What Is Maggid Really About?
How To Read The Haggadah
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Does this sound familiar? It's late. You're hungry. You lean. You drink. You read. Then, finally, you eat. Another Seder in the books.
Reading the Haggadah is just one of many rituals of the Passover Seder – but it can be difficult to read. Sometimes in a rush to fit it all in, we mumble our way through the Maggid text, without considering what it all means. But it doesn't have to be this way. The Haggadah is meant to be studied, and the Maggid holds important messages.
We are commanded on Passover to retell the story of the Exodus. However, the Haggadah isn’t actually retelling the exact story from the Bible. Instead, the Haggadah shows us the story from an everyman’s perspective, written much later. The Haggadah also includes stories of God’s interaction with the Israelite nation – all the way back to Abraham. So, how does reading the Haggadah fulfill our commandment to retell the Exodus on Passover? Why not skip the introductory text, open a Bible, dive straight to the Exodus, and finish the Seder a few hours earlier?
The main part of the Haggadah – Maggid – literally means “retelling a story.” And “retelling” is the key word for reading the Haggadah. Rabbi Fohrman argues that the Maggid is really a deep narrative that shows evidence of God’s ongoing promise to save His people. It recounts the survival stories of the Israelite nation throughout the centuries, to show that God’s original promise to Abraham wasn’t a one-time event – even when at times it appeared so.
In this video course, Rabbi Fohrman examines the different stories in the Haggadah and discovers how the narratives actually hold a single message for Jews today – even during periods of oppression and dark times, God will still bring us out and preserve His commitment.
Join Rabbi Fohrman as he explores these central Passover texts from the Maggid, and shows us a different way to experience the Passover Haggadah; a way that will transform your Seder from a sleepy series of mumbling into an immersive, enchanting experience – the way it was always meant to be.
Hi everybody, Rabbi Fohrman here.
So, if you're like me, every year you probably set aside a little bit of time before Pesach to look over the Haggadah – you wanna have something to share with your guests or family about this text when Seder night arrives. The good news is that you can count your video-watching-time here as part of that "Seder Prep." But I am going to tell you, right off the bat, that – to paraphrase Mah Nishtanah – this Seder Preparation will be a little different this year than all other years.
Preparing Your Haggadah Dvar TorahBecause, typically, you know, what do you sort of do when you look to prepare for the Seder? Well, you know, think of what Divrei Torah at the Seder often look like. They tend to be very particular, very local. Often, you look at an isolated bit of the Seder – say, the Four Sons, or that little story with Rabbi Akiva and the Sages sitting around the table in B'nei Brak – and you try to find a little nugget of inspiration that you can share around the table about that particular part of the Seder.
So, what kind of a Seder ends up evolving out of that? Well, maybe something along these lines...
Kadesh! Alright, everyone gather around for Kiddush. And you know, kiddush, it feels all very nice and communal, we all gather and listen to the sonorous melody of Kiddush and drink our wine. We eat that little bit of parsley or potato dipped in salt water, break that Matzah and show it around, and listen to little Jimmy or little Debbie, little Beryl and little Chanie, standing on the chair, tenuously reciting the four questions as best he or she can from memory. In Yiddish, sometimes. Or in English. Or Sanskrit – or whatever; but you get the point. And then?
And then you get to sing a song. Avadim Hayinu, Hayinu… Songs are fun. And then… Well, one of the kids has a question: Daddy, how come the wise son's question sounds so much like the wicked son's? Good question, Beryl, let's talk about it.
Before you know it, another song again: V'hi She'amda, V'hi She'amdah, lavoteinu velanu… As you put the wine cup down, and as you do, Little Chanie wants to put on a skit with her about those Rabbis in B'nei Brak. Everyone watches and claps. And so it goes. Until you get to the hard part.
Understanding MaggidThe hard part are those really difficult-to-follow paragraphs a bit later on in Maggid. At that point, things often devolve into what I call a "mumble-mumble-stop" routine. You know, everyone kind of mumbles a few paragraphs to themselves, then, stop! Dvar Torah… then: mumble mumble mumble some more – song. Mumble mumble some more. Soon people start getting tired, and so you pick up the speed… mumble mumble mumble – song!… mumble mumble mumble – d'var Torah! … And finally: mumble mumble – Dayenu! Yay, we've made it through the maggid!
You chomp your way through Matzah, marror and arrive gratefully at Matza Ball Soup and Brisket. Things are good now.
It's all very sweet. It really is. But here's the issue: When you sort of mumble your way through difficult paragraphs, you sort of lose the larger picture. You can end up having an entire "mumble mumble stop" Seder without actually understanding what you're actually saying.
And, when I say that you won't have a basic understanding of what you're saying, I don't mean you won't be able to translate any given word, phrase or even a sentence. You will. But what you'll be missing is an understanding of how it all hangs together; how does line A lead to line B? How does paragraph C connect to paragraph D?
What Is the Real Meaning of the Haggadah?But that stuff's important. You know, you read an article in the "New York Times" or some other newspaper – what do you do when you read the article? Consciously or not, your brain asks: What is that first paragraph doing, what's it talking about? And how does it connect to the second paragraph? And you keep on reading the article that way and those are the questions you ask.
But imagine you were reading that article, and … and you couldn't make heads or tails of how one idea led to the next – but then, instead of trying to figure that out, you say to the person next to you: "Hey! Did you notice that it says 'because' in this paragraph not once, but twice? Let me tell you a fascinating idea I once learned about that…" That sounds kind of absurd, right?
So let's not do this with the Haggadah. I mean, I grant you, when it comes to the Haggadah, reading comprehension is harder than the "NY Times." The Haggadah is a rabbinic text that's many centuries old, written in the style of – and about the same time as – a piece of Baraita, or Talmud. And these texts aren't meant to just be read, they're meant to be studied. And the way you study such texts, is really to focus on the main things that any of us focus on subconsciously when you read the newspaper: For each paragraph, you ask: What was that paragraph about? What was its main point; what was its purpose? And then, you ask yourself: How does this paragraph connect to the paragraphs around it? The paragraph before it, and the paragraph after it? What's the flow here?
In the videos that follow, we are going to do exactly that with the text of the Haggadah. Dive in with me, and let's begin to look at the main part of the Haggadah, that section known as Maggid.
Retelling the Story of Maggid on PassoverMaggid. This word literally means "retelling a story." This, supposedly, is the part of the Haggadah dedicated to actually retelling the Exodus story. But look how it begins.
Ha lachma anya: This is the bread of affliction; poor man's bread, the bread we used to eat in Egypt. This is the part where we hold up the matzah for everybody to see and we explain what it is. What's the main point of this paragraph? Well, we seem to be quite literally pointing to, and explaining, a central symbol of the Seder that is about to unfold: Here is the matzah, and here's what it means.
All right, that's great. But let's ask our reading comprehension question: What's this doing here? We are supposed to be a telling a story, right? Pointing at Matzah doesn't seem to be telling a story.
But maybe we are beginning the story, in a certain kind of way. We are pointing to a concrete thing – a food – that will tell the story to come not just in words, but in flavors and textures. It is setting the tone, the flavor, if you will, of the story.
