that things are the way they are. I like to call this ‘The Lullaby Effect.’
Take your average lullaby; the words are astounding. “Rock-a-by-baby on the tree top, when the wind blows, the cradle will rock. When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall and down will come baby; cradle and all.” You can get your kids to sleep singing that, but only if he doesn’t listen to the words. What if your precious little 3 or 4 year old actually listens to what you’re singing to him. Lots of questions would come to mind:
1. How far off the ground was that cradle?
2. Did anyone call 911 when it fell?
3. Who put the cradle on the bough in the first place?
4. Was the mother trying to kill the baby?
5. Why are you singing this to me? Are you trying to kill me?
Lots of questions would come to mind but nobody ever ask those questions. Your little precious child just falls asleep, they’ve heard it so many times, they just don’t listen anymore. Sometimes we approach Jewish rituals and texts like that too. We’ve gone through it so many times, it’s just the way it is. We can’t imagine it any differently. Year after year, we experience the Seder, we read the same words. It’s just the way it is. But what if we thought about the words? If we actually thought about what we say in the traditional text of the Haggadah, we might well find it astounding. On the Seder night we fulfill the central command to re-tell the story of the Exodus to our children on the anniversary of the night we were set free.
If it was your job to compose the Haggadah, to come up with a standard text that Jews around the word would use to tell their children about what happened. If you had to search for some text in the Torah that you would use to describe the events of the Exodus, where would you find it? Most of us would turn to the Book of Exodus. The Book of Exodus spends chapters telling us the story in detail of how we left Egypt. Wouldn’t it make sense to read the actual accounts of the ten plagues given in the Torah? To read how the Jews triumphantly left Egypt? To read the story of the splitting of the sea of reeds. These are the verses that I would put in the Haggadah if it was up to me to write it, but it wasn’t up to me to write it and those aren’t the verses.
If you look at the verses in the Torah that form the central backbone of the Haggadah, that form the structure if the story we tell our family this night, those verses don’t come from the Book of Exodus at all. They come from something that happens forty years later when Moshe imagines a future that’s even more removed from the story of the Exodus, that will take place years later when the Jews are finally settled into the land. Sefer Dvarim tells us “v’hayah ki-tavo el-ha-aretz asher HaShem Eloheicha noten lcha nachala”—when you finally come to the land that God gives you to possess—“v’lakachta me’reshit kol-pri ha-adamah”—a farmer should take all of his first fruits and he should come to the temple and should bring those fruits in a basket and place it before a Cohen and then he should make a declaration. That declaration begins with the words “higadati ha-yom l’HaShme Eloheicha ki-vati el-ha-aretz”—I declare, or I have declared, before you God that I have come to the land that You have sworn to my forefathers; and then it goes on to tell the story.
“Arami oved avi” the farmer says: My father a wandering Aramean. It seems, according to the Medieval commentators, like the Sforno, that he is referring to the Jacob, Jacob in Lavan’s house. “Vayered Mitzraimah”—but then as he left Lavan’s house and went back to the land of Canaan, he didn’t stay there, he went down to Egypt. “Vayager sham bimtei me’at”—and there he dwelled, few in number—“vayihi sham ligoi gadol atzom va’ram”—but there the family snowballed and grew into a family of large and great numbers. “Vayareu otanu ha-Mitzrim”—but the Egyptians were evil to us—“vaya’anunu”—they oppressed us, they put upon us hard labor. We cried out to God. God heard our cries, and God delivered us from Egypt with an outstretched arm, with signs and wonders, and brought us to this place, to the land of Canaan, to the land flowing with milk and honey. This is the text that we use as the core of the Haggadah. Everything else that we say in Maggid, the section in which we actually re-tell the Exodus, is an expansion, a Midrashic expansion, on these verses. But why do we use these verses as the core text? Why do we use the farmer's pithy little declaration instead of the Torah’s own account of how we actually left Egypt? Why do we do it that way?
