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The Pessah Haggada is a fascinating work, an accumulation of prayers, readings, songs and stories that has one aim: to fulfill the Torah's command "and you shall tell (v'higgadeta) your child on that day, 'It is because of what the Lord did for me when I left Egypt'" (Exodus 13:8).
But as a matter of fact, the story itself is told in only the most cursory fashion. The Sages found the briefest account of the story, Deuteronomy 26:5-8, and placed it as the centerpiece of the evening together with ancient rabbinic comments to those verses. The details, the "story," as such are completely ignored. Of course, there is nothing to prevent us from discussing the details. As a matter of fact, we are told that "the more you tell the story, the more meritorious it is." Yet I have a suspicion that the reason they included only that brief account is because what is told there is what they considered important.
What is in those verses? We went down to Egypt. We multiplied and became a nation. We were oppressed. God saw our distress and rescued us. In their eyes, that is all you know and all you need to know. That is also the message of Rabban Gamliel's teaching that three things must be expounded at the Seder to fulfill the obligation of "telling": Pessah, matza, maror. To the Sages, Pessah represented God's protection of Israel; the matza, God's redemption of Israel; the maror, the enslavement.
The details, the exact story - who did what when - were not important. God's plan for Israel is what matters. God's saving power, which is a promise for the future as well as a story of the past, is what our children must learn. I often think about that when I read the debates among archaeologists as to whether or not the Exodus ever took place, or if all the details as related in the Torah are completely accurate. Could there really have been 600,000 males wandering through the desert for 40 years? Where is the Sea of Reeds and how could such a parting of the waters have taken place?
When the radicals among them tell us it never happened because we have found no archaeological evidence, my first reaction is that you cannot learn anything from the fact that something has not been found. My second is to say: do you really think the Israelites would have made up such a story from whole cloth? What was to be gained from saying you had been enslaved if you were not? My third is to say that the details are of no consequence. We were enslaved, we were freed from slavery and we believe that it was the Divine will that accomplished it. That is quite sufficient for me.
One of the interesting details that is ignored in the Haggada is the existence of a man called Moses who served as God's messenger in bringing about the Exodus. I am not aware of any specific injunction against mentioning him, but it hardly seems credible to think that the omission of Moses from the Haggada is a mere accident or an oversight. We can only speculate as to the reason, but I believe that there are two reasons: one internal, the other external, one positive, the other negative.
The internal, positive reason is that the Sages wanted us to focus on the role of God in our freedom. Israelite monotheism is very strict in focusing all power on the one God. It may have allowed for the existence of other non-human beings - angels or what you will - but they were not invested with independent power. Thus the Sages emphasized that it was God and not any other being, human or divine, who brought about Israel's salvation.
The external, negative reason may have been a reaction to the rise of Christianity and the calamity of the Bar Kochba rebellion. The core of the Haggada was created in the early days of Christianity and is found in the Mishna, which was edited in 200 CE after the defeat of Bar Kochba, the most terrible calamity for our people until the Shoah. Christianity was concerned with redemption. So is the Haggada. For Christianity, redemption is from sin and death, for Judaism it is from foreign oppression. Christianity also had its interpretation of the Pessah in which the meal becomes the sacrament, the wine the blood of Jesus, the matza Jesus's body and Jesus himself the Pessah lamb.
For Judaism, it was therefore important to stress that no one other than God Himself was responsible for redemption. This emphasis on God came at the expense of Moses. Furthermore, the tragedies brought about by belief in human beings as redeemers - first Jesus and then Bar Kochba - caused the Sages to play down the role of any Messianic figure in Jewish history. They therefore do not say anything disparaging about Moses - how could they? But in the ritual retelling of the story they ignore him and concentrate solely on God. "Not by an angel, not by a seraph, not by a messenger: I and no other!" That lesson should not be ignored.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.
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