So, maybe it is a reasonable way to begin the Seder.
All right, next?
Insights Into the Haggadah's StoryThe next paragraph is ma nishtana, four questions in which a child remarks on how very different this night seems from others during the year. How is this paragraph connected to the last one? Well, we just held up the matzah, we called everybody's attention to one of the main symbols of the night. And, our children notice that there's something out of the ordinary going on tonight, they want to understand. In a sense, these questions create the opportunity for a story – a story that we will soon tell.
All right, so Mah Nishtanah isn't yet the story, but it is a precursor to it. The story we tell is going to be couched as an answer to a set of questions. This question and answer format is a pedagogical model that the Rabbis lay out in the Talmud. We, as parents, have an obligation to tell the story of the Exodus to our children. But the Rabbis knew that the best way to engage children is to first give them the opportunity to ask their own questions. So this paragraph is giving the children a chance to do just that – helping them get engaged in the story we're about to tell.
All right, let's move on, the next paragraph is avadim hayinu: We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and God took us out of there.
Wait, this seems like a story! Has Maggid, the story-telling part of the Haggadah, really, finally, begun?
Well, in a sense it has. When we say that one sentence – we have, in essence, just told the entire story: We were once slaves, now we're free. So, you might be thinking… if we've gone and done it already – if that's the story – well, we have finished our business! Let's close up shop and bring out the soup and brisket: Let the meal begin! Why don't we do that?
Well, maybe the rest of the paragraph is actually explaining why we don't do just that: the next thing we say in the Haggadah is, Had God not done this, we'd still be in Egypt. In other words: These events that happened so long ago, they're not just bygone events in history, mere curiosities of times past – they have profound consequences for us sitting right here right now. If it were not for the Exodus, Israel as an independent nation would never have come to be. We would have been a perpetual class of slaves – and eventually, we'd have probably assimilated into the host culture. You and I would never be sitting here today had the Exodus not happened. And therefore…
...and therefore, we need to do more than perfunctorily dispense with the story. It's not enough to just summarize the Exodus story in a line, and move on to the meal. No, no matter how knowledgeable or wise we all are, no matter how many times we've heard this story before, we need to elaborate on it, flesh it out, make it come alive. We need to delve into this story, cuz it's this story that changed everything for us.
The author of the Haggadah is providing a rationale for what comes next – a reason why the meal won't be coming yet for another few hours. In other words: This paragraph is really the beginning of a meta-story: A story about the telling of the Exodus story. Here's why we do things this way, little Jimmy and little Debbie. We are learning why the story is important, and why we're going to spend a lot of time telling it.
The Haggadah's Meta-Story ContinuesOkay, so what happens next? Do we start telling the story? Well, no, actually we don't. The next paragraphs continue the "meta-story." They continue to talk about telling the Exodus story. We get a little episode about some Sages from the Talmud, in Bnei Brak, who told the Exodus story on Seder Night in so much depth and detail that they stayed up all night doing it. And, that paragraph is illustrating the last point: That no matter how much you know, you just have to lose yourself in the telling of the Exodus story. It has to be all-encompassing.
The "meta-story" continues with the next paragraph in the Haggadah, the "Four Sons." You see, if the previous paragraph told us how much to tell the Exodus story, this paragraph tells us how to tell the story. Cuz, the Rabbis noticed that the Torah tells you not once but four different times that you have to tell the Exodus story to your children. From there, they drew the idea that there are actually four different ways to tell the story – the story needs to be tailored to the needs of the listener, to the needs of each kid.
In all of these paragraphs, and, for that matter, the ones that follow – we are not yet getting the actual story of the Exodus – we are getting the meta-story; we are being given pointers as to how to tell the story.
Where Does the Story in Maggid Actually Begin?We don't have anything that really sounds like an Exodus story in the Haggadah until we get to these words:
"Metchila ovdei avodah zara hayu avoteinu…"
Once upon a time, our ancestors were idol worshipers…
Well, that's a proper way to start a story – quite literally with a "once upon a time." And in fact, the Exodus story really does begin at this moment, at least in a way. Yeah, we're starting from all the way in the beginning, even before Abraham, and there are still some confusing paragraphs in the Haggadah beyond this point, but it seems fair to say: The meta-story is over, and an actual story has begun. This is where the action really begins.
So, as you sit down to the Seder this year, keep your eye on the ball. Until now, we talked about how important it is to retell the Exodus, how much we have to retell it, how we have to retell it, when we have to retell it – but we haven't yet actually retold it. Until right here. This is the beginning.
So how does that affect you? Well, at your Seder, it is easy to entertain lots of questions and divrei Torah about these introductory pieces – why Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah's beard was so white when he was only eighteen years old, and all that… but there is a price to pay for these indulgences. You get up to this point where we're at now, Mitchilah – and… by now, the kids are getting restless, the guests are hungry, and in front of you there's this dense and intimidating section of Rabbinical analysis. So if you're not careful, it's "Come on folks, we've got an afikoman to eat by midnight, let's move!"
My advice: Try not to fall into this trap. Say fewer divrei Torah on the introductory parts, and make sure you get up to here, fully awake and ready to go. Remember: The story starts here. Don't let it pass you by.
The Most Interesting Insights of the HaggdahIn the next videos of this course, we're going to tackle the next paragraphs of the Haggadah. They are some of the hardest to understand in the Haggadah. It is not easy to figure out exactly how they hang together at all, or what story they are meant to tell. But if we can piece together their puzzle, we will find ourselves richly rewarded. We will get an inside look at the Exodus story, as the rabbis beckoned us to see it. We will, I daresay, begin to see a side of the Exodus story that we never imagined existed before.
The Long and Twisted RoadSo now we seem to have arrived at the beginning of a story: "metchila ovdei avoda zara hayu avoteinu… In the beginning – or, once upon a time – our ancestors were idol worshipers."
The whole meta-discussion that preoccupied us in earlier paragraphs – all that advice about how to tell a story, when to tell it – that's all over now. This is the beginning of an actual story. But, don't get too excited yet; things aren't quite as simple as they seem. Let's concentrate now on the next few paragraphs of the Haggadah, and see if we can figure out what's going on.
Our game plan: We're going to go through this next section of the haggadah, mitchilah through arami oved avi, paragraph by paragraph, and as we do, we're going to continue to ask our two basic reading comprehension questions: What is this paragraph about? And how is it connected to what comes before and after it?
Metchila…Here we go:
מִתְּחִלָּה עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה הָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ - A long, long time ago, our ancestors were idol worshippers - וְעַכְשָׁיו קֵרְבָנוּ הַמָּקוֹם לַעֲבדָתוֹ - but now God has brought us close to Him; God has allowed us to enter His Service.
So here we are, at the Seder, thanking God for the privilege of being part of a special nation, a nation that is meant to dedicate itself to the service of God. It wasn't always that way for us. Once upon a time, we were all just a bunch of idolaters, just like everybody else hanging around the Fertile Crescent.
