Spice up your Seder: Highlights from Exodus
The Haggadah dedicates a large number of pages to preamble completely unrelated to the actual story of Exodus of Egypt. Many families think the number of pages dictate the pace of the Seder and spend a long time reading these cryptic passages about 10 miracles vs 40 vs 400 and so on.
R. Taub’s key advice: Read through the printed preludes quickly, and spend the bulk of your time off the page, telling the story in as much interesting and passionate detail and excitement as you can.
Get the entire table involved off the page to truly feel you’re reliving the story!
A few favorite highlights from the Exodus story:
(They all come from the excellent Me’Am Loez Anthology of Midrashim (Volume Exodus 1-4 Israel in Egypt))
I. The story is full of logical deductions that reveal moral priorities — Pharaoh decides how to diminish the Israelite population, knowing G-d will avenge them in a similar manner. “We must therefore kill them by drowning, since their G-d has sworn never to bring another flood on the earth (Gen. 9:11). We know that the Israelite G-d always makes the punishment fit the crime. We must therefore kill the Israelites in such a way that such a fitting punishment will be impossible.”
The Israelite midwives (incl. Moses’s mother, Yochebed and Miriam) similarly knew that by Torah law, abortion (even upon birth!) is not considered murder if the alternative is martyrdom and thus, they could have obeyed Pharaoh’s decree. However, they learned from the Akeidah (when Avraham was ready to sacrifice his only son Isaac), that a Jew hurries to do the Creator’s bidding even against the thoughts of man. In risking their lives, the midwives too went far beyond the requirements of logic and law to fear G-d more than any man.
The midwives even ensured that all Israelite children received sufficient food, even the many that went uncircumcised, further modeling the ways of Avraham and Sara whose house was open to all guests without inquiring as to their character.
When Pharaoh realized, he confronted the midwives (Ex. 1:18-19). The midwives answered how Pharaoh thought, “The Hebrew women give birth naturally, like wild beasts, without requiring our help. As to why we provide their food, we don’t do it out of love for the children. We devised a plan to gain a reputation for providing food for indigent families. This would provide an inducement for women to seek our services, and we would then be able to obey your orders and kill the babies.”
Pharaoh could not find fault with their argument, and accepted what they told him. Thus, their fear of G-d gave them the strength and merit to produce a Moses and usher the Exodus.
May the example of the midwives inspire us to give generously with our entire being and guide our logical thinking through fear and love of Hashem.
II. I’ve never seen a legitimate claim from Torah sources that Jews built the pyramids. To the contrary, the Chumash speaks of the Jews building the storage cities of Pithom and Rameses (Ex 1:11) only. The word מסכנות means “build”, “danger”, or “poor man”. The walls of the buildings were so high that workers were killed by falling or by having bricks fall on their heads. The more they worked, the more the cities fell apart. Engaging in building such as this can be financially ruinous — a small estimate grows into a massive expense. The material crumbled easily and crumbled even more once Pharaoh refused to supply their straw.
Women were made to do men’s backbreaking work, and men were made to do women’s labor, unable to help their wives. Pharaoh decreed that if a man did not make his quota of bricks, either he or his child would have to be placed in the structure to make up for the missing bricks.
III. The Egyptians issued four harsh decrees against the Israelites:
1. Appointed slave drivers over them and forced them to build Pithom and Rameses.
2. Forced backbreaking work and made their lives bitter with harsh labor.
3. Decreed every male infant be drowned in the Nile.
4. Stopped giving them straw, demanding the same quota of bricks as before.
Paralleling these four decrees, G-d announced he would rescue His people in four different ways:
1. “I will bring you out from the subjugation of Egypt.”
2. “I will free you from their slavery.”
3. “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm.”
4. “I will take you to Me as a nation.”
These four different steps of redemption parallel the four cups of wine drunk at the Seder. The first two cups represent our Exodus from Egypt (the past), and the second two cups, drank after Hallel, represent our redemption in the Messianic era, the goal to which we strive (the future). Pesach commemorates our constant growth in freedom from physical constraints toward spiritual union.
IV. How come the plagues started as ones the Egyptians would be able to duplicate? If Moses began with miracles the Egyptians couldn’t duplicate, they wouldn’t have tried. But now that they had duplicated several of Moses’ signs, they would have no excuse when they were unable to duplicate the rest.
How come the first miracle they showed was Aaron’s staff (Ex 7:13) consuming the snakes of the Egyptian occultists? Furthermore, the staff didn’t become bigger, nor change at all, as it swallowed the many snakes on the floor. Answer: If Aaron’s staff had such power, it could swallow Pharaoh and his throne without leaving a trace. As soon, as Moses and Aaron left, Pharaoh railed for their deaths, but as soon as they returned, he became impotent as a dead stick.
The snake (as we know from the Garden of Eden) represents our physical desires. The staff represents the straight path, the path of the Israelite, ישר קל, one who lives straight with G-d. Aaron showed that the Israelites, although they might seem corrupted and seeped in the physical world of the Egyptians, could become straight and correct all their previous deviations in an instant. Once corrected, they could approach physical pleasures in the correct way, and imbue them without straying an inch from the straight path. That is the mission of the Jew — to elevate all the physical pleasures in this world into proper use.
V. What’s the reason for the plague on livestock (Ex 9:6)? The Egyptians forced the Israelites to tend their flocks in the distant deserts and mountains, to keep them from being with their wives and having children. They also made the Israelites do the work of beasts, as David recalls, “The plowers plowed with my back and they made long furrows” (Psalms 129:3). Since the Egyptians used Israelites like animals, they were punished by losing their animals.
The greatest danger Pharaoh posed was killing as many Israelite children as he could. Thus, the essence of our tasks on Seder night, these first two nights of Pesach, is to relive the story and tell it as powerfully as possible to our children. Even if there are no children present, and even if everyone at the table is well versed in the story, we are still obligated to tell the story with as much detail and excitement as possible? Why is that?
The Bilvavi writes that the heart thinks like a little child — it does not respond well to complex intellectual ideas. It lights up with simple, powerful, meaningful connections. No matter how developed we’ve become, our heart still responds best to the simplicity of emotional connection, and no matter how far it matures, it still listens best in the manner you’d teach your children — slowly, repetitively, with as much feeling and excitement as possible.
May you be blessed to have a Seder ignited with passion, with storytelling, with questions and answers galore, and with renewed enthusiasm to serve Hashem, to unleash the chains on your soul, and to bring on the coming redemption in our days.
Have a Great Passover!