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Passover, Time, and Tradition

We all know that famous bit of Torah that we say toward the end of maggid:

בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים שנאמר בעבור זה עשה ה’ לי בצאתי ממצרים לא את אבותינו בלבד גאל הקדוש ברוך הוא אלא אף אותנו גאל עמהם

In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as though he left Egypt, as it says, “And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: On account of this God did for me when I left Egypt” (Ex 13:8).  Not our fathers alone did the Holy One, blessed be He, redeem, but also us did he redeem with them.

(Here, as often in the Haggadah, the manuscripts give indications of fluidity and accretion, but for our purposes the text is stable enough.)  This notion of seeing ourselves as having left Egypt—or in Maimonides’ famous alternative formulation, showing (להראות) ourselves as having left Egypt—is endlessly fascinating.  What, precisely, is the goal here?  How is one to accomplish it?  I want to reach some new insight into this imperative by considering why it occurs just here, in connection with Passover.  When we celebrate Purim we don’t seek, in particular, to imagine ourselves as having been in Shushan.  Nor when it comes to Hanukkah do we try to envision ourselves as threatened by Antiochus’ decrees.  In fact, on those holidays, we associate the event specifically with our ancestors, אבותינו: We say the blessing of שעשה נסים לאבותינו “who performed miracles for our fathers”; or again in the על הנסים liturgy, we thank God for the miracles שעשית לאבותינו “that You did for our fathers.”  And yet when it comes to Passover, we say: לא את אבותינו בלבד “not our fathers alone.”  We ourselves left Egypt.  Why is Pesach different from all the other holidays in this way?

The beginning of an answer to this question lies, I think, in a detail of the Haggadah’s imperative to see oneself as having left Egypt.  Who falls under this command?  The text says: a person, אדם.  But the verse that supports the imperative, Ex 13:8, concerns the situation of a parent instructing a child: והגדת לבנך “and you shall tell your son.”  The obligation to see oneself as having left Egypt is a feature of the obligation to tell one’s child about the exodus.  In other words, seeing oneself as having left Egypt is, paradigmatically, something you do as a parent.

With this insight, we can appreciate that what the imperative to see oneself as having left Egypt is really doing, is offering us a particular perspective on tradition.  Here’s what I mean.  The dominant metaphor for tradition is a chain: משה קבל תורה סיני ומסרה ליהושע ויהושע לזקנים “Moses received Torah from Sinai, and conveyed it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders,” and so on and so forth, from Moses down to us, link by link.  But there are many vantages from which to view this process of transmission.  Purim and Hanukkah are interested in the relationship between the deep past and the present.  The problem that they take up is how to link הימים ההם, “those days”—thus the formulation in the שעשה נסים לאבותינו blessing and in the על הנסים prayer—to us in the present day, living so much later.

Passover is interested in a very different aspect of the chain of tradition, and offers a very different configuration of time.  Passover collapses the gap between father and forefather, between mother and foremother.  There are no ancestors here.  Rather, I the parent am the one who left Egypt.  All of the past is embodied in me.  Nor, by extension, is there an endless succession of generations proceeding into the future.  That future, too, collapses, into the child.  All of the future is embodied in her.  The encounter between the parent and the child is the encounter between past and future.  Passover is not interested in the chain of tradition as a whole.  Passover telescopes all of the past into the parent, and all of the future into the child, because it is interested in that single, critical synapse separating parents and children, and the challenge of spanning it.

How does this almost metaphysical picture cash out psychologically?  It is a familiar idea, really.  Parents have lived the past.  Not a great deal of the past, of course, but they have really lived it, enough to be laden with it.  We have a word for the sense of being laden with the past, for bearing the past with us as something we cannot let go of.  It’s called nostalgia.  I was listening to some Passover music last week, and I heard a certain rendition of the nirtzah song, אדיר הוא.  I don’t hear others sing that version very often, but it plays in my head all the time.  It’s the version that my grandfather sang when he led the seder in Montreal, which we drove up to every Passover from New York.  When I hear that song, I see that crowded dining room, with the window looking out to a small backyard that often—this being Montreal—still had snow.  I hear the squeak of our feet on the plastic runners on the stairs leading up to the second floor.  I see my mentally handicapped uncle pacing the living room, tapping the back of a Passover teaspoon incessantly into his palm.  I hear my grandfather’s vibrant baritone.  I taste my grandmother’s Passover cake.  I feel the weight of their deaths: my grandfather’s, my uncle’s, my grandmother’s.  I ache at the loss of their own nostalgia, the passing of their own memories.

This is what parents bring to the seder table.  They bring with them their own past as lived experience, and they bring with them the very notion of the past as something alive.  Children come to the table instead with a sense of possibility, an orientation toward the future: What will I be when I grow up?  What does the world hold for me, and what do I have to offer the world?  Passover is the attempt to solve this encounter between past and future, to enable communication across this gap.

Another way to frame the problem of Passover is in terms of redemption, גאולה.  It’s a major theme of the holiday, of course: לא את אבותינו בלבד גאל הקדוש ברוך הוא אלא אף אותנו גאל עמהם “Not our fathers alone did the Holy One, blessed be He, redeem, but also us did he redeem with them.”  But how, in fact, is redemption possible?  Who, when one gets down to it, is going to be redeemed?  Parents can’t really shake off the past.  They don’t even want to.  Recall the Israelites who left Egypt.  These are the personae whom the parents at the seder are supposed to adopt.  But the Israelites who left Egypt are prone to recalling Egypt with striking fondness, at least at times.  After all, they were young and strong then.  Their own parents died in Egypt, and there were they buried.  The Israelites who left Egypt say: זכרנו את הדגה אשר נאכל במצרים חנם “We remember the fish that we ate freely in Egypt.” (Num 11:5)  They ultimately don’t make it to the Promised Land, because they are too attached to Egypt, because they can never let go of the thought of going back to it.  Who, then, is going to be redeemed?  Not the parents.  The children, perhaps?  Well, the children do make it to the Promised Land, but they never left Egypt.  They never experienced slavery, to pass from there into freedom.  They were born and raised in that empty space, the wilderness.  They have no past.  No one goes directly from Egypt to the Promised Land.  No one is really redeemed, in the fullest sense.

That is the problem that Passover stares in the face: the gap between the past and the future; the problem of communication between parents and children; the impossibility of redemption.  And it doesn’t really offer a solution, or at least, not a single solution.  It sits the past and the future, parents and children, down at a table, and lets them figure it out, with bookshelves upon bookshelves of helpful hints, and foods and gestures to build the bridge.  And Passover offers, finally, a prophetic vision of success.  That’s the vision that comes at the end of the haftarah for Shabbat ha-gadol: הנה אנכי שלח לכם אל אליה הנביא לפני בוא יום ה’ הגדול והנורא והשיב לב אבות על בנים ולב בנים על אבותם “Behold I am sending you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the Lord’s day, great and terrible.  And he will restore the heart of fathers to sons, and the heart of sons to their fathers.”  Redemption can’t be of parents alone, or of children alone.  Redemption can only be of both together, reconciled to each other across the gap between past and future.

About the Author
Tzvi Novick is the Abrams Jewish Thought and Culture Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on law and ethics in early rabbinic literature, and on pre-medieval liturgical poetry.
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