How I Recieved a Rich, Beautiful and Cognitively Disruptive Heritage
“And when Moses took us out from Egypt,” she continued, “he told us to ask the Egyptians for their silver and gold.”
I was sitting on the lap of my dear Iraqi grandmother as she pointed to the silverware and trinkets aligning the mantelpiece and told me their story in her very broken English.
“Because they never paid us for working for them,” she explained. “And these are the things they gave us.”
My eyes were fixed on the stubby, solid bronze owl whose ruby eyes, I had been told, somehow disappeared during our family’s sojourn in India. He stood just next to the tall silver kiddush cup that I use on Friday night to this day.
Just above them was the portrait of Moses who seemed to be teaching something in particular about his two stone tablets. He looked much like a member of our family—certainly more Iraqi than Canadian.
But most of all, I looked up in awe at my grandmother. She had been there, in Egypt, and she had the stuff to prove it.
My grandmother knew Moses. That explained her name: Serach Moses. And I was her grandchild.
Even more than my grandfather who taught me to read Hebrew, it was my grandma who gave me my identity as a Jew. Thanks to her, I figured out what made me different from the rest of the kids in public school. It wasn’t just that we ate pilaf and they ate french fries. We were the people G‑d had taken out of Egypt to be His people.
A powerful identity, but one that came with a biting dissonance. There were tough questions to be answered.
If we left Egypt to come to the Promised Land, what were we doing among the Douglas firs of Vancouver? If Moses had scored us all these riches, why did Grandpa have to walk many miles every day to his cramped,
But then it seems an integral part of Jewish identity is that jarring dissonance. Because it’s immediately evident in the Passover Seder as well. And, more than any other experience, it’s at the Passover Seder that a Jew establishes identity.
A Disordered Order
There is no question that the Passover Seder is designed to disrupt our senses. The Zohar states that we do everything differently on this night because in the heavens the divine energy flows differently, skipping the protocols that are in place all year round.
In its most simple sense, the Haggadah is meant to be told as an answer to a question, and to do that, the Seder presses all our buttons to switch us into questioning mode.
In other words, even though “seder” means “order”—and each step of the Seder follows the other in meaningful, logical steps—it’s an order of disorder.
We wash our hands as though we’re about to eat bread, and then we dip a vegetable into salt water. Why? To disrupt the order of things, so someone might ask, “Isn’t this out of order?”
We introduce the matzah by singing, “This is the bread of suffering that our fathers ate in the Land of Egypt.” Then we cover the matzah. Why? To disrupt expectations. So the child within us will ask, “Why is this night different?”
We have to make it obviously different, just so you will ask. So that if you came to a Passover Seder and had no questions, you just weren’t there.
It’s an ingenious ploy, choreographed with precision. In this disruptive order of disorder, there are key points at which expectations are ignited—and then quickly explode into more of that orchestrated dissonance.
Take the grand opening of the section called “Magid”—usually described as “Telling the Story.”
We’ve set up our Seder plate, made kiddush on the wine, dipped that veggy, broken the middle matzah, and now finally we’re ready to explain what this night is all about.
This is the bread of suffering that our fathers ate in the Land of Egypt!
Suffering? Wait! Isn’t tonight about freedom? Why start with suffering?
And who says we ate matzah in Egypt? Isn’t this the bread we ate when we were leaving Egypt?
Anyone who is hungry, come and eat! Anyone who needs to make a Passover meal, come do it with us!
But we already made kiddush! Why didn’t we invite them before kiddush? Isn’t that an essential part of the Seder and the Four Cups of Redemption?
For that matter, why didn’t we invite them when we were in the synagogue? Why now, when the doors are closed, the windows shut, and we’ve already begun the meal (if but a cup of wine and a measly veggy)?
And then comes the clincher:
Now we are here. Next year we will be in the Land of Israel.
Now we are slaves. Next year we will be free.
Really? We are slaves? We are not in Israel?
If so, what on earth are we celebrating?
