Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Will the real fifth question please stand up.

The real fifth question[1]

Many of you have learned because many of us have taught that the text of the Haggadah eliminates Moses from the narrative to emphasize God’s role in the redemption of the Jewish people.  Indeed God is the hero of the story. “In every generation they stand up against us to destroy us-and the Holy Blessed One saves us from their hand!” “’God brought us out of Egypt’-not by an angel, not by an archangel, and not by a messenger.  It was God alone, in His glory, and by Himself.’”

With the above quotes, the rabbis emphasized God’s role in order to exclude other supernatural beings that the pagans believed in.  Although God wrought miracles in the land of Egypt to free the Israelite slaves, this fact does not preclude human participation in the drama of the Exodus. The Haggadah itself subtly teaches us that human participation was a necessary component in the story of the Exodus.  Allow me to illuminate several examples from the Haggadah to demonstrate how important human participation truly was.

We find Moses mentioned in the Haggadah twice, once directly by name and once he was alluded to.  “’Signs’-This is the staff.  It is written, “Take this staff in your hands (Moses), and with it perform the signs.’ (Exodus 4:17)” “At the Red Sea it is written, ‘Israel saw the great hand that God had directed against Egypt.  The people feared God and in his servant Moses.’ Exodus 14:31” The first quote introduces Moses to Pharaoh for the very first time and the second quote is when he leaves Pharaoh on the shore of the Red Sea.  These two verses found in the Haggadah serve as bookends which highlight the importance of Moses throughout the entire story.  Let’s face it.  The staff that ate the magician’s staffs when they were all turned into snakes just didn’t walk into Pharaoh’s court all by itself.  Moses brought this staff with him when told Pharaoh, “Let my people go!”  The second quote alludes to Moses standing over the Red Sea with his staff outstretched over the waters to part them. As you can see, the Haggadah doesn’t think Moses was chop liver.

Speaking of the Red Sea episode, according to the Midrash the water didn’t part until Nachshon ben Aminadav from the tribe of Judah took a leap of faith and jumped into the water.  Only after he jumped in, did the water split.  Once again showing how important human participation was in the saving of the Jewish people.

The Talmud in Sotah 12a teaches us that if it wasn’t for the righteous Jewish women of that generation, the Israelites wouldn’t have been redeemed out of the land of Egypt.  The apple, nut, and wine mixture, Charoset, alludes to one example of these righteous women.  Of course, the Charoset symbolizes the mortar the Jewish people used to build the pyramids.  Nevertheless, the Charoset hints to another Midrash.  Pharaoh used back breaking labor as an effective birth control method. At the end of the day the Jewish men were too exhausted to do anything else.  The Jewish women realized this would be disastrous because there would be no future generations to come into this world.  When the men broke for lunch, the women went to the apple orchards where the men were resting, brought them lunch, and seduced them. Without these women subverting Pharaoh’s schemes, Moses, Aaron, Miriam, would never have been born.  The apples in the Charoset remind us of these righteous women!

Finally, the Haggadah has a strange verse from Ezekiel “I made you as the plants of the field.  You became many and grew, and became mature.  Your breasts were full, your hair was grown, but you were naked and bare. (Ezekiel 16:7)  I passed by you and saw you covered with blood, and I said to you, ‘By your blood you shall live!’ and I said to you, ‘By your blood you shall live! (Ezekiel 16:6)  Why are we talking about a naked person covered with blood?  The Zohar, the book of Jewish mysticism, explains why this verse is quoted in the Haggadah.  God does not manifest providence-rewarding virtue or punishing evil until He witness human actions. “Rabbi Yehudah said, ‘If so, why blood?...(Rabbi Yossi) replied, ‘There were two bloods: one of circumcision and one of the Paschal Lamb. Of circumcision, Compassion (the sefirah of Hesed); of the Paschal Lamb, Judgment (the sefirah of Din). Before the Israelites left they had to circumcise all the males and offer up the Paschal Lamb.  The midrashic interpretation is apparently based on the repetition of the exclamation “In your blood live”  In other words, the Israelites were naked of commandments and thereby they weren’t worthy of redemption until they did something. Without the bloods of circumcision and Paschal Lamb they would not have been redeemed.  Only after they observed these two mitzvot would God make the Exodus happened.

God is great, but without our ancestors’ active participation in the events leading up to the Exodus “then even we, our children and our children’s children would still be slaves in Egypt.”  What was true for our ancestors is true for us today.  If we want to see a redeemed world, we have to act as God’s partners. Only when we do our share, will the Holy One be aroused and manifest His providence.  So the real fifth question isn’t “When do we eat?”, but rather “What am I doing to bring redemption closer?”  Answer that question correctly and we shall no longer need to say “Next Year In Jerusalem.”

Hag Pesach Samayach!

[1] I am indebted to David Arnow.  This blog is inspired by his article “The Passover Haggadah: Moses and the Human Role in Redemption.”  To read this article go to www.livelyseders.com and click on the articles tab.  You will see a fuller discussion of this topic.

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