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Haggadah: With Voices Raised

Yes, it’s a question we are all familiar with: Why doesn’t the haggadah tell the story in a chronological way, as we are familiar with from the book of Exodus?

The answer lies in the significance of the word haggadah. Why does the Torah specifically use a related word, “vehigadita, in the commandment (Exodus 13:8), as opposed to leshanen, to memorize or repeat, or lizkor, to remember, as is seen in other similar telling- themed commandments?

We are taught that Passover is also called the holiday of freedom. We are celebrating the Jewish people’s exodus from slavery in Egypt. The first commandment the Jewish people are given is that of Rosh Chodesh, the new month. Sforno explains (Exodus 12:2) that the reason for this is because as slaves, we have no agency in time. This first commandment is a necessary precursor to the rest of the commandments that follow. Freedom of time, the liberty arguably most compromised when one is a slave, must exist in order to commit to and fulfill the rest of the commandments.

But there is another primary freedom that is compromised as a slave. 

The freedom to form an identity for oneself and to express oneself. A slave is an anonymous entity, but a number. The construct of slavery is meant to strip slaves of personal identity, treated as property more than humans. The freedom to form an identity and distinguish oneself from others is made possible by the power of speech. As Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosopher of language said, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” Without a voice, we are not free. 

Our voices serve as our banner, our flag, our conduit to the world outside ourselves. It enables us to interact with our surroundings, to articulate and share our hopes and dreams, beliefs and values. It is our tool to express love, sorrow and empathy. It is through these interactions with others that we learn, grow, develop into ourselves. 

It is the way we educate the future generation. 

On this night we not only celebrate freedom of time. We not only celebrate being masters of our own destiny. On this night we celebrate being the narrators of our destiny. We celebrate being a link in the chain of a destiny that is shared through our voices. 

We are commanded lehagid, to tell. 

Perhaps contrary to what we are used to in our box-checking lives, the goal on this night is not the ends, but the means. Not the rote memorization or even the remembering and repeating an old familiar story with the goal of knowing. The goal on this night is the telling. 

And so we tell. Though, not verse by verse from Exodus. 

We tell it with a rich weaving of midrashim, symbols, poems, and songs. We tell it with a deep sensitivity to our tradition. We tell it with respect to the teachings of our sages. We tell it by expressing the inclusivity of four different types of children who are likely represented at our table. We tell it by making exaggerated comparisons and metaphors, and by inspiring curiosity. We tell it by reciting and interpreting four verses from Deuteronomy that serve not as a chronological summary, but are from the declaration of the first of our fruits. We do this in order to recognize the deep connection between even the most natural agricultural occurrence and the exodus from Egypt. More important than sharing the minute details of the story of exodus, is sharing the deep sense of gratitude that arises within us when we recite these verses. 

The haggadah is a telling, a lesson given over from parent to child, with grandparents and great grandparents as witnesses. It is a telling of our inheritance, our birth as a nation, the birth of our freedom, the birth of our voice. It is this lesson that ensures that no two seders around the world or from year to year will ever be identical. It is a dynamic teaching that is supposed to engage with the events of history that surround us and touch us personally. It is meant to empower us to find our voice and strengthen our identity. To sing and express our gratitude for the blessings in our lives, to pray for peace, to pursue the values that we hold dear to our hearts. 

On this Passover, as we are overwhelmed by tragic events around us, as we mourn for the victims whose voices were extinguished, as we grieve with the families who can no longer share their love with their lost loved ones, let us remember our duty to appreciate our liberties, and let us tell the world with voices raised, by way of the haggadah, that we are a link in a long, strong chain, and we are here to stay. 

This piece was inspired in part by ideas shared by Channah Lockshin Bob and Avital Cohen Brenner.

About the Author
Rena has her Masters in Jewish Studies from Yeshiva University Bernard Revel Graduate School. Originally from New York, she has been a resident of Modiin since 2008. Upon entering the school system in Israel, she quickly pivoted from teaching Judaic Studies to becoming a certified English teacher. In addition to teaching children of all ages, she is the director of the English program at her school and mentors new English teachers. She is passionate about education, Judaism, and her family, and she welcomes the challenges of synthesizing her life as an American and an Israeli.
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