The seder night is jam packed with mitzvot and traditions that mainly focus on eating and speaking. Eating the Pesach sacrifice, matza, maror, karpas, and charoset; along with drinking 4 cups of wine. Telling the story of the exodus from Egypt; singing Hallel.[i]
There are additional laws and traditions that inform the performance of these mitzvot. To symbolize freedom, one must recline when drinking the 4 cups of wine and eating matza. The story of the exodus is related through maggid – preceded by 4 questions, followed by the format of matchil b’gnut u’misayem b’shevach, beginning with the derogatory and ending with praise, bookended by food (karpas, matza and maror).
Many of these mitzvot and traditions blend two extremes, those of slavery and freedom.
-Karpas – the green of spring and new beginnings is dipped into saltwater symbolizing the tears of our slavery.
-The bitterness of the maror is dipped into the charoset – the mortar of the bricks of the slaves that built Egypt and the experience that built our Peoplehood.
-The Pesach sacrifice was consumed in the transition – a people finally free of bondage and free to choose to serve their Creator.
-Matza – represents both the bread of our affliction and slavery, along with the haste of the redemption; perhaps reminding us that even though we did not go through an internal change to free ourselves, we were free because God declared it so.
-Of course, freedom is not such an easy thing to feel, we must search for it and make it part of us (afikomen).
“When one has matza and maror before them”
The Gemara (Pesachim 114a) and Haggada stress that the mitzva to tell the story of the exodus must be done with props. Tradition has expanded the minimum requirement of matza and maror to a full seder plate, and many have their own traditions – costumes, building blocks, a splitting sea…
This multi-sensory experience has meaning. According to the Gemara a person is obligated to see themselves as if they themselves left Egypt. (116b) According to Rambam a person must SHOW themselves as having left Egypt. (Hilkhot Chametz u’Matza 7:1)
The seder night is not merely a retelling, it is a reliving – the moment, the story, the food, the company – as we endeavor to feel as though we too were redeemed from Egypt. Everything we add into the seder should enhance this message, as befitting the age and temperament of our seder-mates:
The 4 questions, 4 sons, and stories of our rabbis are meant to introduce the main part of the story. The questions and children remind us that the goal is not intellectual but pedagogical, the stories of the rabbis define the mitzva of the telling and inform us we should be so engrossed in the story of slavery and redemption we lose track of time.[ii]
The story of slavery and redemption itself begins with “Tze u’lemad” – “go out and learn,” we are encouraged to “go out” of space and time and inhabit a role “to learn.”
The story of the exodus is meant to be told, ideally from parent to child, if not then from the learned to the less knowledgeable. When alone one must tell themselves the story. We begin with the derogatory, our slavery, our distance from our Creator; we end with praise – spontaneously bursting into Hallel with love and gratitude to our Redeemer.
Why do we need all this to tell a story?
Rav Soloveitchik explains that one of the main differences between a slave and a free person is the ability for meaningful speech. A slave with no free will cannot influence this world, only a free person can make history:
The slave lives in silence, if such a meaningless existence can be called life. He has no message to deliver. In contrast with the slave, the free man bears a message, has a good deal to tell, and is eager to convey his life story to anyone who cares to listen. No wonder the Torah has, four times, emphasized the duty of the father – a liberated slave – to tell his children, born into freedom, the story of his liberation.
Free man who is eager to tell his story, is always surrounded by an audience willing to listen to his story. The slave has neither a story nor a curious audience…
On the night our Creator released us from bondage we tell our story, the story that obligates of us to serve our Creator and Redeemer with love, awe, joy, and gratitude. But it is not enough to tell that story, we must live it. We must begin as wandering slaves with no greater purpose – tasting our salty tears, the bitter herbs of our existence, and our humble matza.
As the night progresses, we show our freedom as we tell our story and embody our redemption. Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi in the the Kuzari explains that the faithfulness of the Jewish people is based on the chain of tradition. We have no need for blind belief in our Redeemer, we can be sure of our faith as we have heard a firsthand account from someone who has heard a firsthand account, back through the generations. Borrowing from Elie Wiesel, “Whoever listens to a witness, becomes a witness.” Those families who are blessed to celebrate Pesach with multiple generations may even to hear an innocent grandchild ask their “ancestor” if they met Moshe. Somewhere back in the chain there’s an affirmative “yes.”
Acting as though we ourselves were redeemed from Egypt can make it real, we can make the next generation believe we were there, and we can make ourselves believe that we were redeemed. We relive our national journey, and we reestablish our national destiny.
As we say in the blessing over the second cup of wine at the culmination of maggid, “The Holy One, blessed be He, did not only redeem our ancestors from Egypt, He also redeemed us with them.” Without the miraculous salvation of our ancestors we would not be a free people or a people at all – a people free to tell their story of one God who acts with righteousness and justice and demands the same of all creation, a people free to continue the traditions of their ancestors, to influence history for the better and to bring about a final redemption when all can be free of affliction.
All of this started on this night, with matza and maror and the beginnings of a great story.
[i] The 10th chapter of Tractate Pesachim discusses the seder night and the sources for these mitzvot and traditions. In brief, now that the Pesach sacrifice is not offered, the only biblical obligation to eat is matza. Maror is rabbinic. The 4 cups of wine, karpas, and charoset are traditions that are directly tied to the seder experience.
The obligation to tell the story of the exodus is biblical. The source of the recitation of Hallel is debated.
[ii] These introductions are just that, introductions. They are not the mitzva. Spending the bulk of maggid discussing these introductions and rushing through the rest is comparable to spending the bulk of time davening mincha or ashrei and rushing through shmoneh esrei.
Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.