Seder Reflection: God’s Promise in Dark Times

In most years I think of the Seder as a time to make a point of recalling and retelling our stories – the stories about our family, immediate and wider, that have shaped us. This year I feel submerged in stories – personal stories and political ones, stories that carry loss, fear, anger, and then moments of hope and kindness. Stories of those living through this dark time, family members and close friends, and of the many members of our own community who have traveled to Israel to lend a hand and an ear. These are the stories that have occupied our minds these last months, but it is not clear how we can bring those stories to our Seder tables, and what kind of conversation will emerge if we do. What exactly do we do with a night of story-telling when our stories are so weighted, so laden with emotion?

Part of the dissonance I’m feeling this year is that the story the Haggadah tells is at heart so simple and triumphant, two words few of us are feeling this year. So I want to delve into two unexpected texts from the Haggadah that drop that pretense, and hope that they offer insights that can inform our Seders this year.

The Haggadah, and specifically the Maggid section, is not a narrative text – it does not tell a continuous story or offer a detailed description of the events in Exodus. In fact, it tells, in brief outline, multiple stories, competing answers to the core question of what is different about this night, what it means.

One narrative depicts a triumphant victory over oppression, attributing our freedom solely to divine intervention. It is not only a decisive victory but a permanent one – we are forever free of Egypt, and owe our freedom evermore to God’s heroism. However, after offering us that simple narrative, the Haggadah quietly moves the beginning of the story back two generations, starting not with the slaves or even Jacob but with Avraham. We praise God who was שומר הבטחתו לישראל, kept the promise made to Avraham that God would ultimately bring his descendants out of slavery. But wait! God is not offering reassurance to the downtrodden. This is Avraham, who successfully carried God’s mantle and of whom is says that God blessed him in all things, ברך את אברהם בכל. God is actually telling Avraham that whatever promises God made, about descendants as numerous as the stars, about inheriting the Land, the road to reach them will be long and difficult, passing through deep chasms as well as lofty peaks. This Promise, then, is not ‘don’t worry, I’ll always keep them safe no matter what comes at them.’ It’s more like, ‘They will endure hardship, heartache, and terrible loneliness. What I can promise is that I will stay with them in those low places and help them endure until the Time comes when I can bring them out.’

The Midrash says that the tradition of this promise was carefully transmitted through the generations down to Jacob’s children. So when Jacob went down to Egypt, he may have wanted only a brief sojourn, but in fact he went knowing that neither he nor his children would see its end.

THIS story is not one of rising up from oppression and achieving freedom. It is one of falling from a place of safety and security and only gradually finding our way back to that place, having been transformed in the process. And THAT, not the image of God as a force field fending off all threats, is the Promise that we celebrate in והיא שעמדה, the Promise that is meant to endure through the generations. We are not claiming that the danger is in the past. We are recognizing the opposite, that in every generation there will be more Pharaohs, more dangers, more challenges. And God has promised that God will be with us through the times of trial and will ultimately, however long it takes, see us through to the other side.

At the end of Maggid we tell another story, one in which escape from oppression is only the first stage in a longer journey. Dayenu is often ignored, in large part because it is misunderstood. The refrain, ‘it would have been enough’, does not mean enough for us, as if we would have been fine being stranded halfway. Rather, we are declaring each time that ‘this act alone would be enough to merit our gratitude and devotion’. The song is an inversion of a retelling of God’s deeds found in Psalm 78. The Psalm declares that it is enumerating God’s many acts of kindness to Israel because ‘God charged our fathers to recount them to their children … who would in turn tell their children,’ a direct reference to the mandate of vehigad’ta levinkha in Ex 13:8. It punctuates this list by repeatedly recalling with dismay Israel’s disloyalty and rebelliousness along the way despite the clear evidence of God’s devotion. The mitzvah to recount God’s deeds at the Seder, the Psalm argues, is meant to instill in our children the unwavering loyalty to God and trust in God’s commitment to us not shown by the ‘stubborn and rebellious (sorer umoreh) generation’ in the desert.

Dayenu is an attempt to repair this by literally correcting those errors. It lists God’s acts of love for us, from the Exodus all the way through building the Temple in Jerusalem. It emphasizes God’s Love, not God’s Might, as shown by the inclusion of manna, Shabbat, and Torah. And after naming each act, we declare dayenu, this act alone would be enough to show God’s boundless love for us. It is an attempt to say what they should have said in the moment. Where the Israelites, seemingly trapped between the Egyptians and the sea after God had brought them out of Egypt, defeated their gods and struck them with plagues, said with contempt, ‘Were there not enough graves in desert?’, we jump in and instead declare dayenu – what You have done for us already is enough for us to trust in You even when we can’t see the path forward. Where they, having just sung the glorious Song of the Sea, complain bitterly about their thirst, we jump in to say instead dayenu – we affirm our loyalty even, perhaps especially, in these moments of fear and uncertainty.

Many of these ‘rebellions’ were responses to real hardships on the journey. Even so, all of God’s gifts up to that point should have merited a trust and devotion to God that would persist through hard times. It’s not primarily in retrospect that it is important to go back and acknowledge each act of love individually. It is during the journey itself that we need it, precisely in the times of adversity when the fears of the present moment make us quick to forget both the commitments and the care that have gotten us this far. But then, as והיא שעמדה reminds us, we are always in the middle of the journey, there are always new challenges lying ahead.

I offer these as deep and real readings of the story told in the Haggadah that speak meaningfully to the many emotions of this moment. Perhaps we need a reminder as we invoke God’s Promise that the Promise made to Avraham foretold both long servitude and eventual redemption, an assurance that God would be with us in our hardship and see us through to its end. And maybe as we sing dayenu this year we might recall that it is precisely in the moments between God’s acts of wonder that the Israelites faith failed them, and that our task is to reassert our commitment to God and to striving to be the Holy Nation that God hopes we will be in those very moments. May we continue to trust in God’s love and to renew our commitment to divine service through these dark times, and may they give us strength and see us through to the other side.

About the Author
Rabbi Joshua Cahan, a Tefilah educator in New York City, compiled and edited the Yedid Nefesh bencher and the brand new Yedid Nefesh Haggadah. He spent 11 years teaching Talmud and Tefilah at the Leffell School, and was the founder and director of the Northwoods Kollel at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. He holds Rabbinic Ordination and a Ph.D. in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
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