producers-circle

The Fifth, Unasked Question, Of The Passover Haggadah

Why Did God Allow Israel To Be Enslaved?


Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

The Haggadah plays such a large part of the Seder, that sometimes we don't ask the big questions about what the Haggadah is really telling us:

(1) Why do we read the Haggadah, when the backbone of the text is from Deuteronomy, rather than Exodus itself?

(2) Or, why do we celebrate that God took us out of slavery, if He was the one who let us become slaves in the first place?

Regarding the first question, in the Haggadah, the Sages point our focus to a personal telling of the Exodus in Deuteronomy, rather than the actual account of the Exodus story. Does this imply that we should also take a personal perspective when retelling the Exodus on Passover?

Regarding the second question, the Haggadah points to God's promise to Abraham that He would save his descendants – but first the Israel nation would become captive for four generations. Why did God allow the Israelites to become enslaved in the first place? Why not skip the whole 400 years of slavery, and go straight to the happy ending?

In this course, Rabbi Fohrman re-examines the Haggadah text in search for answers, finding a new perspective behind the Haggadah's meaning, and a deeper understanding as to why we have so much to be thankful for during our Passover celebrations.

Read More

Please sign in or sign up to comment.

Transcript

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.'

Fighting the Haggadah Lullaby

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.

Asking the Big Questions About the Haggadah

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?

Understanding the Haggadah's Perspective of Passover

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.

God's Promise of Slavery and Freedom

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.

Why Did God Allow Israel's Enslavement for 400 Years?

"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.

Why Didn't God Stop the Slavery of Israel?

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.

Goats and Coats

If we really want to come to grips with this question of why we thanked God for having taken us out of Egypt, it seems to me we really need to face squarely this strange prophecy that God reveals to Abraham that we talked about in our last video, that prophecy that "your children are going to be strangers in a land not their own, that 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, 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? Abraham's prophecy could have actually been fulfilled in other surprising ways. And in order to understand those ways, we need to go back to some of the early stories in B'Reshit.

Way back in B'Reshit the Torah records that our forefather Yaacov spent twenty long years laboring faithfully at the service of his father-in-law, Lavan. Then one day, seemingly entirely out of the blue, Yaakov decided it was time to go back home to the land of Canaan. The verse says "vayihi ka'asher yaldo Rachel et-Yosef." It happened when Rachel gave birth to Yosef. "Vayomer Yaakov," that 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.

Something strange is going on here. The text seems to suggest that there was something about the birth of Yosef that propelled Yaakov to want to part from Lavan. "Vayihi ka'asher yaldo Rachel et-Yosef." When Rachel gave birth to Joseph, then Jacob said to Lavan, let me go please. What was it about the birth of Yosef that made Yaakov convinced it was time to go? Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik [zatzal] once suggested a fascinating theory.

All the forefathers knew about Abraham's dramatic prophecy but no one knew exactly when or where it would happen; it was all very obscure. And for all that ambiguity, Rabbi Soloveitchik theorizes, perhaps Yaakov saw an interpretation that rang true for him. The prophecy would have been: "your children will be strangers in a land not their own." Yaakov, having run away from his brother Esav, no longer in Canaan, in Haran in Lava's household—perhaps he looked at himself and said, maybe that's me. I am a stranger in the land not my own.

And then the prophecy continued: "va'avadum," Abraham's children would be enslaved. Yaakov looked at himself: I've been working and working and working for twenty years without any cessation. It was akin to slavery. The prophecy continued: "va'inu otam." Abraham's children won't just be enslaved; they will be oppressed. They will be the victim of injustices. 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 didn't happen for four hundred years. Maybe it just means a long time. I was in slavery here for a long time. It's been twenty long years!"

God continued in the promise saying that '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. What does Yaakov do as he leaves? He has this trick by which the sheep are going to give birth to spotted and speckled sheep. And, in fact, God helps him. Miraculously, there is all these spotted and speckled sheep. It really looked like God was vindicating him, was making sure that he left the house of the oppressor with great wealth for all of those many years with unrequited labor. It seemed like the prophecy was coming true. And finally Rav Soloveitchik says, "dor revi'i yashuvu hena": the fourth generation will return to the land of Israel.

