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Marianne Novak

The Passover Haggadah: The Container of All Things

How on earth are we going to be able to celebrate Passover, the Holiday of Freedom this year?

How are we going to have a Seder?

For so many of us now, Pesach observance seems so incredibly hard. Since October 7th, we have been holding a range of heavy emotions: sadness, disbelief, grief, loss, helplessness, hopelessness and an understandable amount of intense anger. While we’ve muddled through Hanukkah and Purim, this upcoming Chag, maybe because of its Torah mandate, maybe because of its message of redemption, seems impossible.

The Haggadah, the cornerstone liturgy of the Seder, is by design the container for all of our current emotions and emotions that we’ve had across generations, primarily (and ironically) because it does a very bad job facilitating the obligation of telling the story of Passover to the next generation , והגדת לבינך.

After Kadesh (blessing on wine), Urchatz ( hand washing following the Greco-Roman symposia to wash off wine dregs), Karpas (eating green vegetable -or better a real salad course), Yachatz (breaking of the middle matzah), we finally arrive at the preamble for Maggid – the supposed storytelling part of the Haggadah.

But anyone hoping for a rehash of the beginning of the book of Exodus or short synopsis of the Prince of Egypt will be sorely disappointed .

With Ha Lakhma Anya, we at least begin to talk about one of the main symbols of the holiday, the matzah. But this declaration speaks nothing of the Passover explanation for eating matzah in that as the Israelites were leaving Egypt in haste , בחיפזון, they had no time for bread to rise. Instead we are told that this is the bread of our affliction , לחם עוני. With no direct reference to Yetziat Mitzrayim, the going out from Egypt, the Haggadah is already setting the tone that this telling will go beyond just the Pesach story to go back to the past and go to the future to our time to bring a promise of redemption for God.

The next sections of Maggid continue to not really tell the story.

With Mah Nishtanah , the supposed prompts for the story are a jumble of flawed questions that don’t get satisfying answers. The preamble hints at something being different. The matzah and marror questions won’t be answered – and cursorily at best- until Rabbi Gamliel Hayah Omer and the question about reclining has already happened with the drinking of the first cup of wine. Then there is a substitute question about dipping twice which replaces the original question regarding the korban Pesach , the Pascal Lamb, the ultimate symbol of Pesach. (On all other nights we eat foods either cooked or roasted, tonight only roasted?) If actually answered, this question would elicit a detailed depiction of the Jews’ experience in Egypt.

Even with this set up, the Haggadah continues to tell arguably a different story albeit related to Yetziat Mitzrayim. In Avadim Hayinu, there is hope that the story we’ve all been waiting for will finally arrive, but its attempt is short and ends with saying that anyone who tells the story well, הרי זה משבח- that is a commendable act. The next paragraphs of the Five Rabbis in B’nei Brak- the paradigmatic anecdote of what good storytelling should look like- and the Four Sons- the pedagogical directions of how to tell the story and what to include in it- and Yechol Me’rosh Chodesh, describing when the storytelling should begin, don’t lead us any closer to the melodrama we’ve been promised.

This framing continues with the inclusions of the Declaration of the First Fruits, with its famous opening line, ארמ׳ עובד אב׳—An Aramean was destroying my father [Jacob]… This is a narrative at last but it begins all the way back with Lavan, the Aramean father in law of Jacob who in many ways enslaved Jacob, like Pharaoh did the Jewish people, but in the Rabbis imagination was considered even worse as he prevented Jacob from observing his Judaism and his relationship with God fully. There are a few lines about Exodus but while the beginning mentions the patriarchs, there is no mention of Moshe/Moses, arguably the main character of our story, is left out. In fact the only direct reference to Moshe in this story is God’s declaration that only He redeemed the Jewish people from Egypt, only he and not even ‘the messenger’ השליח. This declaration was upon the bringing of the first fruits to the priest on the holiday of Shavuot by all farmers, who by and large were mostly illiterate. By adding this piece, the original Haggadah project allowed to perpetuate the very egalitarian nature of the holiday by allowing access for everyone to participate.

The Haggadah continues on the theme of going back in time and avoiding the topic at hand and literally on the table by now introducing Rav’s version of the Haggadah- the important Amoraic scholar of the Babylonian Talmud- by introducing the idea that our redemption was not only a physical one from Egypt but started early with Avraham and our redemption from idol worship. This narrative does include part of the Yetziat Mitzrayim story but it comes not from Exodus but from a prediction given to Avraham (Avram there) during the Covenant Between the Pieces- ברית בין הבתרים told in Genesis 15. At this point in the Seder we are not any closer to getting the cinematic version of the Exodus anytime soon.

So why all the details and digressions? Why isn’t there a straightforward telling so far into Maggid? Perhaps the answer lies in the next declaration, V’hi She’amdah, והיא שעמדה, ‘And it is this that has stood for our ancestors and for us’.

We have throughout our history experienced the same hardships and challenges that we are having now and all the corollary emotions. Our ancestors also suffered oppression, disbelief, grief, loss, hopelessness and helplessness. And they had also had to celebrate Passover with the hope always that והקדוש ברוך הוא מצילנו מידם- ‘but the Holy One, blessed be He, rescues us from their hands.’