And, the author of the Haggadah continues with a quote a verse from the Book of Joshua to make that very point.
וַיֹאמֶר יְהוֹשֻעַ אֶל-כָּל-הָעָם, Joshua says to the nation: כֹּה אָמַר ה' אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל - Thus says the God of Israel - בְּעֵבֶר הַנָּהָר יָשְׁבוּ אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם מֵעוֹלָם - from time immemorial, your ancestors dwelled on the other side of the river - תֶּרַח אֲבִי אַבְרָהָם וַאֲבִי נָחוֹר - Terach, father of Abraham, father of Nachor - וַיַּעַבְדוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים - and those ancestors, they worshipped other gods.
The verses from Joshua then continue: וָאֶקַּח אֶת-אֲבִיכֶם אֶת-אַבְרָהָם מֵעֵבֶר הַנָּהָר - And then – I took your father Abraham from the other side of the river - וָאוֹלֵךְ אוֹתוֹ בְּכָל-אֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן - and I walked him throughout the land of Canaan - וָאַרְבֶּה אֶת-זַרְעוֹ - and I gave him many children. - וָאֶתֵּן לוֹ אֶת-יִצְחָק - I gave him Isaac - וָאֶתֵּן לְיִצְחָק אֶת-יַעֲקֹב וְאֶת-עֵשָׂו - and to Isaac, I gave Jacob and Esav. וָאֶתֵּן לְעֵשָׂו אֶת-הַר שֵּׂעִיר לָרֶשֶׁת אתוֹ - and I gave Esav the mountain of Se'ir as an inheritance - וְיַעֲקֹב וּבָנָיו יָרְדוּ מִצְרָיִם - and Jacob and his children went down to Egypt.
Okay, so to try and bring some order to all this, let's ask our reading comprehension question here: Why are these verses here, in the Haggadah? What are they doing?
Well, they start out proving that we were all once idolaters. But after that, the verses are also giving us a brief summary of the history of the Israelite nation from before the time of Abraham, and then taking us until the moment that Jacob and his sons arrive in Egypt. So, broadly speaking, we might say that we're hearing the prologue, the backstory to the Exodus, how the people of Israel came to find themselves enslaved in Egypt...
Fine; that kind of makes sense for something we'd want to have in the Haggadah. But the problem is, there are parts of this backstory that just seem kind of … irrelevant. For example:
We hear that God "walked Abraham throughout the land of Canaan." Yes, that's true, I suppose, but why is it relevant?
And, speaking of irrelevant, what about this? Ve'eten le'Esav et Har Se'ir lareshet oto - I gave Esav the mountain of Se'ir, as an inheritance. Now, why exactly is this here? Remember, these verses are being quoted to lay the foundation of the Exodus story...so… now we have to hear about Esav, and the mountain he called his home? Could we get any farther off topic than this if we tried? Why in the world are we talking about this at the Passover Seder?
Anyway, we will get back to all this stuff – but meanwhile, we finally arrive at the end of the verse: "Ve'Yaakov uvanav yardu Mitzrayma", Jacob and his sons went down to Egypt. Ok, so that's a bit of relief: We're finally back on track. We're finally up to the part where the nascent family of Israel goes down to Egypt.
So now let me ask you a question: If you were the author of the Haggadah, what would you write next? What should be the next order of business?
Well, if it were me I'd immediately jump in and get to the main point: We've told the backstory, now let's talk about the Exodus: We were in Egypt, we were enslaved, God appointed Moses, made lots of plagues happen, we left. Mazal tov.
And-it wouldn't actually have been all that hard. All he would have had to have done is continue quoting from the Book of Joshua. Because, believe it or not, that's exactly what the next verses in Joshua say: וָאֶשְׁלַ֞ח אֶת־מֹשֶׁ֤ה וְאֶֽת־אַהֲרֹן֙ - I sent Moses, and Aaron - וָאֶגֹּ֣ף אֶת־מִצְרַ֔יִם - and I plagued Egypt - כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִׂ֖יתִי בְּקִרְבּ֑וֹ - with all that I performed in their midst - וְאַחַ֖ר הוֹצֵ֥אתִי אֶתְכֶֽם - and then I took you out. And then the verses then go on to describe the Exodus and the splitting of the sea. It is all perfect material for the Seder! But none of it actually gets included here in the Haggadah; we only get the part that deals with the pre-history that came before our descent into Egypt. It really makes you wonder what the Sages were even thinking. Is this all some kind of terrible editor's mistake? Did they tell the printer: "Don't forget to include those important verses from Joshua, chapter 24," and then someone accidentally printed the wrong verses in the Haggadah? What exactly is going on here?
So anyway, for some reason, the author of the Haggadah doesn't quote the verses we would expect him to. What does he do instead?
Well, strangely, he doesn't go forward in history to the Exodus at all. Instead, he actually goes backwards! The very next paragraph in the Haggadah is Baruch Shomer Havtachato, a paragraph about the brit ben habetarim, a strange prophecy God made to Abraham, generations before the descent into slavery.Why is this paragraph here and how does it relate to the previous one? I don't know about you, but as I read this, I feel like I'm getting a serious case of whiplash. We went back to the times of Terach, then to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob and his family's descent into slavery – and now we're back to Abraham again? How do we make sense of all this?
Well, let's remember that problem, we'll come back to it – and let's continue.
Baruch Shomer Havtachato: Brit Bein Habetarim and the Haggadah KillerSo, Abraham had once asked God about how it would happen that he would inherit the land. The Haggadah is now going to tell you about God's response to him. God said: גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם - your descendents will be strangers in a foreign land - וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה - they will be enslaved and oppressed for 400 years - וְגַם אֶת-הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ דָּן אָנֹכִי - but I will exact judgment on that nation - וְאַחֲרֵי-כֵן יֵצְאוּ בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל - and then [your progeny] will leave with great wealth.
So boys and girls, let's stop for just a moment. It looks like the author of the Haggadah is trying to set up a situation where we can offer praise to God for bringing about the Exodus. Just listen to how the Haggadah itself introduces the brit ben habetarim here, with these words: בָּרוּךְ שׁוֹמֵר הַבְטָחָתוֹ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, בָּרוּךְ הוּא - Blessed is God, who has kept His promise to Israel, blessed is He. The Haggadah is really asking us to celebrate this prophecy here: Thank God, shechishev lo et haketz, who foresaw an end to Egyptian slavery – because look, he told Abraham that the slavery his children would experience would eventually end – and that's exactly what happened! Baruch HaShem!
But let's be real here. Doesn't this feel like a clever public relations way of presenting Genesis chapter 15 to you? Because, let's face it, boys and girls: Genesis 15 makes it very clear that Egyptian slavery didn't just happen. It seems as if it was a preordained event. God told Abraham it was going to happen, centuries before it actually did.
So if little Bobby or Debbie had enough courage, they might just raise their hands and ask this: "Mom, and Dad, please forgive me, but I'm having a hard time understanding why we are supposed to be so grateful to God for taking us out of Egypt if He's the one who put us there in the first place!