Ahhh, let's see. Abraham. That's generation number one. Yitzhak. That's generation number two. Me, Yaakov, that's generation number three and now my child, Yosef. I was tricked into marrying Leah, yes, I have lots of children from her. But my real wife, Rachel, her first child, the fourth generation has arrived in the personhood of this little baby Yosef.

"Vayhih ka'asher yaldo Rachel et-Yosef" and 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. It almost evokes the words later on in Moses: "let my people go!" Yaakov thought it was him! He thought he was the fulfillment of this prophecy. We know that it was never talking about Yaakov and the house of Lavan. It was talking about Jews in the house of Pharaoh!

It's not so clear. Let's look at how Yaakov leaves 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 ran away. Where else in the Bible do you ever hear those words? That exact formulation, "vayugad l"X""—and it was told to "X"—"ki barach "Y""—that "Y" had fled—appears only one other time in all of the Hebrew Bible. Where is that other time? 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, at the actual exodus from Egypt; that's the language. But it's really just a quotation from the language that the Torah uses when it describes Yaakov leaving the house of Lavan. When, by the way, was it told to Lavan that Yaakov had fled? On the third day, according to the text.

Think about the third day in the context of the King of Egypt. You remember how Moses had always said just let us go for three days and we'll come back. When would it have been told to the King of Egypt that the Jews have fled and are not coming back? By sundown, on that third day. It keeps on going. Listen to the rest of the verbs in the sentence, "vayikach et-echav imo": Lavan took all of his brothers with him. When Pharaoh chased after the Jews, "v'et ammo lakach imo." Pharaoh too took the people with him. The next verb that we hear is "vayirdof acharav," Lavan takes his people and chases after Yaakov. Later on, "vayirdof acharei bnei Yisrael." Pharaoh chases after the Jews. "Vayaseg Lavan et-Yaakov": Lavan caught up with Yaakov. "Vayasigu otam" [the] verse says: Pharaoh and his army they caught up with the Jews.

All of these verbs, 'vayugad,' 'vayikach,' 'vayirdof,' 'vayaseg,' every last one of them, in order, they are all the same! So I ask you one more time, was Yaakov really wrong? How long in the end did Yaakov work in the house of Lavon 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 the Jews left, 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. It's as if what happened to Yaakov was just a microcosm.

What happened to the Jews, ultimately, in Egypt, was just a national playing out on the macrocosmic scale of what happened in miniature to Yaakov in Lavan's house. It really is the same thing! It could have been true. He could have been the one. Why wasn't he the one? That's a very interesting question. Our Sages take it up in a fascinating comment. They say "bikesh Yaakov lashev b'shalvo": when Yaakov came to the land of Israel, he wanted to settle down in peace. After all it says, "vayeshev Yaakov b'eretz megureha avi b'eretz kanaan": when Yaakov settled down in this land, he wanted to be the one to settle the land. The land in which his fathers were only sojourners.

But alas it was not to be. "Kafatz alav rogzo shel Yosef," the Sages say, because the travail of the sale of Yosef caught up with him, took him by surprise. Listen carefully to what they are saying. Yaakov could have been the fulfillment of Abraham's promise except for one little problem: the sale of Yosef. That started the cycle all over again. What happened in the sale of Yosef? Think about those questions carefully and when you do, ask yourself this question: Yaakov's experience in the house of Lavan, we've seen, was just like the Jews' experience in the house of Egypt. The way Yaakov left Lavan's house was just like the way the Jews left Egypt. What about getting there? How did the Jews get down to Egypt and was that similar to how Yaakov got down to Lavan's house? Could those events be parallel too?

The Jews got down to Egypt because they sold Yosef down to Egypt and slowly the family migrated down after him and soon they were slaves in a land not their own. When the brothers sold Joseph into slavery, what did they do? They looked at Yosef. Jacob was treating him like his bachor, like his first-born child. But there were other children born before Joseph who didn't take kindly to that. Yosef is your first-born?

They took a goat and they slaughtered it, they put its blood on a coat and they brought the coat to their father and they deceived their father about the child the father thought was his first-born. What does that remind you of a generation earlier? It reminds you of how Yaakov got down to Lavan's house. Because there was another time when a child thought that he was the bachor but his father thought that someone else was first-born. There was another time that the child took it upon himself to deceive father and the instrument by which he did so was a goat.