And that promise of hope is not just to hand everything over to God, however. But it is meant to inspire us to take the initiative we need to hasten and foment that redemption. To relieve our helplessness, God gives us the agency to change our history by partnering with him. In Dayenu, we see in a playful way – perhaps helped along by the wine we have consumed- how history can be rewritten. For Dayenu as written is essentially a lie. Any simple look at the Torah text clearly indicates that B’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel, were not at all satisfied with anything for very long. But at the Seder every year, we have a chance to change it and thereby encourage us to do our best to make it better.

This curious text of the Haggadah up to this point and its avoidance of actually telling the story of Exodus provides for us now, in the past and in the future a container for all that we are feeling now. It acknowledges loss, grief and pain of oppressions. It gives us hope with God’s promise to protect us and allows us to help ourselves but giving us agency to change our history without having to be as special as someone as great as Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Teacher and Leader.

With Rabban Gamliel Haya Omer- רבן גמליאל היה אומר- we finally have some relevant explanations of symbols that are directly related to the Yetziat Mitzrayim narrative. Yet the explanations, while on point, are short and sweet and really assume that everyone at the table already knows the story and this part is simply the technical performance of the mitzvah. But even this paragraph ends with a statement that goes beyond Exodus and includes everyone’s experience now and making it as relevant as our leaving Egypt and crossing the Yam Suf.

It is my family minhag, custom that when we recite:
בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאלו הוא יצא ממצרים….
’In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as if he had left Egypt…’
we take a moment to pause silently to think about a time when we had been redeemed. It doesn’t have to rise to the level of miraculous news as the going out from Egypt but can be for the individual just as powerful a touchstone for faith. We might not remember being in Egypt, but we can remember this moment right now and if redemption still hasn’t occurred by the time we sit down to our Seders, this still allows us to pray for our redemption to happen.

Perhaps the hardest emotion, however, to handle for many of us is one of anger- intense anger that has the very probable potential to slide into vengeance. Here too, the Haggadah’s unconventional text and traditions has a way to acknowledge and contain our anger and help us from falling into soul sucking vengeance. As we pour the third cup— and some at this point pour the 5th cup for Eliyahu- we stand up, fling open our doors and sing Eliyahu HaNavi reminding us that he will arrive again as the heralder of the Messiah, משיח בן דוד. The Eliyahu was bring here began in the book of Kings as a true and violent zealot for God- קנא קנאתי ה׳- and as a prophet had no hope in the Jewish people ever following God. His overblown zeal resulted in him reigning fire on Jews and non-Jews alike. God physically removes Eliyahu from earth for this kind of behavior is left for God alone. Eliyahu is transformed by the Rabbis into a kindly character who shows up to perform miracles, remind the people of God’s kindness and God’s promise of an ultimate redeemer. The prophet who had no hope for the Jewish people to fulfill the Covenant is commanded to show up to the Seder and a Brit Milah to see that his predictions for the Jewish people were wrong.

As we invite the kinder, gentle version of Eliyahu we then recite the very jarring- ‘Pour Your wrath upon the nations…’ שפוך חמתך על הקוים. The juxtaposition of God’s wrath and Eliyahu’s kindliness allows us to place our anger in God’s hands. We are given permission to u se our anger to eradicate evil to hasten the coming of the Messiah but to remember to let God take the vengeance piece as God is the only one in the position to do so.

The Haggadah of Passover doesn’t do a very good job telling what we would hope to be the main narrative of the holiday. The writers of the Haggadah frankly assume that all of us know that story already as it a core narrative of our history, prayer and study. But perhaps by design, perhaps by accident, perhaps because of the nature of the Jewish people’s experiences in the past and in our very live present, the Haggadah can be the container for everything we are feeling. It can hold us just enough so that we can do our very best to truly celebrate the holiday of freedom- זמן חרותנו.

May we merit a complete redemption or at least the eradication of the evil of Hamas, the end of the war and its destruction of life, the return of our dear hostages without complete destruction so that the prophecy of Malachi that we will read shortly on Shabbat HaGadol can be fulfilled speedily in our day.
(Malachi 3:24)
וְהֵשִׁ֤יב לֵב־אָבוֹת֙ עַל־בָּנִ֔ים וְלֵ֥ב בָּנִ֖ים עַל־אֲבוֹתָ֑ם פֶּן־אָב֕וֹא וְהִכֵּיתִ֥י אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ חֵֽרֶם׃
He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.

Chag Sameach!

This shiur was originally delivered to the Yavneh Orthodox student group at the University of Chicago on April 4, 2024.

About the Author
Rabbi Marianne Novak recently received Semikha from Yeshivat Maharat. She lives in Skokie, IL with her husband Noam Stadlan. She is an educator for the Melton Adult Education Program and a Gabbait for the Skokie Women's Tefillah Group. She recently joined the Judaic studies faculty at Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Chicago, IL.
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