Now tell me you had none of those questions when you said those words last year. Incomprehensible. At the very outset of the Haggadah, we are already introducing facts and notions that entirely disrupt the most basic assumptions of our people’s identity-narrative and of this holiday.
We are slaves. We are still in Egypt. There are hungry and needy amongst us. What happened to the people G‑d took from Egypt to the Promised Land to be His people?
An Ambiguous Answer
The dissonance only gets stronger. The child asks four questions. Now we can answer:
We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. And G‑d took us out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.
Okay, we’re doing good. This seems to be the unambiguous answer and identity for which we were searching. The problem is that the speaker of the Haggadah seems more interested in enigma than in clarity. So he continues, insisting…
And if the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our fathers out of there, we and our children and our children’s children would still be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.
Hold on. That was not the deal. Everyone knows that was not the deal.
Our great-grandfather, Abraham, was promised by G‑d that “the fourth generation will return here.” Our fathers, us, our children, and our children’s children—that’s four generations. There’s no way we could have stayed in Egypt any longer than that. G‑d promised.
And thinking that through, the first part doesn’t work either. Why should G‑d have to take us out from there?
If we were slaves due to natural consequences, or because we were just slave material—understood. A supernatural power would be required to abort a natural occurrence. But the entire situation was supernatural from the get-go. There was a divine decree. Once the decree would be up, the bondage should spontaneously terminate.
So why the “strong hand and outstretched arm?” Just let us walk out of there and return to the freedom that was naturally ours.
A Second Beginning
Actually, there are two beginnings to the answer to the child’s question. The Talmud prescribes a story-arc for the Haggadah: Begin by bemoaning our prior state of humiliation and move towards grateful praise for G‑d’s benevolence towards us. Only that there’s more than one way of doing that.
One way is to start with “We were slaves” and lead to “And G‑d freed us.” But there’s another opinion cited in the Talmud, to start with “We were polytheists” and conclude with “and now we serve G‑d.”
In good Jewish fashion, we cover both bases by setting two beginnings to the answer. The first is the one we just mentioned, trailed by the Four Children and the anecdote of the five rabbis sitting in Bnei Brak.
Then comes the second beginning. This one makes the point sharp and fast:
Originally, our fathers served foreign gods. But now, G‑d has brought us into His service.
Again, if one key word in there doesn’t jar your ears, you weren’t listening. This is the story of the Exodus. The Exodus occurred a long time ago. Not now, but back then.
Abraham’s family worshipped idols, as did What’s with this curve-ball, this “But now…”?he when he was young, as did just about everybody back then. Later, G‑d took us out of Egypt, where, yes, some of us may have been slipping back into the idolatry our forefathers had so strongly rejected. And He brought us to Mount Sinai, where we entered into a covenant with Him, as outlined in the Five Books of Moses. Ever since then, idols and polytheism have been the anathema of a Jew.
Say that. Say it clear. What’s with this curve-ball, this “But now…”?
An Ongoing Persecution
All this leads into the meat and potatoes of the Haggadah: The wandering Aramean.
This is the section where we unpack four verses, discovering how the entire story is really contained in only a few words. These are words that every Jew in ancient times had memorized, because he had to recite them by heart every year when he brought his first-fruits to the Temple. In this way, this mini-narrative became the everyman’s “what it means to be Jewish” in a nutshell.
But somehow, it’s the preface to that section that became far more memorable and popular. After we mention the covenant G‑d made with Abraham, we cover the matzah, raise our cups and everyone sings together those words that so much resonate with the Jewish experience and the Jewish soul, “V’hee She’amda…”
And this is what has stood for us and for our fathers. For in every generation, they rise against us to exterminate us. But the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand.
At this point, if there’s any honesty in your heart, you just have to wake up and ask: For this we were chosen? To wander from land to land, facing again and again genocidal enemies?
Even the Egyptians weren’t out to exterminate us, as the Haggadah states clearly, “Pharaoh only decreed against the boys, but Laban (presented here as the prototype of genocidal villains) wanted to uproot us all.” So what was the point of rescuing us from there?