Yaakov brought the meat of a goat to his father and dressed up in the coats of his brother Esav and said "I am your bachor." That which the children of Yaakov did to him, Yaakov himself had done to his own father. It's just two stories of goats and coats. Goats and Coats 1 brought Yaakov down into Lavan's house, into mini-slavery and later on the real descent into slavery happens in Goats and Coats 2. The children followed Yosef into Pharaoh's household. "Bikesh Yaakov lashev b'shalva": Jacob thought it was all over. But little did he see what was right around the corner.

His children did what he did to his own father. It would no longer be that Yaakov's travail was the end of the story, for the story had started again. Children has once more deceived their father about the bachor and, this time, fate would decree that it wouldn't be twenty years of slavery, leaving in the twenty-first, but it would be two hundred and ten. It wouldn't just be an individual and his family that was enslaved; it would be an entire nation.

Now listen well. If the way we got down to mini-slavery in Lavan's household was through Goats and Coats 1, and the way we got down to slavery in Egypt was through Goats and Coats 2, don't you think that we would need to relate to those two events the moment that we leave? How could we leave Egypt without in some way dealing with the tortured legacy of Goats and Coats? But it doesn't seem that we do. The ten plagues happen and we go free. There doesn't seem to be any memory of what it was that took us down to Egypt, of how we got there. Are we missing something? Is there something going on in this story of the Exodus and the tenth plague as we finally go free that we're just kind of not catching? I think there might be.

So is there anything about the way we leave Egypt that reminds us of these Goats and Coats stories?

Goats and Coats Replay

Let's take a little bit of a closer look at this moment when the Jews go free. It happens in the tenth plague. All the Egyptians firstborn are going to be killed, the Jewish firstborn are going to be saved. If you think about that moment, it's really the climactic moment of the Exodus story.

The Exodus story really is a great story. Hollywood has turned it into movie after movie. But if you read the climactic moment of the Exodus, it's very anti-climatic. There's this great showdown between Moshe and Pharaoh after the ninth plague. Pharaoh comes to Moshe seeking a concession; he says you guys can all go. The only thing I ask is that you leave some cattle behind.

Moshe declines the offer. Tauntingly, he comes back to the Egyptian monarch and he tells him "not only are we going to take our cattle, you are going to give us cattle." Pharaoh is enraged at this provocation and says "I never want to see your face again! Leave the palace!" Moshe says "fine! I'll never see you again." This is it! There is no more negotiation between these men. They've both sworn they are never going to see each other again and then at that moment, God comes down and speaks to Moses as he's exiting the palace. "Od nega echad avi al-paroh al-Mitzraim." One more plague I shall bring on Egypt and after that, they will let you go."

Now, if we stop right here, what should happen next? Well we all know what happens; the tenth plague happens, the Jews leave. That's what should happen now, but that's not what happens in the actual story. Yes, that's what happens in the Prince of Egypt, it's what happens in Charlton Heston's 'The Ten Commandments.' But that's not what happens in the original story. Instead, we get this digression into arcane laws that are mind-numbing in its complexity, the laws of the Pesach offering.

The Jews are supposed to slaughter this offering and put the blood on the door and that's how they leave. You could have said that in one sentence and then gone on to the actual story of the ten plague. Instead, we don't get one sentence telling the Jews to slaughter their offering and put the blood on the door. We get a maze of intricate laws. We go through detail after detail of how the Pesach offering needs to be prepared, exactly what needs to be done with it. I mean one after another, just all of these laws. And you think to yourself, how come none of these laws made it into the Prince of Egypt? The director took them out of those movies because they were too boring. So why do we have them in the original story? The Torah doesn't know how to tell a good story?

