By Professor Alex Green
On the first evening of Passover, Jews traditionally retell and relive the story of the liberation from Egypt by reading from a text called the Haggadah. It says that “In every generation, each person must look inward as though they personally were among those who went forth from Egypt”.
However, the Haggadah is an enigmatic text. We do not know for certain who compiled it or when it was first put together. Not only that, there are different versions that have developed over time. The great Jewish historian Yosef Hayyim Yerushalmi wrote, in Haggadah and History, that the Haggadah is “a book for philosophers and for the folk, it has been reprinted more often and in more places than any other Jewish classic and it has been most frequently illustrated.” Of all Jewish books, what explains the immense popularity of the Haggadah? Why has this text captured the Jewish imagination so strongly?
I would argue that the Haggadah is the text that most succinctly asks the question of what it means to be Jewish, through the retelling of the Passover story. In fact, if you look at how the Haggadah is structured, it is laid out in such a way so as to evoke some of the central questions and challenges of Jewish identity. As such, we should regard the Haggadah, not as a voice of authority telling us what to think and believe, but as a set of provocative statements that intend to provoke us to ask difficult questions.
Let me provide my own four sets of questions inspired by the Haggadah:
- What is the nature of responsibility? It has been suggested that the dipping of the green vegetable symbolizes the dipping of Joseph’s tunic into blood by his brothers. They were jealous of their father Jacob’s favouritism toward their younger brother, which had manifested in his giving Joseph a special coat. The brothers left Joseph in a pit, took his coat and dipped it into blood to make it appear as if he was eaten by wild animals. He was later discovered and sold into slavery in Egypt. Just as the green vegetable’s dipping is a prelude to the retelling of the Passover story, so this story is also a prelude to the Israelites’ descent into Egypt and eventual slavery. But there is much ambiguity over who is responsible. Was slavery an unintended consequence of the brothers’ mistreatment of their younger brother? Was it a consequence of Jacob’s favoritism for one child over the others? Was it retribution for Joseph’s telling his dream to his brothers that he would rule over them? Could it have been avoided by not taking these actions or did the Israelites have to go down to Egypt as part of some kind of larger plan to history? Who is responsible or is everyone responsible?
- How do we achieve unity and also embrace pluralism? There is a description of four children at the Seder: the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask a question. In our age of increasing polarization between those of disparate views, it is astounding to see those with four different worldviews (one even hostile to the Seder itself) sit together at the same table and have a discussion. How does the Seder leader engage each one differently? How does each question and answer reflect their own unique approach? Would each one be convinced by the answer that is given to them? (It is fascinating to see how these four have been illustrated differently throughout the history of Haggadah art). Or, could it be that we each have a little bit of the four children within every one of us?
- Who is in charge? Humanity or God? Readers of the Haggadah have often observed that one of the significant differences between the Haggadah and the liberation story, as told in the biblical story of Exodus, is that Moses is almost completely absent from this retelling of the story in the Haggadah. Is there a reason for retelling the Passover story of liberation by giving all the credit to God? Is there an underlying reason for removing human leadership from the story? Is this an obstacle for those who are sceptical of religion? Or would it be more appealing to them if Moses was featured more prominently? It is interesting to note that the great medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides suggested that the simple version of the story gives God all the credit, while the deeper interpretation recognizes much more of a role for Moses.
- How do we explain the tragedy and suffering of Jewish history? One well-known line of the Haggadah is the statement that “In each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us. And the Holy One, blessed be He, rescues us from their hands.” This is a powerful testament of the faith of Jews throughout history, but how does one reconcile that with the tragedies Jews have faced throughout history? My late grandfather would always raise the question at this point in the Seder: where was God in the Holocaust? Can we envision a future for Jews without suffering and persecution? Is there a way for Jewish educators to teach Jewish history in a way that recalls the lessons of Jewish persecution yet also emphasizes the positive elements of Jewish religion and peoplehood?
I hope you will consider discussing some of these questions, and come up with some of your own. Have a happy and healthy Passover!
Alex Green is an Assistant Professor and the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Jewish Thought at the University at Buffalo.