So if it were me, and I was writing the Haggadah, I would avoid Genesis Chapter 15 at all costs. But, no, the Haggadah, actually goes out of its way to call our attention to this fateful and difficult chapter of Genesis. It tries to convince us that yes, we should be so very grateful to God who put an end to Egyptian slavery! Baruch HaShem asher chishev lo et haketz. Somehow, the Haggadah seems blind to the obvious question: Why are we so happy about God keeping his promise here? Don't bring my kids down to slavery in the first place and you won't have to take them out afterwards!
So we've got a bunch of questions here: We'll get back to them, but in the meantime, let's soldier on.
What's next in the Haggadah? A song. We raise our glasses high, and sing [SING Vehi She'amda]. If anybody's attention has wavered until now, this is a moment when everybody perks up.
But one second, let's not get distracted by the tune. Let's focus on what the words actually mean:
Ve'hi She'amdaVe'hi She'amdah - And it has stood for us and for our forefathers. A little ambiguous here maybe, what does that really mean – but anyway, the paragraph goes on to explain that in every generation, anti-semitism rears its ugly head, and God somehow always comes through and saves us. It's like the author is saying: It wasn't only Egypt who tried to oppress us. Others always try to oppress us. But somehow, we always make it out by the skin of our teeth. God always saves us.
A very nice sentiment, to be sure. But again, let me ask you: Why are we talking about this right now? Remember: We still haven't gotten to the main deal here: The story of enslavement in Egypt and Redemption. Aren't we just getting lost in a sea of digressions?
Tzeh UlemadAnd then, just when you thought it can't get any more confusing … it does.
We set our glasses down, and we careen off to what seems like another tangent: "tzeh ulemad…"The Haggadah now starts talking about Jacob's father-in-law, Lavan. It suggests that Lavan had actually wanted to destroy Jacob and his entire family; that Lavan was somehow even really worse than Pharaoh.
Well, if you weren't lost before, you certainly will be now. Why is any of this here? We haven't mentioned Jacob for a couple of paragraphs now. We left him behind, just as he was going down to Egypt, back when we reversed track and ventured into Genesis 15. We then careened away from that, to talk about anti-semites in general and then, suddenly, bang – let's talk about Lavan. It's like your uncle Yankel is standing up and saying: Oh, speaking of anti-semites, Lavan would be a good example of an anti-semite! Let's talk about him for a while. Boy was he bad. But if it was uncle Yankel, everyone would just ignore him. This, though, is the Haggadah itself talking to us about Lavan. Why?
[Plaintively] Why, folks, are we doing this?
Arami Oved Avi - The Farmer's DeclarationWell, the happy news, at least, is that we've finally reached our destination. The Haggadah is going to pick up on this verse we've just quoted, from Deuteronomy, and keep quoting the next and the next verses – and lo and behold, these provide a pithy retelling of the Exodus saga. The rest of maggid is going to be an exegetical expansion of that story, highlighting certain themes, bringing us to the 10 plagues, splitting of the sea, Dayeinu and all that – and we're basically done with maggid. Great. But here's the basic question: Why couldn't we have just fast forwarded to this point long ago? Why meander through all this other stuff – Genesis 15, Lavan's perfidy, Esav's inheritance on Mt. Seir, Joshua's words about our forefathers who were idolaters. All that stuff. Why is it here?
In the coming videos, I want to suggest with you that the questions we've been asking now – they're not really problems, they are windows, opportunities. Together, these questions add up to something. There is a deep coherence to the section of the Haggadah we just looked at. We just need to discover it. Let's try our hand at doing that now.
Ve'hi She'amdahSo how are we going to piece together this whole section of the Haggadah that we have been studying? I think a key can be found in that celebratory declaration we sing, "Ve'hi She'eamdah." If we can understand that song, we'll begin to see the underlying story of the difficult passages we've been reading. So let's come back now to a question from our last video.
I mentioned that the declaration "Ve'hi she'amdah" is a little ambiguous: "And it has always stood for us, for our forefathers and for us here today as well." But the question is, what is it?,What, exactly, has always stood for us? The paragraph goes on to suggest that, in every generation, God has always saved us from those who would threaten us. But it says that God has done this because "it" has always stood for us. What is "it"?
So, if you just look at the context of the Ve'hi She'amdah declaration, the answer seems pretty clear. "It" refers to the very last thing the Haggadah was talking about, right before that paragraph. Which was… the brit ben habetarim – that strange prophecy in which the reality of a four hundred years sojourn in slavery was first revealed by God to Abraham. Somehow, it is the brit ben habetarim that has stood for us in every generation. How could that be?
Well, the Brit Ben HaBetarim contained a promise, and the Haggadah is making a very bold claim about that promise. It is claiming that the promise God made to Abraham in that prophecy – that after we were persecuted for four hundred years, God would bail us out and deliver us from oppression – that was not, actually, a one time thing. No. It was a recurring promise; it was a promise that, according to the Haggadah, stands for us in every generation: Nations persecute us, but God delivers us from their hands. Regardless of historical circumstances – whether it is the Crusades, the Chmelnitsky pogroms, the Warsaw Ghetto – the promise declares that the nation will never be destroyed by these things. In each generation, that promise God made to Abraham, is being fulfilled again, and again and again.
Evaluating This Claim Now, if you stand back and think about it, this claim is really startling. Because if you and I were just kind of perusing the Book of Genesis and got up to the Brit Ben Habetarim and read it, it doesn't seem like this is what the prophecy is saying. It sounds like God is cluing Abraham in to a particular set of events, at a particular moment in historical time: You children will be enslaved for hundreds of years, then I will take them out with great wealth, and the fourth generation shall return here." That's it. It really seems like a one time event.
So, the claim that no, this is not a one time event – that's really startling. It is the kind of claim that, were it not being made by the Haggadah, but, say, by one of your guests at the Seder – the promise God made to Abraham, it is a promise that keeps getting fulfilled, over and over again – you'd say, yes, yes, Uncle Phil, that's all very nice, can you please pass the brisket or something. I mean, you wouldn't think what Uncle Phil was saying was actually true. But the Haggadah is not just flippantly spinning words; it's saying something we are meant to take very seriously. Ve'hi She'amdah: That promise was a promise with many iterations. It has always stood for us. Why would the Haggadah make such a brazen claim?
It's Really True I want to show you that the claim the Haggadah is making about the Brit Ben Habetarim – it's not wild speculation, or hopeful dreaming. It is, in fact, demonstrably true. The Sages – they weren't just giving us some rosy political spin on the Brit Ben Habetarim. No. They had abundant evidence to support their claim about God's promise to Abraham applying in every generation. And once we see that evidence, not only will we understand that they were right about the Brit Ben HaBetarim having iterations throughout history; we will also have the answer to the "Haggadah Killer" question we asked last video: Why should we celebrate God's taking us out of slavery if He put us there in the first place"? I want to uncover that evidence, by looking with you at the Brit Ben Habetarim itself.
Back to the Biblical Text "Your children are going to be strangers in a land not their own, they are going to be enslaved for four hundred years, the fourth generation is going to return here."