Yes! It's true. The Torah has laws in it, but the Torah neatly breaks up laws and stories into two basically separate packages. The Book of Genesis: basically it's all stories. The Book of Leviticus: basically it's all laws, laws of offerings. The Book of Exodus: well the beginning of it, almost all stories, the end of it, almost all laws. Laws and stories are separate in the Torah, except here. Here the Torah is telling you the greatest story ever told and right at the climactic moment it stops, it digresses into the detail laws of the Pesach offering. What are they doing here? Just shift them into the Book of Leviticus. Why put them here? I'm lost! I can't even follow the story anymore…unless, they really are a part of the story. God is a very good story-teller. You thought you understand the climax of the story? You think it's when Moses leaves Pharaoh in the palace? That's nothing! The real climax is the laws. The laws are a part of the story.

Yes, they are telling you what I need to do, but they are also telling you so much more. When you read these laws carefully, another astonishing side to all of the laws—a narrative side—seems to reveal itself. You will hear echoes of 'goats and coats' at every turn. Let's read them carefully and you'll see.

The first law of the Pesach offering is that every family needs to take a sheep for themselves and if the family is too small to consume the meat of a single sheep, then that family can join together with a neighbor, that "michsat nefashot, ish l'fi achlo tachosu al-ha-seh." The Gemara translates those words to mean that "every participant in a given groups' Pesach offering "b'michsat nefashot." There needs to be a counting of the souls. "Ish l'fi achlo tachosu al-ha-seh": each person according to what they can eat also must count themselves into the group.

But for those of you who know Biblical Hebrew, at first blush you wouldn't have translated the word that way. "Michsat," "tachosu,"…it sounds like it comes from the root 'chaf-samech-hey' which means 'to cover.' The literal meaning of the word seems to be that the group takes the offering as a covering of souls, each person "tachosu al-ha-seh": covers themselves with the sheep. But what could that possibly mean? A covering of souls. Think of the story of the sale of Yosef and the story of Yaakov's deception of his father, then ask yourself, in either of those stories, was there a covering of souls?

The Book of Leviticus tells us "ha-dam hu ha nefesh": blood is the soul. A covering of souls. A covering of blood. Was blood ever covered in the story of goats and coats? What did the brothers say when they decided to sell Yosef rather than do away with him entirely? "Ma betza ki naharog et-ahcinu v'chisinu et-damo?" What do we gain about killing our brother, "v'chisinu et-damo" and covering his blood? "L'chu v'nimkarenu l'yishmaelim," let's sell him instead to the Ishmaelites. The brothers had talked about covering the blood of Joseph, covering his soul, and now in the Pesach offering, everyone has to come together for a soul covering. If it was just that allusion, just that reference, you could chalk it up to a coincidence but the references keep coming.

"Seh tamim zachar ben shana yihyeh lachem." The Pesach offering needs to be a sheep but then the Torah gives us a very strange definition of 'sheep'. Throughout the Torah, the word 'seh' simply means sheep, but now strangely, the Torah says that word can mean "cvasim," 'little lambs, or "min ha-izim," they can mean goats too. It's almost as if there is a goat pretending to be a sheep in the story of Goat and Coats. Was there a goat pretending to be something else? What did the brothers do? They slaughtered a goat, putting it's blood on the coat and that goat blood was pretending to be human blood. The brothers came with the bloody coat and deceived their father into thinking that it was the blood of Yosef. One more time, the Torah says, let goats pretend to be something else.

Let's skip a couple lines and continue reading.

"V'achlu et-ha-basar ha-layla ha-zeh tzli-esh": and that night, everyone must eat the sheep roasted. "Al-tochlu mimneu na u-bashel mevushal b'mayim" whatever you do, you can't boil it in water. You have to roast it over an open flame. Why should you not be allowed to use water? No water whatsoever in the cooking of this little sheep in our story of Goats and Coats. Was there any water? That pit that Joseph was put in, "ha-bor reyk," the Torah tells us: the pit was empty. "Eyn bo mayim," there was no water in it.

"Matzot al-mrorim yochluhu": the Pesach offering has to be eaten with Matza. It's Pesach, so you can't have bread. The bread that you eat is Matza and it needs to be eaten "al-mrorim," together with mrorim, with bitter herbs. Bitterness and bread. When did bitterness and bread come together? In Goats and Cats One, Yaakov had served to his father. Together with the goat, he'd given him bread. And when Esav had cried out upon realizing that he had been deceived with the meat of the goat and with the bread, "vayitzak tza'aka gdola u-mara": he let out a great and bitter cry.

