It has long been understood that when ideas we seek to understand cannot be communicated in words, they are instead communicated in stories. For years, psychologists have recommended the use of personal narratives — which compress and encode a lot of information about the world — to help promote psychological health and wellbeing [Hirsh, et al.; Personal narratives as the highest level of cognitive integration, 2013]. The Torah, and particularly the Exodus story, carries ideas that are too complex to be expressed in words. The Exodus story translates into images narratives that must be shown rather than simply explained. What better way exists to express this truth than in the Haggadah narrative during the Passover seder?
Beyond simply recounting the narrative, we are enjoined by the Haggadah to feel as if we ourselves left Egypt, as it is stated (Exodus 13:8): “And you shall explain to your child on that day: For the sake of this, did Hashem do [this] for me in my going out of Egypt” [Pesach Haggadah, Magid, Rabban Gamliel’s Three Things]. We must not only understand intellectually but experience the redemption (geulah). Therefore, these are not just stories, but a portal into a deeper-felt reality using metaphors for what occurs in our individual psyches. Pesach is a time where heavenly and earthly beings come together to listen to the Haggadah, give thanks to Hashem, and rejoice in the holiday (Yom Tov). It is therefore important that we relate the story slowly and deliberately, without apathy and drowsiness. The Jewish mystics teach us that when we tell the story of the Exodus, we reveal the mystery of redemption [Zohar, Parshat Bo]. We tell the story with the awareness that we are bringing ourselves closer to the Final Redemption.
After we make our statement about experiencing the Exodus, the actual performance of the mitvot occurs – the eating of the Pesach offering, matzah and maror, just as the verse speaks of the mouth first, followed by the heart [Marbeh L’saper on Pesach Haggadah, Magid, Rabban Gamliel‘s Three Things 1:1].
“And Moses said to the people, “Remember this day on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how Hashem freed you from it with a mighty hand; no leavened bread shall be eaten.” (Deuteronomy 27:9)
“Remember this day — This teaches that one must make mention of the Exodus from Egypt every day” (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 13:3; cf. Rashi on Deuteronomy 27:9)
Despite this explicit reference, why is this daily remembrance not included in the 613 mitzvot according to Rambam (Maimonides) or Sefer Ha’Chinuch? [“Remembering the Exodus” is mentioned as one of the “Six Remembrances” included in the prayerbook (siddur) compiled by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, based on the Midrash and works of the Arizal]. Additionally, what is the relationship between this daily remembrance and the universally agreed commandment (mitzvah) of relating the story of Exodus to our children on the 15th of Nissan during the Passover seder [Rambam, Hilchos Chametz u’Matzah 7:1; Sefer Ha’Chinuch, mitzvah 21]?
“And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘it is because of what Hashem did for me when I went free from Egypt” (Exodus 13:8)
The aim of the remembrance of Exodus is to recount that we were enslaved in Egypt and Hashem took us out from that bondage. This is a matter distinct from the mitzvah of recounting the story of the Exodus, and the ensuing miracles that took place, during the Passover seder. The Malbim explains that the positive mitzvah of relating the story of Exodus applies only on “that day,” while the earlier verse – “Remember this day,” (Deuteronomy 13:3) – is an injunction merely to mention the Exodus every day.
Rambam comments that, although the daily Exodus remembrance is explicitly mentioned in the Torah, we are not commanded to do so. Thus, while earlier verses mention the Passover mitzvot of refraining from eating leavened bread (chametz) and eating matzah, our verse concludes, “In order that you will remember the day of the Exodus from the land of Egypt all the days of your life” (Deuteronomy 16:3). It can be said that our daily Exodus remembrances are the result of the fulfillment of the Passover mitzvot, but not as a mitzvah in itself — perhaps functioning as an “umbrella mitzvah” encompassing other more specific mitzvot.
Pesach, Matzah, Maror and Transformation
“Rabban Gamliel used to say, “Anyone who doesn’t recite the following three things has not fulfilled his obligation: Pesach offering, Matzah, and Maror” [Pesach Haggadah, Magid, Rabban Gamliel’s Three Things].
“Why does Rabban Gamliel single out these three mitzvot as needing some type of explanation? In fact, his opinion was that mitzvot in general need kavanah (intention), which means that if we can’t explain why we are doing them then we haven’t really fulfilled them properly (See Talmud Berachot 13a.) To act without some sense of purpose was insufficient to fulfill the obligation. These three mitzvot, however, are different. While other mitzvot need kavanah, these three mitzvot demand both inner intention as well as some form of verbal expression of why we are performing them. That is why Rabban Gamliel says, “Anyone who has not mentioned [three things on Passover has not fulfilled his obligation]” [Barukh She’amar on Pesach Haggadah, Magid, Rabban Gamliel’s Three Things 1:1].