It's a mysterious prophecy. We know how it ultimately came to fruition, through the centuries of Egyptian slavery. But the interesting question to ask is: it ended up being realized that way, but did it have to be realized that way? Might here have been alternatives? Could Abraham's prophecy have been fulfilled in other, surprising, ways?
To show you what I mean, I want to take you back to one of the points in Genesis that the Haggadah references for us: Jacob's sojourn in the house of his father in law, Lavan. It turns out that after Yaacov spent twenty long years laboring faithfully in Lavan's service – one day, seemingly out of the blue, Yaakov decided it was time to go back home to the land of Canaan.
The text says it this way: "vayihi ka'asher yaldo Rachel et-Yosef." It happened when Rachel gave birth to Yosef, that – "Vayomer Yaakov," – Yaakov said to Lavan, his father-in-law, "shalcheini," let me go, "v'elcha el makomi el artzi," and I'll go back to my place, to my land.
Now, something strange is going on there. If you read that verse carefully, the text seems to suggest that there was something about the birth of Yosef that propelled Yaakov to want to leave. Again: "Vayihi ka'asher yaldo Rachel et-Yosef." When Rachel gave birth to Joseph, then Jacob said to Lavan, let me go please. Why connect those two things? What was it about the birth of Yosef that convinced Yaakov it was time to go?
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zatzal once suggested a fascinating theory. We talked about it once in an earlier set of videos we once did – you can find the link to those below – but let me briefly recount his theory to you:
The Fourth Generation Rabbi Soloveitchik says this: All the forefathers knew about Abraham's dramatic prophecy, but no one knew exactly how it would come to be. It was all very obscure. On the one hand, there was supposed to be four hundred of years of slavery. Four hundred years – that's a long time. But on the other hand, the fourth generation was supposed to be the one to "return here." Well, four generations – that's a relatively short time. The math just didn't seem to add up. How was this all supposed to happen?
Rabbi Soloveitchik theorizes, that perhaps Yaakov saw an interpretation that rang true for him. To see how Yaakov would have seen the prophecy, just put yourself in his shoes for a minute:
"Your children will be strangers in a land not their own." So you're Yaakov, and you're mulling over those words God once told your grandfather. And you think maybe, just maybe, you know what God might have been talking about. Remember, Yaakov had run away from Canaan into a sort of exile in Haran, in Lavan's household. He had been seeking to escape the wrath of his brother Esav, and so he left the land of Israel. So perhaps Yaakov, after spending all these years in Lavan's house, looked at himself and said: Maybe that's me. After all, I am a stranger in the land not my own.
So then Jacob looks at the next word in the prophecy: "va'avadum," Abraham's children would be enslaved. Yaakov looked at himself: And yes, that sounds like me too. I've been working nonstop twenty years without any cessation. It was akin to slavery. So the prophecy then continued: "va'inu otam." Abraham's children won't just be enslaved; they will be oppressed. They will be the victim of injustices. Jacob says to himself: I've been the victim of injustices at the hand of my treacherous father-in-law Lavan. And then the prophecy had said "arba me'ot shana," it would happen for four hundred years. "Alright, so it wasn't four hundred years. But look – maybe the prophecy is just using language that suggests a very long time (keep in mind, by the way, that even the ultimate slavery in Egypt didn't last four hundred years, only two hundred and ten). So here's Jacob thinking: I was in slavery here for a really long time, it's been twenty years!"
Anyway, the promise then continued. God had said: 'I am going to exact judgment against the oppressor,' "va'acharei ken yetzu b'rchush gadol"—such that afterwards, the progeny of Abraham will leave with great wealth. Well, what does Yaakov do as he leaves? God performs this miracle with all these spotted and speckled sheep, and presto, Jacob is really wealthy. It really looked like God was vindicating him, making sure that he left the house of the oppressor with great wealth, in compensation for all those years of unrequited labor. It really seemed like the prophecy of his grandfather was coming true through him.
And finally Rav Soloveitchik says, Yaakov looks at these final words of the prophecy: "Vedor revi'i yashuvu hena": the fourth generation will return here, to the land of Israel. Well, Yaakov knew how to do math. Abraham; that would be generation number one. Yitzhak. That's generation number two. Then there's Me, Yaakov, that's generation number three. And now my child, Yosef – this is my firstborn child from the woman I was always really supposed to marry, Rachel. And with his birth, the long awaited fourth generation has finally arrived. It is time for me to go home.
And so: "Vayhih ka'asher yaldo Rachel et-Yosef" - it happened when Rachel gave birth to Yosef – that Jacob said "shalcheini v'elcha el-makomi el-artzi": Let me go, and let me return to my native land. The language here evokes the words we hear later on, when Moses says to Pharaoh: "Let my people go!" Yaakov thought it was him, that he was the fulfillment of Abraham's mysterious prophecy.
Was Yaakov Right or Wrong? Okay, so if we stop occupying Yaakov's place in history for a minute, and we come back to our own day and age – it is easy to kind of scoff at Yaakov here, to sort of make fun of his misconceptions. Boy, was he mistaken! We know the truth. We know that God's promise to Abraham was never really about him, never really about Yaakov and his stay in the house of Lavan; it was about all those years of Egyptian slavery.
So that's what we tend to think. But are we really right in thinking that? Rabbi Soloveitchik argues: It is not as clear as it looks. Because, if you go back to the Biblical text, you start seeing these mysterious things; things that, in a curious way, seem to validate Jacob's position. Look, for example, at the way the Torah describes how Yaakov left Lavan's house:
"Vayugad l'Lavan b'yom ha-shlishi ki barach Yaakov": On the third day, it was told to Lavan that Yaakov had run away. Well, where else in the Bible do you hear that exact formulation, "vayugad l"X""—and it was told to "X"—"ki barach "Y""—that "Y" had fled? It only appears one other time in all of the Hebrew Bible. You might have guessed it. "Vayugad l'melech Mitzraim ki barach ha-am," and it was told to the King of Egypt that the people had fled. Yes, at the actual exodus from Egypt; that language- it comes back! The language in Exodus is really just a quotation from the language the Torah uses when it describes Yaakov leaving the house of Lavan.
And: When was it told to Lavan that Yaakov had fled? On the third day, according to the text. Well, think about "the third day" in the context of the later story of the Exodus. You remember how Moses had always said to Pharaoh: Just let us go for three days and we'll come back? So, when would it have "been told to the King of Egypt that the Israelites have fled" and are not coming back? That would have happened on the third day…
These connections keep coming. Keep reading the Jacob and Lavan story: "vayikach et-echav imo": Lavan took all of his brothers with him. And, when Pharaoh chased after the Israelites, "v'et ammo lakach imo." Pharaoh, too, took the people with him – with almost the exact same words.
The next verb we hear in the Jacob story is: "vayirdof acharav," Lavan takes his people and chases after Yaakov. Later on, "vayirdof acharei bnei Yisrael." Pharaoh chases after the Israelites. Same words! "Vayaseg Lavan et-Yaakov": Lavan caught up with Yaakov. And, "Vayasigu otam," Pharaoh and his army caught up with the Israelites. Again same words.