So once again, eat the little sheep with bread and with bitterness and think about Goat and Coats Two; was there any bread eating there? After the brothers threw Yosef in the pit, "vayeshvu le'echol lechem" they sat down in family group to eat bread one more time. Sit down in a family group and eat bread, eat your matza al-mrorim. That exact word "mrorim"—mem, resh, resh—where do you hear it?

It's a word that refer to Yosef later on in the blessings that Yaakov gives to him. "Vayistimuhu vayimor'ruhu." Yaakov acknowledges at the end of his life the brothers hated you, "vayimor'ruhu" and they made your life bitter. Yes, one more time, eat this offering with the bitterness of 'mem-resh-resh.'

"Al-tochlu mimenu na." Don't eat it raw. Strange word for raw, wouldn't you say? If I would have asked you what the word "na" means, 'nun-alef' and you know Biblical Hebrew, you'd never tell me it means 'raw'; you would tell me it means 'please.' That's what the word always means. Do we ever have "na"—please—in Goats and Coats? We have it all over the place.

"Tzuda-na li tzayid" Yitzhak says to Esav, please hunt for me some venison and come back and I'll bless you, my firstborn. And then again, in Goats and Coats two, the brothers, when they present the bloody coat to father, "haker-na" recognize, please, father. Is it your son's coat or not? Everything was done so politely. Now the Torah says let's replay the whole thing but let's do it without the 'please' this time.

"V'lo totiru mimenu ad-boker," and make sure that nothing is left over in the morning as if there had been no sheep there at all by morning time. What does that remind you of in Goats and Coats? Reuven comes back to the pit to find it empty. Not a shred! No trace of Yosef. He's vanished. One more time, the little sheep should vanish.

"V'kacha tochlu otoh": and thus you shall eat it, the Torah says, "matneichem chagurim naalchem b'ragleichem," eat it with your belts on, with your shoes on, "u-makelchem b'yedchem," with your walking sticks in your hands, ready to go." Why would you have to get dressed ready to go? Because in Goats and Coats, you are always ready to go.

After Goats and Coats one, Yaakov rushed out of the house, fearing for his life, into exile. After Goats and Coats two, the family rushed down to Egypt. You are always going after Goats and Coats but this time, you're going to replay the stories that got you into exile, but you are going to do it differently; you are going to redeem the story and you're going to be redeemed. You're going to walk to freedom this time, not to exile. A few verses later, Moshe tells over these laws to the elders and when he does, he adds a few laws that haven't yet appeared. Let's listen carefully to his words for the secondary meanings.

"Vayikra Moshe l'chol ziknei Yisrael," Moshe called the elders, "vayomer aleihem mishchu kchu lachem tzon l'mishpachoteichem," pull for yourselves and take a sheep for each of your families. Let me ask you something. Let's say it hadn't said "pull for yourselves," what if it had only said "take sheep for your families," would you come to me and said "Rabbi Fohrman, I don't understand. Why doesn't it say 'pull for yourselves the sheep'? Why does it only say 'take for yourselves a sheep'?" You wouldn't have said that. Who cares about 'pulling'? Why add the extra words 'pull'? Think of Goats and Coats. Do we have pulling in Goats and Coats? What's the Hebrew word: mem, shin, chaf, vav. How many times does 'mem, shin, chaf, vav,' appear in the Torah, other than here? Only one other time. The only other example of 'mem, shin, chaf, vav' in the entire Torah is in the sale of Yosef, Goats and Coats two.

"Vayimshchu v'ya'alu et-Yosef min-ha-bor," when people pulled Joseph out of the pit to sell him as a slave. Well, one more time, the Torah says, pull the little sheep. But this time, do it differently. Don't sell him as a slave, "mishchu u-kchu lachem tzon l'mishpachoteichem,": this time, pull out the sheep, pull Joseph out of the pit and take for yourselves that little sheep, into your families. There is a double entendre here. On one level it means, take the sheep, the paschal lamb for your families. On another level, what is the sheep? It's as if you're pulling out Yosef; doing it right this time. Don't pull him out and allow him to be sold as a salve, pull him out and bring him back into the family. Do not expel him! Bring him in!

