Drawing a clear line between והגדת לבנך and לספר ביציאת מצרים

One of my favorite nephews, Rabbi Chaim Gross of Denver, recently posted a live dvar Torah, apropos Passover, in which he discusses the difference between לספר “le-sapper” and להגיד “le-hagid”, both of which mean “to tell”. These are two seemingly identical instructions for the Passover seder service.

In the Torah (שמות יג:ח) we are instructed  וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יְהוָה לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם which pointedly uses the word וְהִגַּדְתָּ . However, in the Hagadah itself the word לספר appears twice: the opening statement of  עבדים היינו  concludes with “כל המרבה לספר ביצ”מ הרי זה משובח”. This is followed by the story of the five sages celebrating in Bnei Brak והיו מספרים ביציאת מצרים כל אותו הלילה, again using the term לספר rather than להגיד.

In his eloquent discourse, Rabbi Gross refers to my late father Samuel Gross, obm, who was both a Torah scholar and a Hebraist, from whom he sought an understanding of the difference between the two terms. My father explained that לספר  refers to a telling of that which is known and contains nothing new, no surprises. The term להגיד refers to a telling that is totally fresh, a revelation to the audience.  As such, Rabbi Gross continued, we have the mitzvah of telling the story of the Exodus – לספר  – but we must tell in such a manner that makes it fresh, new and exciting as if we had never heard it before, i.e. להגיד  .

Now this is a rather tall order. After all, how does one take a story that is spelled out clearly in the Torah, and which has been re-told at seder tables for over three millennia, yet make it fresh and new each time? More importantly, why does the Torah itself use the term להגיד   rather than the more conventional לספר ?

I am reminded of the classic children’s story by Dr. Seuss – one of his earliest – And to Think that I saw it on Mulberry Street.  It is the story of a boy whose father asks him every day what he saw as he walked home from school.  All the child ever sees on Mulberry Street is a desultory wagon drawn by a tired nag with a single, wilting, potted flower in the back. Not much to report to his father, and yet this is what he sees every day.

One day the boy decides to make his father happy by spicing up his story.  As he makes his daily trek from school he starts imagining not a single tired horse but a team of stallions, not a simple wagon but a fancy carriage. Moving along, the vision gets more embellished until by the time he reaches home, he has seen – in his mind of course – an entire circus parade with a calliope, clowns, elephants, drum majorettes, the whole Ringling Brothers extravaganza. Surely this would make the re-telling interesting for his father. Yet in the end, all he saw, of course, was that single horse, wagon, and flower pot.

What the young boy actually saw was the “sippur”, the standard story he had already told countless times. What he imagined – in order to gratify and excite, and stimulate his father – was the “hagadah”, the midrash which might re-charge and re-shape the story in order to excite his audience.

Midrash/(H)agadah are the rich repositories of legends that augment, embroider and embellish the texts we read in the Sefer Torah – because Scripture is called “Sefer” Torah not “Hagadat” Torah. Mindful that the Torah text might become too familiar to excite the audience, Hagadah comes to the rescue by adding something new, unexpected, even fantastic to a telling that might not, of its own, stimulate us.

Nevertheless, legend remains legend. Midrashim often tell conflicting stories that do not mesh with one another. And that’s fine. Surely the Sages of Blessed Memory had good reason to create these fables in order to stimulate their audiences and inspire them through such visions.

On Passover we do tell the “Sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim”. At the same time we honor the Torah’s dictum of “Vehigadeta le’binkha”.  The Torah understands that when talking to a child (and to the child in all of us) the sippur alone is insufficient. What is needed to make it exciting, visually stimulating, and didactically powerful is to augment, embroider and embellish. It is this that the Passover Hagadah does so effectively.

We must never lose sight of the fact that the whole purpose of the Passover seder service is to inform and inspire the child, hence the Scriptural mitzvah of וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא; an instruction to be creative, imaginative, artistic, theatrical in order to excite the child. However when five Talmudic sages are huddled at their own Passover seder, with no children present, there is no need to embellish with legend. For them there is sufficient stimulus in the clear facts, hence they are engaged in sippur rather than hagadah.

The ultimate purpose of a brilliant didactic tool like the Passover Hagadah is, if anything, to bring one back the sippur-sefer, to the text itself, not the other way around. It takes creativity, imagination, artistry, drama to stimulate an audience, especially an intended audience of children. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, we do not remove Scripture from its plain meaning –  אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו.

Of late, one reads too many Torah essays, and hears too many Torah lectures that make no distinction between the sippur and the hagadah, between what actually transpired and the rabbinical legends that were part of an oral tradition and never meant to be canonized. An untutored audience comes away from these talks and articles with the belief that the legends interwoven into the discourse or essay are actual Scripture, when they aren’t.

This is unfortunate for two reasons. First, it is simply wrong and certainly misleading. But there is another reason why this is unfortunate. Because the overuse of midrash can easily lead one to be indifferent to the riches embedded in the actual sippur of the text itself.

By relying so heavily on midrash for spice and color – to the point of conflating it with text – one can easily gloss over the text and miss out on seeing what has already been seen and understood – in their own unique ways – by so many different personalities over the centuries without ever moving away from pure ‘pshat’ – the literal canonic text.  And, perhaps even more unfortunate, one then misses out on the opportunity to experience the  מחדש בטובו בכל יום תמיד – to discover a fresh perspective, a heretofore unknown nuance, an unexpected textual correlation that can be staring us right in the face.  And that is the most exciting re-telling of all.

We live in a time of unprecedented access to ancient discoveries, ancient creativity, ancient texts, ancient poetry and ancient legends. These are treasures worthy of great honor, intensive study, and inclusion in our liturgy. At the same time, by endowing the creativity and imagination of the past with canonical import – to the exclusion of all else – we are at risk of stifling our own creativity and imagination and becoming mere robots, reflexively regurgitating the genius of our forebears while cauterizing our own creative talent, so that ultimately we can no longer distinguish between לספר and להגיד.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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