All of these verbs – 'vayugad,' 'vayikach,' 'vayirdof,' 'vayaseg,' – every one of them, in order; they all appear first with Jacob leaving Lavan, then with Israel leaving Pharaoh. So I ask you, one more time, was Yaakov really wrong?
And think about this: How long, in the end, did Yaakov work in the house of Lavan for? Twenty years. He left at the start of the twenty-first. Don't you think it's just a little bit coincidental that when Israel left Egypt, they didn't actually leave at the end of four hundred years? They left at the end of two hundred and ten. It's the same number multiplied by ten.
Microcosm, Macrocosm It's as if what happened to the Israelites, ultimately, in Egypt, was just a national playing out on the macrocosmic scale of what happened in miniature to Yaakov in Lavan's house. The two events – Exodus from Lavan, Exodus from Egypt – they were virtually one and the same. Leading us to a tantalizing conclusion, perhaps: Yaakov wasn't wrong. It could have all been over with his twenty years of labor in Lavan's house. When he came back to Canaan, he could have been the one to establish the nation of Israel; to see it blossom into a full grown, sovereign people, living in peace in its own land!
But in the end, that wasn't the way it turned out.
Why not? Why wasn't he the one?
Well, let's talk about that.
Goats and Coats
The Sale of Joseph: The Trigger for Round ThreeSo, why wasn't the Brit Ben Habetarim over and done with, at the conclusion of Jacob's "slavery-like" experience in the house of Lavan? That is a very interesting question. Our Sages actually take it up in a fascinating comment. They say that when Yaakov returned to the land of Canaan, "bikesh Yaakov lashev b'shalva": Jacob thought that he'd arrived. He was just trying to settle down in peace and build the nation of Israel. The Biblical text suggests as much, telling us, "vayeshev Yaakov b'eretz megureha avi b'eretz kanaan": Yaakov- he had came to settle in the land in which his fathers had only been sojourners. The time for being a stranger, seemed to Jacob to be over. He was now ready to start building the nation.
But alas, it was not to be. The Sages continue with their comment - "Kafatz alav rogzo shel Yosef," the the travail of the sale of Yosef caught Jacob by surprise. It changed everything.
Listen carefully to what the Sages are saying, here: Yaakov could have been the fulfillment of Abraham's promise; he could have been the one to come home to Canaan, to live in peace, to establish the nation. Except for one little problem: The sale of Yosef. The sale of Yosef eventually brings the entire family down to Egypt. And this time, it's not just one man and his family who undergo hard work with a difficult father in law. No, this time, it is an entire nation – hundreds of thousands of people – and this time, they're in full-fledged slavery.
Why? Because, chillingly, we had made history repeat itself. Somehow, we, as a family, fell into a trap that catalyzed exile, one more time.
Think about it. We saw earlier that Jacob left exile in his father in law's house the same way his children would later leave exile in Pharaoh's house. We saw that Jacob's experience of exile in Lavan's house was a taste of the experience of exile his children would have later in Pharaoh's house. But there's one more piece to that puzzle. Because, ask yourself, how did Israel get down to Egypt? And was that, too, similar to how Yaakov got down to Lavan's house?
And the answer is: It surely was.
How did the Israelites get themselves down Egypt? They got themselves down there when brothers deceived their father and other brothers; when brothers took a goat, slaughtered it, and then put its blood on a coat, and brought that bloody coat to their father and asked him if he could recognize who the coat belonged to. Now, does that sound familiar at all to you?
Ask yourself, how did Jacob as an individual get down to exile in Lavan's house? Well, a brother deceived his father and brother, slaughtering a goat and dressing up in his brothers' coat – and then bringing the goat and coat to his father and daring him, in essence, to recognize who was wearing that coat. Aren't the parallels kind of chilling?
Both deceptions brought us down into exile. Goats and Coats I – Yaakov's deception of Esav and Yitzchak - that brought Yaakov into mini-slavery in Lavan's house. And Goats and Coats II – the sale of Joseph - that's what brought us all into real slavery in Pharaoh's house. One son's deception of his father, Yaakov's, led to twenty one years of servitude for him and his family. Ten sons' deception of their father led to... 10 times that: 210 years of servitude for an entire nation.
Answering the "Haggadah Killer" So, I want to argue that we are now, finally, in a position to address that "Haggadah Killer" question I raised earlier with you – that dreaded moment where little Jimmy, if only he dares, raises his hand at the Seder and asks: "Mommy, Daddy… Why are we thanking God for taking us out of Egypt, if He's the one who put us there in the first place?"
Well, in a very real sense, we see now that the exile was a consequence of human actions. God didn't put us into slavery in Egypt, so much as we sent ourselves there when we reenacted the same cycle of jealousy, hatred and deceit that sent Jacob into mini slavery to Lavan's house only a generation before. When God told this prophecy to Abraham at the Brit Bein Habetarim, it wasn't really a decree, so much as it was a revelation of what would transpire.
I mean, look how God Himself puts it in the brit ben habetarim. Listen carefully to the language, and ask yourself: What part of this does God really think that He, God, is responsible for?
Ger yihiyah zaracha be'eretz lo lahem… Your children will be sojourners in a land not their own.
Any mention of God there? It's not really God doing it, it's just – this is what I see happening…your children are going to be sojourners
Va'avadum… and the nation inhabiting that land will enslave them.
Again, no mention of God there? The ones who will do this will be the inhabitants of the land. God isn't taking responsibility for this.
V'inu otam. And it says, those people are going to oppress your progeny.
Still no action by God. It's those people who will do this.
Vegam et hagoy asher ya'avodu dan anochi… But the nation that your progeny serves – I, God, will exact justice from them – and your children will leave with great wealth.
Right there – there's God. Suddenly, for the very first time, there's God's involvement. Right there- when you come out of Exile.
You see, what God is saying to Abraham is: You want to know how you're going to get to the land? Here's what I see in the future. Your children are going to get themselves into one big mess. They're going to land themselves in slavery, in some other nation's land. And usually, when a family or a nation gets enslaved and oppressed, as a class, when they're guests in someone else's land – they don't emerge from that. That's the end of them as a distinct people. But here's the thing: You will survive. I'll see to that. I will be there for you in your times of trouble. When things look darkest for you, when it seems there's no way out – I'll be there to redeem you from the mess into which you got yourselves.
In the end, what God redeemed us from, was hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt. But the Brit Ben HaBetarim was an elastic prophecy: How it would eventually come to fruition would depend on human action, on the choices that we as a people would make. No one forced brothers to deceive their father and to sell Joseph as a slave down to Egypt. Had that episode – Goats and Coats II – never occurred, well, it seems entirely possible that the brit ben habetarim would have come to its ultimate meaning far earlier, in a much milder way… merely through the hard labor and maltreatment that Jacob experienced working under Lavan. And, to peel back the onion just a little bit more, no one forced Jacob to deceive Esav and his father in what we've been calling "Goats and Coats I" either. Had that episode not occurred, who knows how God's promise to Abraham might have been fulfilled? Maybe in an even more mild way…
I want to argue to you that this perspective informs the section of the Haggadah we've been talking about. From top to bottom, it's really all about this. This, indeed, is why the Haggadah starts transitioning into Maggid with that quote from the Book of Joshua. Because if you look at those verses in Joshua carefully, Joshua was talking about these "what if" scenarios, also.