The next thing that happens, "v'shachatu ha-pesach," slaughter the Pesach offering. Did anything get slaughtered in Goats and Coats? "Vayishchatu [sounds like seir] et-izim." They slaughtered the goat. And after they did so, what happened next? The next thing the brothers did is they dipped the coat in blood. Is there any dipping in blood in the Pesach offering? Keep on reading. "U-lakachtem agudat ezov," and then take a plant, "u-tavaltem b'dam," and dip it in blood.

One more time, it's just Goats and Coats happening again. Dip it in which blood? "Dam asher b'saf," the blood of the threshold. Not only are the three sides of the door, the two doorposts and the lintel full of blood, but even the threshold, the bottom of the door also. But that word for the 'bottom of the door' it's a very unusual word, doesn't happen often, 'saf.' Who else is 'samech, peh?' Oh Yosef! That goat was fake Yosef-blood wasn't it? But one more time, dip it in the blood of the sheep. More fake Yosef blood. This is a symbolic replay of the whole Goats and Coats story. You want to get out of Egypt? You think you can get out of Egypt without relating to this? There is going to be a night when all firstborn will die. If you want your firstborn to live, then make right the part of your history in which brothers fought each other over the right of the first born. Replay the whole horrific memory but this time replay it right. Redeem the memory. Pull the little sheep and take him into your family. Bring Yosef back. When your family unites to leave Egypt, don't leave anyone behind. Bring your brother back!

Becoming God's Firstborn

Why are we thankful to God for having taken us out of slavery, if God put us there in the first place? Maybe God didn’t put us there in the first place. Maybe we put ourselves there. Isn’t that really what the farmer says in his declaration to God:

"Arami oved avi," the farmer says: my father was a wandering Aramean." Jacob was wandering around in Lavan's house. That could have been enough, it could have been it. "Vayered Mitzraimah," but he went down to Egypt. It doesn't say God put him down in Egypt. He went down to Egypt. "Vayareu otanu ha-Mitzrim,": and there the Egyptians oppressed us. They were terrible to us. In this whole declaration so far, there has been no mention of God. There's just Yaakov who was wandering and Yaakov went down to Egypt.

Where was God? "Vayotzienu HaShem Elohim mi-sham," the farmer says: and God took us out of there with an outstretched arm. God bailed us out because God had made a promise. And the farmer standing there with his basket of fruits, he is the living proof that God fulfilled that promise. It might have taken a long time. God would have been ready to do it as Yaakov came back to the land of Israel but mchirat Yosef happened, the sale of Joseph. It'd take a much, much longer time.

God is patient and God fulfilled that promise. The farmer is living proof. The promise went all the way back to Abraham. "Ger yihyeh zar'acha b'eretz lo lahem," God had said to Abraham. You know you guys, you're going to get yourself into this huge mess. Your children, they are going to be strangers in a land not their own. "Va'avadum," and they are going to be enslaved there for a long, long time. I'm giving you a peek into history, but you know where I will be? I'll be there to bail you out. I'll take you out. I'll save you from all of that.

The farmer understands this and we understand it when we quote the farmer's words.

But I think we understand even more than this this night. Because this night doesn't just revolve around the farmer's declaration, it also revolves around a phantom presence, a presence that is no longer there at our table, but is there in all sorts of symbols. The Pesach offering. It was the centerpiece of the Seder night long ago. And that centerpiece helps us understand the deeper layers of our thankfulness to God because God didn't just take us out, he did something else too. He redeemed us.

We drink four cups of wine on the Seder night because there were four verbs that God used to express his commitment to deliver us from Egypt. Three of those four verbs are easy to understand. "Vahotzeiti," and I will take you out of Egypt. "Vahitzalti," and I will save you from your terrible labors. "Valakachti etchem," and I will bring you to me as a people and take you into the land.

All of that is easy to understand but there is one final verb. The fourth verb is "v'ga'alti etchem," and I will redeem you. What does that add to the picture? What does it mean to be redeemed?