I want to suggest to you a theory. The Torah tells us that we are supposed to retell to our families the story of the Exodus, but the interesting question is, why? Why do we retell that story? Is it just a matter of relating dry history, or is there a meaning that we’re trying to convey in that dry history? Stories are never just objective dry things, they are subjective. There are some of ‘us’ in the story; there is a perspective from which we tell the story. What perspective are we meant to adopt when we retell the story of the Exodus? Perhaps the Torah is telling us that we are supposed to adopt the farmer’s perspective. We’re not just supposed to retell history, the actual verses of the Torah that described what happened; we’re supposed to retell the story in a way that gives meaning to what happened, the same kind of meaning that the farmer gives it.
What is the farmer doing? The farmer is giving thanks to God. The farmer is testifying that God fulfilled a long deferred promise, a promise he made to our ancestors that he would give the land of Canaan to them. It took many centuries for that promise to be fulfilled but when the farmer stands there with that fruits, he is living proof that it has been fulfilled. The farmer is acknowledging that truth, is relating to God as the promise-keeper, the one who kept that long promise.
Perhaps, that’s how we tell the story to our kids too. We too are living proof that God kept the promise. We are the descendants of that farmer. We too are not just telling a story to our kids, we’re telling a story about how God kept his promise. We’re thanking God in front of our kids for him having done so. This would explain, in a way, why it is that Maggid, the part of the where we retell the Exodus, flows, almost imperceptibly, into the next part of the Haggadah: Hallel, verses of praise. It’s almost like you don’t even realize that you’ve gone from Maggid into Hallel because, in a way, it’s all one thing. You can’t declare the truth of God having kept his promise without ecstatically praising God for having done so.
Thanks is really a component of two things; it is a recognition of what it is that you’ve done for me and then it’s an overwhelming sense of gratefulness that you’ve acted towards me and that’s how we retell the story. First, we recognize the truth, we recognize that God fulfilled this long deferred promise. We say the words of the farmer and then, overcome with gratitude, we transition into these verses of thanks and praise. But there is a little problem with the story I’m telling you now and it is what comes right before Maggid.
If you look in the Haggadah, there is another promise that we talk about, another promise that God made to our forefathers. “Baruch shomer havtachto l’Yisrael” we say: blessed is he who kept his promise to Israel. What promise are we referring to there? We’re referring the promise of the “brit beyn ha [sounds like: batarim]” of the covenant that God made to Abraham, when God revealed to Abraham the reality of slavery hundreds of years before it would occur.
“Yadoa teda,” God tells Abraham, “ki ger yihyeh zar’acha b’eretz lo lahem,” that your children will be strangers in a land not their own, “v’avadum” and the inhabitants of that land will enslave them, “v’inu otam,” and oppress them, “arba me’ot shana,” for four hundred years.
“V’gam et ha-goi asher yavodu dan anochi”—and after that, I will judge the nation that does this to you—“v’acharei ken yetzu b’rchush gadol”—and afterwards you will go out with great wealth.” What a puzzling set of verses. Is Abraham supposed to say thank you after hearing that?
Abraham, your children are going to be enslaved for four hundred years. Don’t worry, they will go out with a lot of wealth. Who cares about the wealth? This is such a dark promise and yet the Haggadah says we are supposed to thank God for the fact that he made good on the promise to take us out of there. It’s so strange.
I mean, if I were Abraham, I would say, I don’t understand. God, you began this conversation with me, if you look back at the Genesis, this is the way it begins by saying “scharcha harbeh me’od”—your reward is very great! And then you go and tell me my children are going to be enslaved for four hundred years and then you’re going to take them out? That’s the reward? You know God, I have a little deal to make with you, how about if you don’t put them in slavery and then you don’t have to take the out, don’t bother yourself please, it’s okay. Let’s just keep it simple: no slavery, no taking out, we’re fine.
Now why did we mention the Haggadah? Doesn’t it seems to kind of spoil everything? God prophesied to Abraham that his children were going to be enslaved. Why are we so joyful and thanking God for having taken us out, if God is the one who put us there in the first place? Such a basic question, it almost seems like you’re not allowed to ask that question, but what really is an answer to it? Why are we so joyful for God having taken us out? God put us there. That’s what I want to talk with you about in these videos. Come join me.