Back to Joshua Let's read it again, with this new understanding in the back of our minds. It will look a whole lot different, I think.
Joshua, just before his death, recounts to the people their history. How they got to where they're now, standing in the Land of Israel, about to really take possession of it. The road to here, he suggests, was a long one. But it didn't have to be this long.
For starters, take a look at the verbs Joshua uses to describe the early happenings in our history. Ask yourself, again, who is doing what. Joshua begins by saying: "Va'ekach et avichem…" I took your father, Abraham. I took. Pretty clear who is responsible for this, right? God is the one who took Abraham. Va'olech oto bechol eretz Kna'an – and I walked him through the land. Again, who is doing this? God. "Va'arbeh et Zaro". And I gave him many children… Again, God assumes responsibility for Abraham having those children. As a matter of fact, God assumes responsibility for everything that's happening in these verses – with the exception of one thing: Veya'akov Ubanav Yardu Mitzrayim; Jacob and his sons descended to Egypt.
Oh, so who did that? It's not "and I made Jacob descend to Egypt". No, the family did this. They descended to Egypt – because of Goats and Coats II, because of the Sale of Joseph.
Truth be told, the verses we've just looked at take us through, in a subtle way, not just Goats and Coats II but Goats and Coats I, as well – Jacob's deception of Esav and his father, Yitzchak. They paint for us a picture of what life might have been like had that earlier event, Jacob's deception of Esav, not occurred. Again, look carefully at what Joshua is saying to us:
"The ancestors of Abraham worshipped idols going back to time immemorial. Then, I took your father Abraham and I brought him across the river, I walked him through the entirety of the land of Canaan..." So just stop there for a second and ask yourself: What was the significance of that? How would Abraham have seen the significance of that?
Put yourself in Abraham's shoes:
The Promise Begins to be Realized You're Abraham. Your family had worshipped idols in Ur Kasdim. But then, one day, God revealed himself to you, and gave you a mission – and a promise. You were going to build a nation, dedicated to God's service, living right here, in the Land of Canaan.
The promise and the mission really have two parts: Children and land. Your progeny, they're going to become great, and they will come to inherit this, particular, land.
Then, as Joshua tells us, God took Abraham and had him cross the river, into Canaan. And he had him walk all over the place in Canaan. So, if you're Abraham, what does that feel like? It feels to you like the promise is beginning to come true. Here I am in Canaan. God is having me walk the land, I'm starting to possess that land; God is giving it to me.
And it's not just the land that God is giving to me. The other part of the promise is starting to come true, as well. God is starting to give me children. Read the next words in Joshua: And God made Abraham's progeny great: He gave him Isaac.
We remarked before about how strange that had seemed: God had promised Abraham "great progeny" – but great progeny sure sounds like a lot more than one little kid, doesn't it? But that's looking at it from hindsight, from our perspective. We know about hundreds of thousands of Israelites entering the land, after a great sea crossing. But don't look at it that way; look at it from Abraham's perspective, after his river crossing. For decades, he and Sarah had been childless. God promises him 'great progeny', yes; but year after year goes by – and still no kids. Then, all of a sudden, at the ripe old age of ninety-nine – Isaac is born. He and Sarah finally have a child.
So… how does it feel when you and your wife have your first kid when you're ninety-nine? You just went from zero to one on the progeny scale: Technically, that's an infinite increase. It's only one son, but in the grand scheme of things, this child is the carrier of your legacy, the first bud of a nation that will follow. And it doesn't stop there, going back to that verse in Joshua, "וָאֶתֵּן לְיִצְחָק אֶת-יַעֲקֹב וְאֶת-עֵשָׂו", I gave Isaac two sons, Jacob and Esav. So we just went from one to two: The number of progeny just doubled. It feels, towards the end of your life, Abraham, like the promise is coming true. God really is increasing his progeny – in a mind-boggling way. If you were an enterprising reporter, and you landed an exit interview with Abraham towards the end of his life – how would he interpret what's happening? God made me a promise, and He seems to be keeping it: I have my own land and my nation is well under way.
Esav and Mt. Seir That may well have been how Abraham had seen things. But it's not how things turned out. Keep on reading that verse in Joshua. "וָאֶתֵּן לְעֵשָׂו אֶת-הַר שֵּׂעִיר לָרֶשֶׁת אתוֹ," I gave Esav Har Se'ir as an inheritance. We asked about that before. Why is that even in the Haggadah? This is a night to celebrate Israel and its story – who cares about Esav and his mountain?
Well, it actually makes perfect sense. Let me show you.
Hope is RealSo why are we talking about Esav and his inheritance all of a sudden?
The answer is: this is the moment that the train started going off the rails. You see, if you go back to Abraham's exit interview – how he would have seen things at the end of his life – well, he sees his progeny double in the personhood of Yaakov and Esav. The way things could have gone, these two children should have gone on to receive an inheritance from God, together. They should have been the ones, together, to live his dream to establish the nation. But that was not to be. One brother deceives another and the two brothers go their separate ways.
And now, there are two God-given inheritances. Esav he takes his in Mt. Se'ir. And Jacob? You might expect the verse in Joshua to conclude by telling us that Jacob took his in the Land of Canaan. But instead, it tells us of a detour: Jacob and his children took the long route. First, they were in the House of Lavan for twenty years. And then, just as they were coming back to Canaan, just as they finally had hopes of settling down after a two decade detour… the Sale of Joseph happened, and Yaakov and his children went down to Egypt. The nation wouldn't come out of it, to finally take their inheritance alongside Esav, for centuries.
Truth is, the Haggadah is really just taking its cue here from the Book of Genesis, where this point comes across even more starkly. Back in Genesis -- right after we read about Jacob and Esau reuniting and reconciling, putting the turmoil of Goats and Coats I behind them, we get what looks like a strange digression: A full chapter devoted to, of all things, a comprehensive listing of the progeny of Esav. In that chapter, we read these pointed words: These are the kings that ruled in Edom, before there ever ruled a king among the People of Israel. The words of the text almost stab at you: Esav receives his inheritance, and we hear about king after king from his progeny. He became a full fledged, sovereign nation in his own land so early on. And Jacob? Well, he has to wait centuries before arriving in his land, before the first of his progeny is ever crowned. Why? Because what's the very next story. Chapter 37, that's Goats and Coats II, The Sale of Joseph. Jacob could have got his inheritance, too – it was time for the two brothers to get that inheritance. But one wasn't ready. Jacob, because of the Sale of Joseph, ends up descending into centuries of Egyptian servitude.
Baruch Shomer Havtachto So back to the Haggadah. Yaakov descended into exile; his children became slaves. And, had things gone the way you might have expected it, they would have stayed in Egypt, never to come out.
