Every year, when we read through the Haggadah at our Seders, the same sections seem to catch our attention year after year: This is the bread of affliction; The Four Questions; The Four children; The Ten Plagues; Dayeinu.
But one of the most difficult parts of the haggadah to understand is the part that comes right in the middle. We read a collection of four verses from chapter 26 of the Book of Deuteronomy. They begin with Arami oved avi. Translated either as “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean,” or “An Aramean persecuted my ancestor…” The four verses are a concise summary of the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
Their brevity is in fact the reason they were chosen. Exodus chapter 12 would have been a much more detailed option, but it would have been too long. The Deuteronomy text keeps it short and sweet.
The haggadah then proceeds to offer a phrase by phrase midrashic interpretation of each word and expression. Usually, a more extensive passage is quoted from some other part of the Bible, with a short analysis of what it means.
The origins of the midrash that appears in our haggadah goes back to the second century in the Land of Israel, although significant portions were added and incorporated over the next thousand years.
It is hard for us to understand today because it takes significant unpacking to figure out what is going on. So while we may pause in our seders to ask a question about an expression that seems strange or that grabs our attention, rarely do we spend too much time on it.
Of course, as a Rabbi, I get some post-Seder questions too. I’d like to address a question that I was asked earlier this week. It is a midrash that seems to contradict everything we know about the story of the Exodus. Here is the passage as it appears in the Haggadah:
“‘Adonai brought us out of Egypt’ (Deut. 26:8) – not by an angel and not by a seraph and not by a messenger, but rather the Holy One of Blessing Himself.”
And then it quotes Exodus 12:12:
“As it says: ‘I will pass through the Land of Egypt this very night and slay every first-born male in the Land of Egypt, from human to beast, and I will bring judment upon all the gods of Egypt, I, Adonai.'”
Then the haggadah gives its phrase by phrase interpretation of the Exodus passage:
“‘I will pass through the land of Egypt’ – I and not an angel (mal’akh). ‘And slay every first-born male’ – I and not a seraph. ‘I will bring judgment upon all the gods of Egypt’ – I and not the messenger (shaliach). ‘I, Adonai’ – I am He, and none other.”
What is going on here? The story of the Exodus is filled with angels and messengers doing God’s bidding. Everybody knows this.
Who carried out the tenth plague, the killing of the first born? The angel of death. Look at Exodus 12:23, just a few verses later:
For when the Lord goes through to smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and the Lord will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer (HaMashchit) enter and smite your home.
The haggadah is trying to get us to ignore vs. 23 in favor of vs. 12. Is it God or the Angel of Death that executes the 10th plague?
And there is another problem as well. If I were to ask you who brought the Israelites out of Egypt, what would you say?
Moses, of course.
Everybody knows this, so why does the haggadah make the point so emphatically that it was God directly who did these things? “I and not a shaliach, a messenger.” Here is Numbers 20:16:
We cried to the Lord and He heard our plea, va-yishlach mal’akh, and He sent a messenger, who freed us from Egypt
Why is Moses being dissed like this?
It is often pointed out that Moses’ name is not mentioned in the haggadah. (Actually, it does appear once) Why? So that we would not come to worship Moses as a deity. Come on!?
There is no explicit evidence that the rabbis were particularly concerned about this. Yes, they occasionally tell us not to worship Moses, but they never polemicize against it.
On the contrary, our literature is filled with interpretations and midrashim that attribute extraordinary events to Moses. He had a miraculous birth. He came out circumcised. We call him the greatest of the Prophets. The Torah calls him the humblest of all men. He is Moshe Rabeinu. Moses our Teacher. The teacher par excellence!
Do we really think that keeping his name out of the haggadah is going to prevent the deification of Moses?
There is another reason why this is not likely. As I mentioned earlier, the haggadah is a composite document that developed and grew over a period of more than 1,000 years. There is no consistent, unified purpose that links every element of the seder that we have today. If Moses’ name is absent from the Haggadah, it is not by design. We can speak of the intent of a specific passage in the haggadah, but not of the haggadah in its entirety.
This brings us back to our earlier question. Why in this particular midrash is the role of Moses deemphasized? What reason could there be to highlight God as the sole, direct Redeemer?
Like many other passages, it is a polemical midrash. But a polemic against whom?
This passage is one of the earliest elements of the haggadah. In the third century, Christianity had emerged, but had not yet fully separated from Judaism. A Jew might go to pray in a synagogue, and then go pray in a Church, or vice versa – just in case. It’s good to cover all your bases.
The early Church fathers hated this, and introduced all sorts of rules to discourage Christians from participating in Jewish practices. The Rabbis felt the same. They were particularly concerned with rooting out heretical beliefs among one’s people.
The Rabbis, by the way, felt this way about numerous sectarian Jewish groups.
By emphasizing that it was God who personally carried out the plagues, redeemed the Israelites, and brought them out of Egypt, the haggadah hints at a rejection of any other intermediary, or manifestation of the Divine Presence, i.e. Jesus.
The early Christian figure Origen of Alexandria and the leading Sage of the Palestinian Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan were embroiled in controversy over these kinds of theological issues at the same time that this midrash was likely composed.
So how do we feel about this passage now, in an age when we embrace interfaith cooperation? What does it mean for us to have a polemical passage like this in the haggadah?
Another post-seder conversation this week had to do with the humanistic messages that are often included in seders today. Contemporary haggadot tend to universalize the lessons of suffering, slavery, and freedom.
These are certainly important lessons, but as far as I know, every single element of the haggadah is there for particularist purposes. The composers of the haggadah did not intend for Jews to think about examples of modern day slavery and discuss how we are obligated to bring freedom to those who lack it. The sixteenth century German Jews who introduced the idea of spilling wine out of our cups during the recitation of the ten plagues were not expressing sorrow at the suffering of the Egyptians. Quite the opposite, they were praying that their contemporary enemies’ blood should also be shed.
Until the modern era, the innovators of the haggadah in every generation intended our gaze to be inward – towards our lives and our own people. We are obligated to see ourselves personally in this story. We are not obligated to insert others’ experiences into it.
The passage we’ve been discussing is an example of one polemic that was composed at a unique time in Jewish history, and represented the very real concerns of a community of Jews that saw its existence under threat. We honor their experience, and their contribution to our tradition, by studying their words and trying to understand their lives.
But we also must remember another important phrase in the haggadah: “And the more one talks about the Exodus from Egypt, behold, this is praiseworthy.”
So I think it is ok, and even encouraged, for us, here in the (make air quotes) “enlightened” 21st century, to be open to more universal lessons from our experience with slavery. But let’s not be afraid to dive in to our texts to discover meanings and lessons that spoke in personal ways to earlier generations of our people.
Perhaps their struggles have a lesson for us too.
[Thanks to The Schechter Haggadah, by Dr. Joshua Kulp and Rabbi David Golinkin, and My People’s Passover Haggadah, edited by Lawrence A. Hoffman and David Arnow.]