Whenever you go through a trauma, it's not just enough to be saved from the trauma; the trauma leaves its mark. Somehow you need to be made whole. It's all the more so when the trauma itself is in some way self-inflicted. It's not just enough in those situations for someone to magically come along and save you. It's in those situations that you need to be redeemed. How do you become whole when the wound that you've suffered in some way came from you. In those situations, to really be redeemed means to face the source of the wound. To look at what you did to make it happen. Not just to look at what you did, but to go through it again, but to choose a different ending. To replay your history, but to redeem that history, to repair it, to make yourself stronger. God gave us the chance to do just that with the Pesach offering. We have to face the horror of the sale of Joseph. We couldn't just sweep that sorry chapter of our history under the rug. We need to replay the events, but to choose a different ending. We had to pull our brother out of the pit.

In our case, God redeemed us very, very deeply. Not only did he allow us to replay the acts that brought us down to Egypt, the sale of Yosef, and to somehow replayed those acts redemptively, but he also allows us to replay the dynamics behind those acts. Why did we do it? We replayed that too. Why did we do it? In Goats and Coats One, in Goats and Coats Two, we betrayed our brother. We deceived our father, all because we so desperately wanted to be father's firstborn child. We struggled over the bachor. So how do you redeem that? You have to somehow take that flaw and turn it into a strength. But how?

Imagine you are a Principal of a school. You've got some kids that are trouble-makers. The funny thing is, the trouble-makers are always the diamonds and the rough. They've got energy, talent. But they are getting themselves into trouble. An uninspired Principal throws the kid out of the school. Another kind of uninspired Principal says "well the kid's a wealthy donor, so let's shove it under the rug."

But a real Principal, a real father does something else. I had a principal like that in High School. His name was Rabbi Yosef Tendler. He seemed kind of scary and imposing to us but he sought out relationships with the kids in the school. He gave them jobs. They were the trouble-makers, but he would learn with them. He would invest in them. He would zero in on their talents, the talents that were getting them into trouble. And he would say "I could use that talent. Come on my team." He made these kids shine. These kids today are leaders in the Jewish world. He cultivated them. He redeemed them.

God looked at us. What am I going to do with you guys? Generation after generation, you so desperately want to be first in father's eyes. You want to be firstborn. You're willing to do anything to be firstborn: deceive, betray. You know what? I'm your father too. I could use a firstborn. I've got a job for you. Would you be my firstborn?

"Bni bechori Yisrael," God says about the Jewish people. You'll become my firstborn tonight. It's not an easy job. Would you take the god of the Egyptians, this goat, would you slaughter it and put the blood on your doors and say this is what it means to be a monotheist? Would you set that example for all the other children in my family about what it means to have loyalty to father? That's part of the job. But there is another part of the job too. It's not enough to swear fealty to me as father, because if I'm your father, if you really believe that I'm your father, you know what that means? It means you have brothers. They are a part of your family too.

Reach out to your brother and pull him out of the pit. The night that you become firstborn, turn your back on the deception, on the betrayal. Don't feel that you have to sneak around to be the firstborn. Put the blood on the door and publicly in front of everyone, scream out "I will be your firstborn!" And as you do, look at your estranged brother, embrace him, and bring him back into your family. Isn't that what father wants? What gives a father greater pleasure than to see his children embracing each other? To see his bachor—his firstborn—leading the way and teaching the family how to get along. We can have our differences, but you are my brother and I will always be there for you.

In a deep way, it's why ethical monotheism is ethical monotheism. What do its ethics have to do with monotheism? Because if you believe that there is a God on high, one God for all, then you believe in the brotherhood of mankind. You believe that we're all brothers. You believe I have to treat other humans being like brothers. There is a family because there is a father and if there is a father there is brothers. This Seder night, as you sit with your family around the table, as you proclaim your thankfulness to God for having taken us out, for having given us this mission to be his firstborn child, there's a lot of family in the room. Not everybody is on the inside. Who's on the outs? Which uncle? Which aunt? Which cousin is just politely tolerated but is excluded from real belonging? Maybe the Seder night, when we all sit together as a family, reach out and pull that one back into the family. If there is a Father in heaven, then they're our brothers. It is hypocritical to proclaim your fealty to Father and to alienate brothers.

Pull your brother into the family. What would father want more than that?

Read More