Parashat Metsora: How We Should Be Telling the Seder Story

As another Seder night approaches, I want to focus on the part of the Haggadah the Mishnah itself stresses (but many Seders do not).

While the basic form of our Haggadah is pretty old (a reasonably similar version appears in Seder R. Amram Gaon, a late 9th century work), it is much expanded from what the Mishnah in the last chapter of Pesachim (116a in the Bavli) prescribes. The Mishnah says only that the child should ask– and offers the Four Questions as a template– tells us to start the story with the negative and move to the positive, and then to expound the section of the Torah that starts ארמי אבד אבי, my father was a wandering Aramean.

The next Mishnah already tells us of Rabban Gamliel’s view that we have to speak explicitly of three practices to fulfill the mitzvah, the very end of our Maggid.  For the Mishnah, everything else—and, in my experience, the “everything else” gets a lot more attention—is above and beyond the necessary.  To help us all best fulfill our central obligation, I want to spend a little more time on what the Mishnah defined as central.

Starting With the Negative

The Gemara records a dispute between Rav and Shmuel as to what the Mishnah intended by starting with the negative.  Rav says that refers to מתחילה, the part of the Haggadah where we note that our ancestors started out as idolaters, until Hashem brought us to the proper worship. Shmuel says that it is עבדים היינו, that we started out in physical slavery and then Hashem freed us, physically.

We all know that we say both, as was already true in Seder R. Amram Gaon.  While we speak of slavery first, and colloquially think that’s the backbone of the story (as some rabbis seemed to as well, such as R. Yehonatan on the Rif, Meiri, and Tiferet Yisrael, the 19th century Mishnah commentary), it’s an odd assumption. Generally, when Rav and Shmuel disagree on nonmonetary matters, halachah follows Rav.

That would mean that the part of the Haggadah where we speak of originally having been idolaters, should be more of a focal point of our discussion than it often is. Yes, we were slaves in Egypt, and there’s good reason to mention that, but a key version of the story, perhaps the more key version, is that we started out unaware of Hashem, worshipping alien deities, until Hashem brought us to serve Hashem.

Rambam might have agreed.  In his Mishnah commentary (and Bartenura echoes him), he interprets the words “we start with the bad,” by saying that we tell how we were heretics and also what happened to us in Egypt.  I wonder whether, aside from his general assumption that issues of faith matter more than physical slavery, Rambam, too, noticed that Rav focused the telling on shucking off our connection to alien worship and emphasized that for that reason.

All that, however important, is not where the Mishnah puts the focus.  For the Mishnah, the backbone of the tale is expounding (not just reading) the section of Devarim 26 that starts with the wandering Aramean (probably Ya’akov, perhaps Avraham).

Why do we use that as the basis of the story we tell Seder night?

Encapsulating the Story

For reasons that aren’t relevant here, the Torah wanted the Jew bringing first fruits to retell the story of Jewish history in its barest essentials.  In doing so, it gave us a convenient (Divinely approved) short version of the story.  We could have required Jews to study the first 12-15 chapters of Shmot, but that would have taken a long time. Here, the Torah gives us a four verse version that captures all we need to know.  As long as we expound it well.

Once we understand the role this part of the Torah is supposed to be playing for us, we understand better that the “expounding” doesn’t mean an academic discussion of the possibilities of the verses, it means striving to understand the story as best possible. To that end, I will use my remaining space to highlight two elements we often fail to notice.

Sojourning or Living

The verse says Ya’akov went down to Egypt to sojourn (לגור שם).  Sifrei 301 notes that this reminds us that Ya’akov had no plan to become rooted in Egypt.  Remember that Ya’akov knew his descendants would be there for a long time; when Sifrei says he planned to sojourn, as if temporarily, it doesn’t mean he in fact expected to leave soon, only that he wanted to make clear he wasn’t there, emotionally, long term.

I find it remarkable every time I think about it, because we recite the Haggadah to relive it, and here we are asked to relive Ya’akov’s commitment to not becoming rooted in Egyptian life. Yet it is a recurring story of Jewish history, Jews arrive to sojourn—because Israel is the only place we reside—and end up becoming attached. That was true in Bavel, in Spain, in France and Germany (more than once), in Poland, and in the US. As we recite/relive the Haggadah, here’s one part of the story we might overlook, that Ya’akov went down to Egypt hoping to only sojourn there.

Remembering that It Was Hashem

I could go on like this all night (and we should, but not right now), but let me close with one piece also already found in Seder R. Amram Gaon. When the one bringing bikkurim notes that Hashem took us out of Egypt, Seder R. Amram includes the Midrash that stresses it was Hashem Himself, as it were, not an angel, seraph, or messenger. In light of my recent Times of Israel posts about alien worship (you can find them here), this seems to me to be stressing that the Exodus wasn’t in any way what we’d call “natural,” wasn’t anything like how Hashem may generally allow the world to run.

Rather, the Exodus was Hashem, with no intermediaries, intervening in history, turning us into His nation.  A truth we recall when offering first-fruits (speedily in our days) and Seder night, when reliving an experience we should never make the mistake of thinking of as mere history.

I have become fond of a particular Faulkner quote; let me paraphrase it here. The Exodus isn’t dead, it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) even past.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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