Raison d'Etre / Editorial
April 1, 1998 / 5 Nissan, 5758

Isn't it time we rewrote the Haggadah?

How can we honestly say "We'd still be slaves to Pharoah?"

THE FIRST NIGHT of Pesach, the night of the Seder, is the night set aside by the Torah to retell the story of our forebears' exodus from back-breaking slavery in Egypt and the genesis of Jewish nationhood.

The importance of our liberation is stressed numerous times in the Torah. Indeed, no less than twice daily do we recite the Shma prayer, where we mention our exodus in accordance with the Mitzvah: "In order that you shall remember the day of your exodus from the land of Egypt every day of your life." (Deuteronomy 16:3). Other mitzvos — Kiddush — for instance, also hold the recollection of the Exodus at their core.

Now, the Exodus was a seminal event in Jewry's history. And indeed, it's a prime example of G-d's love for us insofar as He changed the natural course of the world, performing countless miracles for Jewry, enabling us to leave. But why lay such stress on this miracle? Wouldn't it make much more sense to stress the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which definitely shows G-d's love for us? For He gave us His greatest treasure, the Torah, which, in the words of the Psalmist, is: "Better for me than all the treasures in the world." (Psalms 119:71).

Perhaps this perplexity can be understood in light of the statement in the Passover Haggadah that: "In every generation it is one's duty to regard himself as though he personally had been liberated from Egypt." Why must one feel as if he also took part in the redemption? Another statement in the Hagaddah provides the answer: "For if G-d had not redeemed our forefathers from Egypt, we and our children and our children's children would still be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt."

Really? By most accounts, the pharaohs no longer exist. And if they were to remain in power today, it's unlikely that in our enlightened era they would be able to keep a people the size of Jewry enslaved. Yet the sages, in their wisdom, laid down that Jews throughout the ages should utter these words.

This seeming paradox can best be understood in light of the moral climate of Egypt in those days. As our sages explain, the Egyptians were idol worshippers, worshipping not only idols but also the Pharaoh, sheep, and even the River Nile. Despite the fact that Egypt was the cultural center of the known world, as a nation Egypt was steeped in immorality. Think of the old Times Square, then multiply by ten thousand. The Talmud says, "Ten measures of immorality were given to the world, and Egypt took nine of them." (Tractate Kiddushin).

The Egyptian environment could not help but have an effect on anyone living there, and the Jews were no exception.

Our sages teach us that although it is possible for anyone to repent his sins, there is a minority who are such sinners that it is practically impossible. Pharaoh, for instance, could not repent for his sins of denying the existence of G-d (Exodus 5:2) and refusing to grant freedom to the Jewish nation (Maimonides: Introduction to Tractate Avos).

The Jews in Egypt were so influenced by their environs that they were perilously close to that point of no return. One more moment in Egypt would have caused them to relinquish their status as the Chosen Nation, and we, their descendants, would have remained mired in the spiritual morass that was Egypt.

True, eventually we would have been physically redeemed, but we would never would have been fully redeemed from the spiritual bondage. Even today, well over two millenia after the Persians destroyed Egypt and defeated the Pharaohs, we would have been spiritually scarred, the residual effect of our Egyptian bondage still present.

Yes, each Jew must regularly acknowledge his personal exodus from Egypt. This is the lesson Haggadah is imparting: If not for G-d's merciful redemption, we would still be slaves to Pharaoh, to Egyptian culture, and immorality — slaves in a spiritual sense.

Ponder and discuss, dear reader, this truth at your seder this year: A slave with a free spirit can rise above this mundane world. In a sense, he can release himself from his shackles. But a free man with an enslaved spirit is doomed to servitude forever.

Binyamin L. Jolkovsky,


© 1998, Jewish World Review