The Torah Portion for Shabbat,
March 30, 2002 is a special reading for the holiday of Passover. The Torah Portion for Shmini will be read on Shabbat, April 6.
The season always seems to come without warning. The festivities of Purim end and suddenly we are thrust into busy preparations for Passover. With cleaning, shopping, planning, and more cleaning, we hardly have time to stop and reflect upon what it is that we are really doing. Just what is so special about the Passover holiday and how can we grow from it?
When we look at the arrangement of the Passover Haggadah we find a very unique style. The Haggadah does recount the story of the Exodus from Egypt but every so often the story is interrupted with spontaneous praise for God. For example, in the beginning of the Haggadah, just after mentioning, "We once were slaves in Egypt..." we recite: "Blessed is God. Blessed is the One Who gave the Torah to Israel."
Shortly after, we continue the narrative with, "In the beginning, our forefathers were idol worshippers," and then again break into tribute for God with "Blessed is the One who kept His promise with Israel." A little further, we lift our cups and sing a song (V'hee She'amda) to God for having always saved us from our enemies and thereafter continue with our story. After some more of the Haggadah tale, we recite and sing the long "Dayeinu" which thanks God in great detail for all He's done for us. After the story section is completed, we offer more praises to God in the official section of praises called Hallel.
All this is clearly not just storytelling. Why the constant sudden shifts from factual story telling to uncontrollable praises?
As Jews often do, we will answer our question with another question. Why are tens of new haggadahs printed every year? Next to the Chumash, the Haggadah has the most editions and commentaries written on it. Why are we so obsessed with new commentaries and new Haggadahs?
The answer lies in a deep understanding of an episode mentioned in the Haggadah.
"The more one tells about the Exodus, the more he is praiseworthy. It happened that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Tarfon were reclining at the Seder in Bnai Brak. They discussed the story of the Exodus all night until their students came and said, "Masters! It is time for the recitation of the morning Shema!"
Strange. Do we generally find that the Talmud cites a basic law such as "One must pray" and then feels required to prove that a great rabbi prayed? Why here do we mention the law of spending much time discussing the Exodus and then prove it with the story of the five rabbis who actually did it?
The answer is we are not using the five rabbis' tale to show that they observed the law. Rather, the story instructs us concerning how we should observe the law. The commandment to discuss the Exodus requires you to become so immersed and involved that you lose track of time. You become so lost in the wisdom and insights that you don't realize that morning has dawned. The story must be told with dynamism and electricity, interest and excitement. The commandment is described with the Hebrew word "sipur," meaning to tell. You cannot simply re-state the story; you have to really tell it and be involved in it.
The Jewish people understand this fact intuitively and therefore consistently produce tens and tens of new haggadahs. New insights and novellas are necessary to fulfill the commandment properly so that the story is told with freshness and not with tediousness. What surfaces then is that, indeed, it is a biblical commandment to use a new haggadah each year. (Unless one is able to feel extremely enthused over last year's insights.)
This is the explanation for the Haggadah's spontaneous praise style. When we tell over the story on Seder night we are to really feel emotional thanks and gratitude to God. We are to get lost in the story as the Five Rabbis sitting in Bnei Brak did. We are to re-live the experience of the Exodus from Egypt as we mention in the Haggadah that "every person is obligated to see themselves as if they were the ones who left Egypt." We are to make the story real and meaningful to us. We break out into spontaneous praise from time to time because we are trying to tell the story as if we were personally involved. Often, when one tells a story they interrupt with superlatives of how the experience felt. The Seder night must be made real to us as if we were personally involved in the Exodus.
Maimonides implies these ideas as well in his description of the commandment to tell the Exodus story (Sefer HaMitzvos -- Aseh 157): (Loose Translation)
"God has commanded us tell the story of the Exodus of Egypt on the 15th of Nissan at the beginning of evening. This should be done in one's own choice of words. The more time and energy spent, the better. We must tell the story and thank God for His performance of miracles for us. How He redeemed us from the bondage of Egypt, fought our battles, and exacted revenge from the Egyptians."
We glean several insights from Maimonides. First, ideally, the telling of the story should be natural and personal, in one's own words. Second, the story should not remain just a story but an expression of sincere gratitude to Hashem. Finally, Maimonides does something somewhat uncharacteristic of his style and describes for us in dramatic fashion what it is we are to be thankful for. "How He redeemed us..."
Maimonides could have done without this description and simply stated that we have to tell the story that appears in Exodus.
Maimonides is teaching us that the Passover Seder must be fresh and new. The discussions should be dynamic and exciting, not simply a re-statement of the insights of previous years. The Seder, to whatever extent possible, should truly make us feel that we personally have indeed left Egypt and that we are excited to tell the story of our escape.
Once we feel this closeness to God on Passover, we will inevitably leave Passover as changed people. We will begin to see God's kindness in all that we experience, even the challenges. We will not have allowed Passover to pass over us without it having deeply affected us.
Even after all of the exhausting preparations for the holiday, we must somehow muster up the strength to conduct our Seders in the way that Maimonides describes.
Always remember the old Jewish maxim: 'If you experience a Jewish holiday and have not changed profoundly as a result, you have missed the point of