Instead, God's promise to Abraham came to life:
בָּרוּךְ שׁוֹמֵר הַבְטָחָתוֹ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, בָּרוּךְ הוּא - Blessed is God who kept His promise to Israel - שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא חִשַּׁב אֶת-הַקֵּץ - For God calculated the end… God established an endpoint to that slavery, an endpoint that otherwise might not have existed at all if it weren't for God. Why? - שֶּׁאָמַר לְאַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ בִּבְרִית בֵּין הַבְּתָרִים - Because of the promise that God had made to Abraham at the Brit Bein Habetarim. The promise was, I will always be there to deliver them. The progeny of Abraham – they can delay becoming my nation in the Land of Israel; they can delay the realization of that dream, but they can't stamp that dream out. They can't extinguish it. No matter what they get themselves into, I will always be there to take them out.
Ve'hi She'amdah Once this promise is on the table, literally, we, reciting the Haggadah, we lift up our glasses and sing, ve'hi - this promise God made to Abraham: It has always stood for us and for our ancestors. שֶׁלֹּא אֶחָד בִּלְבָד עָמַד עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ - Because it wasn't just one person who tried to destroy us - אֶלָּא שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר - in each and every generation - עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלוֹתֵנוּ - different nations rise up to try to destroy us - וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם - And God, He saved us from them all. It's all because of this promise God made to Abraham all those years ago.
So, all told, the Haggadah is making this breathtaking claim: It is grounding all of Jewish survival throughout the generations in the Brit Bein Habetarim. Right? It wasn't just a localized prophecy, it's a promise that stretched out over time, has many iterations, and continued to replay itself time and time again throughout our nation's history. And just to hammer home the point, the next thing the Haggadah does… is prove this claim to you:
The Proof Tzeh u'lemad - come, let me teach you about this. Let me teach you what Lavan tried to do to Jacob and his family… it was even worse than what Pharaoh tried to do.
You know, when you and I first read those words, we were confused. What in the world, we wondered, does Lavan have to do with Pharaoh? But of course, now we know.
Long before Pharaoh, there was someone else who wanted to wipe us out, in a mini-version of Egyptian oppression. That person was Lavan. He tried to wipe out Jacob and his entire family, by seeking to keep them in his own house, and to assimilate them into his own world. You see, tzeh u'lemad isn't a meandering digression. It's the proof of the pudding. It is here to show us that the claim of ve'hi she'amda is actually real: The Brit Bein Habetarim was an iterated promise. When God spoke to Abraham, His words carried more than one meaning: First, the promise God made to Abraham came back and saved us from national demise when we were in Lavan's house. And then, generations later, the very same promise came back to save us from national demise yet again, on a larger scale: It came back to deliver us from the hand of Pharaoh, an exaggerated version of Lavan -- and to bring us out of Egypt.
What it All Means So… the fact that the brit ben habetarim was not a one time promise, it was clearly an iterated one, a promise that can be demonstrated to have been fulfilled, even in the Biblical era, more than once – that is crucial for the Haggadah. It means everything to the Haggadah's author, and it means everything to us, the Haggadah's readers. Let me show you why.
Let me pull back the zoom lens with you and ask you to consider this: Fine. We've explained some of the remarkable twists and turns of the first half of Maggid - those verses from Joshua that deal with Abraham; the inclusion of the Brit Bein Habetarim; seeing that covenant as something to celebrate instead of the source of a terrible decree; and we've talked about that strange segue into Lavan and Jacob's experience there. Okay, but let me ask you this: Yes, it all hangs together. But what's the point of talking about it all? Why not just leave it all out and dive straight into the Exodus story? Why do we have all this introductory stuff?
Well, in a way, no less a personage than Maimonides, than Rambam, answers this for us. As it happens, Maimonides' introduction to Maggid is this: נֹסַח הַהַגָּדָה שֶׁנָּהֲגוּ בָּהּ יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּזְמָן הַגָּלוּת כָּךְ הוּא - "This is the text of the Haggadah, that the People of Israel have adopted the custom to say, during the time of Exile. It goes as follows..."
Fascinating. Maimonides makes a point of telling us that the section of the Haggadah we are about to read was composed with a particular audience in mind: the People of Israel living in Exile. Why does he tell us that?
The 97% I think Maimonides – and, in fact, the Haggadah itself – is keenly sensitive to a very basic problem that confronts the reader of the Haggadah in exile. You see, exile has been a reality of life for a great deal of Jewish history; for really the majority of Jewish history. Thousands and thousands of Jews, spread over many centuries and many continents, have experienced the Seder night – a night celebrating freedom, salvation and light, and wonderfulness – where? In the darkest of times. So the great question is: How do I celebrate the Exodus during the Chmielnitzki Massacres; how do I celebrate it while my family and I weep by the rivers of Babylon? If I am huddled with my family in a cellar during the First Crusade; if I hear the horsemen rampaging outside and the drunken shouts of the mob – how, exactly, am I supposed to celebrate a night of redemption with a straight face? What, exactly, should I be celebrating if I'm huddled away in Mila 18 in the last days of the Warsaw Ghetto? In all of these situations, recalling the glory days of redemption from Egypt seems like a cruel and harsh joke. What is the Haggadah supposed to mean for us in those dark times?
The answer lies in the mysterious but wonderful promise of the Brit Ben Habetarim. Joshua, a survivor of the Egyptian exile, knew the answer. And the Haggadah wants to share Joshua's insight with all of us. When Abraham plaintively turned to God and asked how it would be that his descendants would come to experience the promise of nationhood in the land, God revealed a truth to him, and the essence of that truth was a guarantee of undying Divine love. The promise of nationhood I'm giving you, God says, may be delayed by all sorts of twists and turns that your descendants impose upon themselves; I can't stop them from deceiving one another, or selling each other as slaves. I can't forestall exile if you choose to take each other down to Egypt. But, I can guarantee you that there will be an end to those exiles, that the nation will not be extinguished in the mists of time, on foreign soil. There will be an end. I will always be there. My promise to you is eternal.
And that is why we celebrate the Exodus, even in exile. It is the rationale, as it were, for why we speak of redemption from Egypt even at night. Not just the night of each 24 hour cycle, but the nights of eons; the nights that are so much a part of the centuries of Jewish history where pain and exile loom, seemingly incessantly, all around us, and in the road ahead of us. The redemption from Egypt, and the redemption from Lavan's house prove something: Each was a product of the same promise. God was there for us each time. Because look, if the promise God made to Abraham was a one time promise – so it happened once and that's it. But if it's not a one time promise; if I can show you – as the Haggadah does -- that it has more than one iteration… well then, it's the promise that keeps coming back. It is always real. Ve'hi Sh'amdah. It has always been there for us. If it was there for us after 21 years, and after 210, then it will be there for us after 2100 years, too.
This is the message that the Haggadah is giving to the Jews sitting in Exile: The hope that we feel, deep in our hearts – it is not just a fanciful, childish plaything. No, hope is real. It is grounded in our history, grounded in a promise. God will bring us out of this. It may take years, even generations, but Abraham's promise is still with us. It will not fade away.