Yes, You save us from their hand. But, in the unsparing words of Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, 17th century author of one of the Could anything be more jarring, more antithetical to the entire theme of the Haggadah than this reminder of our history of persecution?most popular compendiums of Jewish thought, the Shnei Luchot Habrit: “Don’t put us in danger and You won’t have to save us.”
Could anything be more jarring, more antithetical to the entire theme of the Haggadah than this reminder of our history of persecution?
True, undebatable—we were miraculously saved, again and again. But if we are truly His chosen people, in what way is this His praise? Are the enemies so much better than us that we really deserve their persecution? For what exactly are we thankful? Isn’t it simple justice that their devices should fail against us?
Which brings us to the most obvious of all questions, one that, unanswered, simply does not allow the Seder to continue:
Why do we thank G‑d for taking us out of Egypt? Didn’t He put us there in the first place?
Tell me an intelligent child is not going to have this question.
A Jew at the Seder
In case you’re imagining this Tzvi Freeman character to be some sort of heretic, let me point out that all the above questions and many more are raised by the classic commentaries on the Haggadah—and they are many. A believing Jew doesn’t shy from hard questions. If you have faith, you have faith that there are answers. And the night of Passover is a night for asking tough questions—the only qualification being that they come from a sincere place.
Indeed, on the second night of Passover, 5725 (1965 on the secular calendar), the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, raised all the above questions and more, in language at least as strong. And he provided a single, simple and meaningful answer to all of them.
First, he explained that the Haggadah expects a Jewish child to come to the Seder perplexed by the entire story, even before the Seder has begun. His questions don’t arise from the text of Haggadah alone, but from the world he sees around him. There is poverty. There is ignorance. There is slavery. There are nasty people. For a Jew who believes that G‑d is good and there is only one of Him, that’s challenging.
It’s as though not only the Seder, but the entire creed of the Jew is a setup to get us to ask a question. More than question—to sense at least a little outrage.
If you have no G‑d, or many gods, or never thought about the whole idea of G‑d, then the world is what it is. But once you believe in a benevolent G‑d—meaning that you believe the very essence of reality is essentially good—nothing is the way it is supposed to be.
It’s been that way from the beginning. It’s as though not only the Seder, but the entire creed of the Jew is a setup to get us to sense at least a little outrage.Abraham embraced the idea of a single G‑d whose providence encompassed all of life. He endured challenge and tribulation again and again, faced with situations that flew in the face of all of his convictions. It was as though G‑d Himself attempted to prove to Abraham that he was wrong. And Abraham had to prove that he could stick it out.
That’s how his child, a Jew, comes to the Seder, with that underlying dissonance as a background. And the Haggadah is designed to answer that.
The Answer to Everything
The answer is staring us in the face, clear as day:
…And G‑d took us out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.
We were taken out of there. Which means we really never left. Because, as everyone knows from early on, no one can change you if you don’t change yourself. And so, no one, not even G‑d, is going to make you free by ripping off your chains and carrying you from your oppressors on eagle’s wings.
Why were we so suddenly and swiftly rescued? Because the whole scheme had spun out of control. Egypt was meant to be a purification for our souls. Instead, the opposite was happening.
If we had stayed there, we would likely have never left after 400 years. Even if we did, we would fall back again. Just as the oppression had worsened far beyond anything that was expected, so too the people had sunk much further, infected by the moral deprivation of Egyptian society.
And the Egyptians were evil to us.
That’s how it’s translated. But the Hebrew words, Rabbi Horowitz writes, don’t really read that way. Rather, read: “And the Egyptians made us evil.”
So, enter Plan B: Get them out of there fast and clean the mess up later.
This is the bread of poverty that our fathers ate in Egypt.
Because, even as they left, our If the only reason you’re free is because they let you out of prison, you’re still a prisoner.ancestors remained in Egypt. And so, we remain there as well. If the only reason you’re free is because they let you out of prison, you’re still a prisoner.
That’s also why there are poor people who we must invite to our Seder. There should be no needy people in G‑d’s world. But there are. Because we are still slaves. We are still in Egypt. The job was never complete.
