The central mitzvah of the Seder night is sippur yitziyat Mitzrayim, telling the story of the exodus from Egypt. The simplest way to do this would be to open Shemot and read the narrative directly from the Torah. This experience would certainly be more engaging than reading the story in the Haggadah – there is greater detail in the Torah, the plot is more dramatic, and, as one of my students recently pointed out, there are the characters, the actors who make the story interesting. But this is not the approach of the Haggadah.
Some of the earlier rabbis even espoused the opinion that one should ignore the story and spend the evening intensively studying (la’asok b’) the laws of the Paschal sacrifice. The Mechilta, a collection of Tannaitic writings on Shemot, contains an early second-century quote from Rabbi Eliezer: “How do you know that, if it is a group of all sages or of Torah students that they must study in the laws of the Pesach until midnight? Therefore it says: ‘What are these testimonies…'” For Rabbi Eliezer, rigorous Torah study, indicated by the verb of la’asok, is the core mitzvah of the evening.
However, this type of discussion is restrictive and too easily becomes elitist in nature. It is the answer only to the questions of the chakham (the wise son or the sage): “What are these laws? Let me understand their details and nuances.” It is a talmud Torah reserved for the few, for “sages or Torah students.” It works for those that have the capacity, interest, and education for this form of study. Everyone else remains excluded.
Rabban Gamliel’s approach is similar. As the Tosefta (Pesachim,10:12) relates, “There is a story regarding Rabban Gamliel and the elders who were reclining in the house of Beitos ben Zonim in Lod, and they were intensively studying (oskim b’) the laws of Pesach the entire night until the rooster crowed. The tables were removed from in front of them, and they gathered and took themselves to the study hall.” Here, the sages are doing the classic Torah learning of the beit midrash, delving into the particulars and subtleties of the laws. And thus, when morning comes, what is there to do but continue? They get up and go to the beit midrash. For them, the mitzvah of Pesach night is no different than the rest of the year; only the topic changes.
The Haggadah rejects the elitism of these two approaches. Almost no space is given to discussing the laws of the Pesach or any other halakhot. There is only the briefest of responses to the chakhamwith no echo in the rest of the Haggadah. Perhaps even the law that we teach the chakham, “One does not eat a dessert after the Paschal sacrifice,” serves to redirect this too narrow approach. The reason that we do not eat anything after the Paschal meat is so that “the taste remains in our mouth.” Perhaps we are saying to the chakham, “You ask, ‘What are the laws?’ But there is more than laws, more than ‘the what.’ There are the reasons, the ta’am, ‘the why.’ This reason, this ta’am, of the mitzvah has to remain with you. Your religious life has to extend beyond the beit midrash.”
The Haggadah also tells the story of the gathering of sages differently. In its version, the sages, including Rabbi Eliezer, were not discussing halakha. They were simply telling the narrative of the Exodus. Even these great sages understood the mitzvah this night is to tell the story, to present a larger narrative that gives meaning and direction to our religious lives. Where did this all begin, how did we get here, where are we going? These are big religious questions that we can all ask and, on this night, we must ask.
The events of the following morning reflect this more inclusive approach. Rather than taking themselves to the study hall, the sages are reminded by their students to say the morning Shema. In this, they are reminded not to become so engrossed in their study that they forget the basic affirmation of faith that everyone does each morning; they cannot sequester themselves in the study hall and in their narrow discourse. On the Seder night, the next morning, and throughout the year, they must be part of the larger religious faith of the people.
Rabban Gamliel’s position of the mitzvah of the evening is also transformed. Both the Mishna and the Haggadah quote Rabban Gamliel as stating that one only fulfills his or her obligation by explaining the symbolism of the three foods of the night: “Pesach, for what reason?… Matzah, for what reason?… Marror, for what reason?” In contrast to the focus on the laws of the Paschal sacrifice that we find in the Tosefta, the Rabban Gamliel of the Haggadah requires us to discuss the sacrifice in a way that is accessible to all. These are not the technical “what” questions that are the purview of the sages and their students: “What foods are considered marror? How much marror must one eat? Must one lean for marror?” Rather, here we find the “why” questions of religious meaning that we all must ask: “Why do we eat marror? What is the message? How is this relevant?”
The Haggadah, then, transforms both Rabbi Eliezer and Rabban Gamliel and presents two alternatives to studying halakha on the Seder night:
1. Don’t talk about halakha; tell the story.
2. If you do talk halakha, don’t talk about the what. Instead, talk about the why.
This is the corrective to the chakham. But the Haggadah also serves as a corrective to the other extreme, to those who would be content just listening to a story. The easiest and most universal approach is that of the tam, asking, “What is this about?” and sitting back to listen. “Let me tell you a story” is a line that immediately grabs our attention. Who doesn’t love a good story?
But such an approach is too easy. It doesn’t demand anything of us. We can be totally passive; we can just relax and enjoy. We might be temporarily inspired by the story of the Exodus, but if we don’t put ourselves into it, we won’t be transformed. This is why the simple telling of a story is also given short shrift in the Haggadah. “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and God took us out from there”: no detail, no engaging plot, no characters. True, the story in Shemot is much more interesting. But the Haggadah is informing us that this, also, is not the mitzvah of the night.
The real mitzvah is neither la’asok, to do intensive study of halakha, or li’saper, to merely tell a story. Rather, it is to do as the Mishna in Pesachim instructs: doresh me’Arami oved avi, to explicate the verses of, “A wandering Armenian was my father…” We are to start not with the Biblical telling of the story in Shemot but its re-telling in Devarim. Our mitzvah is not to tell, but to retell, a story, or more accurately, to re-retell a story. Through retelling we make the story our own. We decide what to emphasize and what to leave out; we tell it in a way that makes us a part of the telling.
The retelling we do this evening takes a particular form. The key word here is doresh. We engage in classic rabbinic talmud Torah, not the more exclusivist intensive study of halakha but the Torah she’b’al peh that is our communal heritage. This is the taking of Biblical verses, the Torah that God has given us, and explicating them, interpreting them, asking what each phrase means. How should it be understood? How is it relevant? It is the bringing of the fullness of our selves – our experiences, values, worldview, questions, critical thought, and faith – into conversation with God’s Torah. What results is a Torah she’b’al peh, a Torah that is both God’s and our own.
That is why the characters of the Haggadah are not Moshe, Aharon and Pharoah. The characters of the Haggadah are Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Tarfon, Rabbi Akiva, and all those who were a part of explicating the Haggadah, all those who found themselves in the story. The key question this night is, can we engage and retell the story in such a way that we, too, will become characters in the Haggadah?
On the Seder night, we do not just learn halakha or tell a story. We bring these two approaches together, telling a story through the lens of Torah she’b’al peh. The sages among us are asked to weave their narrower Torah into a larger narrative of religious meaning, and those of us who would normally be happy just to sit back and listen are pushed to become active participants in the telling and meaning-making. This night, we must all make the story our own. Only in this way will it gain real traction and translate into our lives. Only in this way will we, too, become part of the story.