a retold story
“A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt and dwelled there, few in number; and he became a great, mighty and numerous nation. But the Egyptians dealt harshly with us, and afflicted us and imposed hard work on us. And we cried out to the Lord, God of our fathers, and He heard our voice and saw our affliction and our toil, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and with awesome signs and wonders” (Devarim XXVI, 5-8)
These verses appear in this week’s reading as the declaration made by the Israelites when they brought their first fruits as an offering to the Temple. But these verses are also familiar to anyone has who participated in a Passover Seder, since they serve as the basis of the section of the Haggadah that retells the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
It seems strange that the Haggadah should choose to take as the basis of its account these verses from Sefer Devarim, recited by a generation that did not actually participate in the Exodus, when it could have instead quoted verses from the book of Shemot, which actually describe the Exodus itself. Why should the Haggadah base itself on this second-hand description, instead of the dramatic firsthand description of the event?
The account of the Exodus in Shemot is indeed dramatic and powerful. But the brief verses that we read this week, which were recited by the Israelites when they brought their first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem, actually contain three elements missing from the original account, which make it especially appropriate as we try to recapture our history, and pass it on to future generations:
- A model of memory: A major theme of the Seder night is memory, and the obligation to relive the past experiences of our people, as if they were indeed our own. As the Haggadah states: “In every generation, each person is obligated to see themselves as though they personally came forth from Egypt.” It is fitting then that the account of the Exodus that we base ourselves on is not the one from Shemot, which describes the original participants in the event, but this one from Devarim, which was recited by the first generation to relive the past as if it was their own experience.
- An unfinished journey: The Exodus story, as told in the book of Shemot is incomplete. It ends with the children of Israel leaving Egypt and entering the wilderness. But in fact the journey from Egypt ends not with the entry of the Israelites into the wilderness, but their arrival in the land of Israel. For this reason, it is appropriate that the account of the exodus that we take as our model for the Seder night is the one recited by the Israelites after they had entered the land of Israel. Indeed, the four verses quoted in the Haggadah, are followed in our reading by a fifth verse, highlighting the connection between the Exodus and the people’s arrival in the land of Israel: “And He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey”
- The purpose of freedom: The account of the Exodus in the book of Shemot places its focus on the national liberation of the children of Israel. Indeed, Moses’ call: “Let my people go!” has become a rallying call for movements of national liberation throughout history. But in fact the concluding part of Moses’ statement is often forgotten: “Let my people go… in order that they may serve me.” Freedom is not an end in itself, but rather a means to enable us to engage in a higher form of service. For this reason it is fitting that the Haggadah chooses to base itself, not on the account of the Exodus in the book of Shemot, which focuses on the physical liberation of the Israelites, but rather on these verses in Devarim, recited as the Israelite farmers fulfilled their obligation to bring their first fruits to the Temple. What we celebrate is not freedom to do whatever we want, but the freedom to engage in a higher form of service.
By choosing to take as the basis of the story of the Exodus these verses from this week’s reading, the Haggadah conveys three powerful messages about our relationship with our history: that our past is to be relived as a part of our own experience, that the journey it describes is unfinished until we arrive in the land of Israel, and that our journey to freedom is not an end in itself, but a means to be able to engage in a higher form of service.
In others’ words
“The horror of slavery is profoundly engraved in the experience of the Jewish people – a people formed in slavery. For hundreds of years the children of Israel were enslaved in Egypt until, as the Book of Exodus recounts, the call: ‘Let my people go’ heralded the first national liberation movement in history, and the model for every liberation which was to follow.
“The Jewish response to slavery was remarkable. Rather than forget or sublimate the suffering of slavery, Jewish tradition insisted that every Jew must remember and relive it. And to this day, on Passover, every Jewish family reenacts the experience of slavery, eats the bread of affliction, and appreciates once again the taste of freedom. Through the ages of our exile this psychodrama has had a profound impact on the Jewish psyche: making sure that every child born into comfort knows the pains of oppression, and every child born into oppression knows the hope of redemption.
“But remembrance of our suffering as slaves has a more important function – to remind ourselves of our moral obligations. The experience of oppression brings no privilege, but rather responsibility. We have a responsibility to protect the weak, the widow and the orphan and the stranger, because as the Bible says: “You yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Even God, in the first and most fundamental of the Ten Commandments, identifies Himself not as ‘Creator of the World’ or ‘Splitter of the Red Sea’, but as ‘the One who freed you from slavery’.
“And indeed in every country in which they have lived, Jews have
been in the forefront of the battle for human rights and freedom from oppression. The same urge for national liberation, that led to the Exodus, and that led to the Zionist dream that Jews could live in freedom in their land, was intrinsically bound up with the belief that not just one people, but all peoples must be free. It was this conviction that Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, expressed in his book Altneuland, as early as 1902:
“There is still one problem of racial misfortune unsolved. The depths of that problem only a Jew can comprehend. I refer to the problem of the Blacks. Just call to mind all those terrible episodes of the slave trade, of human beings who merely because they were black were stolen like cattle, taken prisoners, captured and sold. Their children grew up in strange lands, the objects of contempt and hostility because their complexions were different. I am not ashamed to say, though I may expose myself to ridicule for saying so, that once I have witnessed the redemption of Israel, my people, I wish to assist the redemption of the Black people.”
“As Herzl understood, remembrance of slavery is integral to the Jewish experience. A Jew cannot be truly free if he or she does not have compassion on those who are enslaved.”
Statement by Rabbi Michael Melchior, Deputy Foreign Minister, World Conference against Racism, Durban – September 2001
On a lighter note
A little boy once returned home from Hebrew school and his father asked, “What did you learn today?”
He answered, “The Rabbi told us how Moses led the Children of Israel out of Egypt.”
The boy said “Moses was a big strong man and he beat Pharaoh up. Then while he was down, he got all the people together and ran towards the sea. When he got there, he has the Corps of Engineers build a huge pontoon bridge. Once they got on the other side, they blew up the bridge while the Egyptians were trying to cross.”
The father was shocked. “Is that what the Rabbi taught you?” The boy replied, “No. But you’d never believe the story he DID tell us!”