And now, G‑d has brought us into His service.
Now, not just then. Every day. Because every day since that day we followed Moses into the vast and empty desert of Sinai, every day is another Exodus. Every day, we are fleeing Egypt, with our oppressors close on our heels.
Every day, we have to renew that connection. Because if you stand still for a moment, you’re back in Egypt again.
In every generation, they attempt to annihilate us…
So that we have been living for 3,334 years in a suspended state, free but not free, wealthy but poor, virtuous yet corrupt, bonded to the one G‑d of heaven and earth and yet—from a superficial perspective at least—abandoned to the vicissitudes of history and nature.
What Do We Do Now?
So what are we celebrating?
That we started the job. And that we were given the tools to complete it. A spark of absolute freedom was implanted within our souls.
As Rabbi Yehuda Loewe, rabbi of 16th century Prague, wrote, we became essentially free beings, so that even under the worst oppression, our souls remain essentially free.
What’s the Seder about?
Finishing the job. Participating in our own liberation, and the liberation of the world. Allowing that spark we were given in the Isn’t that, after all, what being chosen is all about? To be the lucid entry-point of freedom into the universe.Exodus to shine. Because that’s the only way a complete Exodus can finally unfold—from within us.
Isn’t that, after all, what being chosen is all about? Chosen, not to sit around smug that, hey, we’re chosen, but to be the lucid entry-point of freedom into the universe.
Because in our sojourn through Egypt, we took a little of Egypt into us as well, along with the wound and pain of the entire world. Ever since then, what happens to the Jews, happens to the entire world. So that the tikun, the healing, repair, and fulfillment of the entire world rests in each of our hands.
We’ve had 3,334 years of continual exodus—even when we had our own land. We have been spread to every corner of the earth.
And in that journey, a great tikun has come to the world through us. The notions of freedom, of human dignity and equality, of public education, of social justice and reform—all these and more we were able to contribute to the nations to which we came. The world changed, immeasurably.
All because we were slaves in Egypt. Because we experienced that breath of liberty. Because we were drawn into the service of the living G‑d who cares for all His creatures.
Yet, as you read this, millions of your fellow human beings are political prisoners facing genocide, or enslaved minorities with no hope for the future, much like our ancestors in Egypt. The world’s magnificent diversity and the natural resources of our children’s world are being snatched away by our own mindlessness. A plague of depression, loneliness, and anxiety is spreading among our adolescents worse than any pandemic.
Apparently, there is still work to be done.
The work begins with ourselves and our own self-liberation, our struggle to bring the light of Torah into our own lives wherever we may be in the world, and into the lives of all those at our Passover table.
Because Torah is our key to liberation. The origin of all darkness in the world is our spiritual bondage—the slavery to our own egos. Torah puts that ego in its place, into the service of a Higher Power.
And since Torah is infinite light, we don’t need to move mountains to overturn dictatorships. We just need to put the key in the door and let in that light. To participate in our own liberation. As recent history has shown us, the entire world could change in a day.
On the night of Passover, the Haggadah tells us, you must see yourself as a Jew who is leaving the bondage of Egypt at this very moment. Because you are. Only that your predecessors never really left. You are going to leave once and for all.
Back to my grandmother—her name was Serach. The original Serach, daughter of Asher, is listed in the Book of Genesis among those who descended to Egypt with Jacob. The same Serach is also listed in the Book of Numbers among those who left, 210 years later.
When Moses sought the bones of Joseph to carry them to Israel, as Joseph had made the Children of Israel promise to do, it was Serach who showed G‑d provides the questions. The answer is up to us.him where they had been sunken into the Nile.
Which means that for all the days of Egyptian oppression, it was Serach who preserved a tradition of liberation. Just like grandma.
The Baal Shem Tov taught: In remembrance lies the secret of redemption. This Passover, tell the story, drink wine, eat matzah, and preserve the disruption. We will all be redeemed.
G‑d provides the questions. The answer is up to us.
- Based on Likutei Sichot, vol. 17.
Source: Tzvi Freeman – CHABAD