Ready for the Seder? What does that mean exactly, to be ‘ready’ for the Seder? Matzah? Check! Wine? Check! Charoset? Check! But are we ready to do the most important task of the evening: Tell the story? I hope so, because that’s what the evening is really all about. There is, of course, a Mitzva to eat Matzah, but the central Mitzva of the night is SIPPUR YETZI’AT MITZRAYIM, relating the story of the exodus from Egypt.
The anonymous compilers of our Haggadah put a lot of effort into constructing a framework to help us accomplish the goal of recounting the exodus. Even though there are 15 steps (some say 14, by combining MOTZI and MATZAH) in the Seder, the central one is MAGID, relating the story. This large chunk of the Haggadah is split into three sections. The first, from the Four Questions until VEHI SHE’AMDA, is about how to tell the story. The third section begins with DAYEINU and ends with the drinking of the second cup, is about gratitude to God for the miracle. This leaves from TZEI U’LIMAD (go and learn) through the plagues to actually recount the critical events of the exodus.
A crucial decision was made at some point, probably in the couple of centuries before the Common Era, to extrapolate (DARSHEN) the tale from the verses recited when bringing the First Fruits (BIKURIM) to the Beit HaMikdash, Devarim 26:5-8. There are many reasons given for why they chose these verses. Here’s the one I like this year: There are four verses just like the four terms of redemption (Shmot 6:6-7, HOTZEITI, I took out, HITZALTI, I saved, GA’ALTI, I redeemed. LAKACHTI, I took).
These four expressions are probably the source for using the number four throughout the evening; cups, children, questions. But here’s the best part: there’s a fifth expression, HEIVEITI, I will bring you to the land. This step is still in the future. The story of the Seder is unending; it contains anticipation of a brighter future. So, too, the four verses of the BIKURIM declaration have an additional fifth verse: And God brought (V’YIVI’EINU) us to this place; and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey (Devarim 26:9).
The four expressions of redemption describe four steps in the redemption process. First, the slave labor was halted (HOTZEITI), then the Jews actually left Egypt (HITZALTI), next they crossed the YAM SUF (GA’ALTI), and, finally, they stood at Har Sinai to accept the Torah (LAKACHTI). What are the four steps in our four verses?
Three are easy to determine. In the second verse, we say the Egyptians oppressed us. That’s a major part of the process. The third verse describes our cries and prayers, which brought God to our aid. Then in the fourth verse, we have the description of God’s powerful, miraculous redemption of our ancestors. What exactly is the point of the first verse, ‘An Aramean destroyed my father, who went down to Egypt with meager numbers to sojourn there; there he became a great nation, powerful and numerous’?
There’s a lot to unpack. This verse seems to have three points, unlike the other three verses, which are focused on one concept. The first point is, indeed, controversial. The literal meaning (P’SHAT) of the verse is, ‘my father was a wandering Aramean.’ but the author of the Haggadah has accepted the Midrashic approach that the Aramean was Lavan, who wanted to destroy Ya’akov.
The second point is that Ya’akov, the unnamed Patriarch, descended to Egypt for an undetermined but relatively short stay. Compared to the teeming Egyptian nation, our seventy ancestors were a paltry group. Then something momentous, but totally unexpected, occurred: We became a nation.
This third point, I believe strongly, is the crucial concept of this verse. The Haggadah wants us to know that miraculously the Jews became a nation while outside our homeland. This is unique. The Haggadah goes on to make three points about this nascent nation. It was GADOL, it was strong (ATZUM), and it was numerous (RAV).
Strong and numerous are pretty self-explanatory, but the Haggadah gives us added interpretations, anyway. But what about GADOL? This means ‘great’, but here it shouldn’t mean ‘a lot’, because we already have ‘numerous’ to cover quantity. So, GADOL here must describe quality. What quality is being described?
Rav Soloveitchik addressed this issue, and saw the significance of GADOL modifying GOY. The term GOY or nation is a totally neutral expression. That group can be good or bad. But the Jews became a nation which was GADOL, great in some positive way. Once we became a distinct group or GOY, we had to develop a distinct nature, which must be great, GADOL. The Haggadah describes this trait as METZUYANIM, perhaps distinct.
The Rav found an answer to what is a GOY GADOL in a verse:
Surely, this GOY GADOL is a wise and understanding people…And what GOY GADOL is there that has laws and statutes as righteous as the Torah I have set before you (Devarim 4: 6 & 8). He goes on to inform us that this means that the Jews ‘cannot tolerate evil; they hate discriminatory practices and chicanery.’ Plus, this GOY GADOL ‘is a prayerful nation, a nation that knows the secret of prayer.’ The Rav concludes, ‘In pain and despair, we have attained greatness and nationhood’ (Festival of Freedom, p. 132-4).
That’s the message of the first verse used to tell the tale of the exodus. The story began with a few shepherds who became a moral and spiritual nation. It’s that reality which must propel all Jewish destiny. That’s the Big Story!! Chag Sameach!