According to the Ephod Bad, when we recount the Haggadah through the symbolic actions of Pesach-matzah-maror, we are not simply recalling a historical event, but are engaging in a process of self-perfection, striving toward human wholeness, and experiencing divine spirituality. Our ancestors worked towards these aims by performing the four Passover mitzvot: they got rid of all chametz, they ate matzah, they offered the Pesach offering, and they ate maror. First, they removed chametz from their home as a symbol of removing that which is negative and destructive from the life of the individual. Second, they ate chametz to symbolize their whole-hearted embrace of all things positive and life-affirming. Third, they made the Pesach offering to recognize that divine providence (hashgacha pratit) is present in all things. Fourth, by eating the maror, they came to understand that even the suffering and sorrow that they experienced from Hashem came with good and beneficial intentions. No one can experience redemption until they go through this process of transformation, and these four mitzvot apply to all the Jewish holidays [Ephod Bad on Pesach Haggadah, Magid, Rabban Gamliel’s Three Things 1:1 – 1:2].
However, according to Rabban Gamliel, even if we ate the Pesach offering, matzah and the maror (bitter herbs), we would not fulfill our obligation if we did not explain why we eat these three items, since the Torah emphasizes their explanation and the recounting.
At the psychological level, we may be free to behave according to our own thoughts and desires, but if our thoughts are themselves dominated by ignorance and delusions, then we are in a state of psychological slavery, enslaved in our minds if not our bodies. While the well-known verse fragment “Let my people go” is the cry of the physically enslaved, the remainder of the verse — “…that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness” [Exodus 5:2] — points the way to freedom from psychological slavery, putting oneself in alignment with the Highest Order.
The Four Children
“Corresponding to the four children did the Torah speak; one [who is] wise, one [who is] wicked, one [who is] innocent and one who doesn’t know how to ask.” Pesach Haggadah, Magid, The Four Children.
An important principle in Jewish education (chinuch) is that every student (talmid) should be taught according to their knowledge and specific needs. How does this apply?
We instruct the wise child on the laws (halachos) of Passover. The Rambam states, “[we] should inform them of what happened to us in Egypt and the miracles wrought for us by Moshe our Teacher, everything according to the child’s knowledge” [Rambam, Hilchos Chametz u’Matzah 7:1]. According to the Ephod Bad, when the wise child asks, “What do these statutes, testimonies and judgments mean?” they are really asking why it is necessary to have so many mitzvot to commemorate the Exodus when only one would be sufficient. We convey that the many mitzvot make us aware of the aforementioned four-fold process of growth, an ongoing multi-generational process. We then end by saying that one should not eat after the Afikomen since this process of change never ends and the taste of matzah must always be in our mouth. The wonders and resulting transformation occur in every generation, so beyond performing these actions of the mitzvot, we must explain their connection to the Divine. [Ephod Bad on Pesach Haggadah, Magid, Rabban Gamliel’s Three Things 1:1 – 1:2].
We “blunt the teeth” of the wicked child, who is self-centered and perhaps ill-mannered, challenging the need for mitzvot to be performed as service, exposing the true foundation of his observance. The wicked child is also wise, but condemns out of malice in their heart [Abudarham, Pesach, The Haggadah 16]. Since the child has disassociated from the congregation, we are left to show through our own example by role modeling: “For the sake of this, did Hashem do [this] for me in my going out from Egypt.” We hope the child will cast away their malice, and follow us out of Egypt next year!
We provide more simple instruction for the innocent, who is not so wise, but has sufficient wisdom to ask questions [Abudarham, Pesach, The Haggadah 16]. We may typically instruct them more on concepts and simple halacha, guiding with our answer at a level commensurate with knowledge and needs. The Rambam states, “[we] should tell the child: ‘My child, in Egypt, we were all slaves like this maidservant or this slave. On this night, the Holy One Blessed Be God, redeemed us and took us out to freedom.’” [Rambam, Hilchos Chametz u’Matzah 7:1]
For the child who knows not how to ask, we begin at the early stages of chinuch, instructing them on what they need to know at his level without asking. As the Mishnah says, “If the child does not know how to ask, his father instructs him” [Mishnah Pesachim].
The Rambam also states that we should make changes during the seder so that children will see and be motivated to ask, “‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’ until [we] reply to them, ‘This and this occurred. This and this took place.’ What changes should be made? [We] should give them roasted seeds and nuts; the table should be taken away before they eat; matzot should be snatched away from one another, and the like.”
May our remembrances and storytelling lead to a transformative Passover for all children at our Seder table!
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This post summarizes a Shabbat Ha’Gadol sermon from April 1, 2023 by Rabbi Binyomin Davis, Executive Director of Aish Chaim in Greater Philadelphia).
Image from WannaPik