Listen to audio
There is a mitzvah to remember the Exodus from Egypt every single day, not just on Pesach. But on Pesach – and particularly on the Seder night – this mitzvah has a number of defining features. Whereas during the year the mitzvah to remember the Exodus from Egypt is fulfilled by just mentioning it in passing, on the night of the Seder we have to discuss the Exodus in great depth. The discussion has to take the format of question and answer, to allow for real dialogue to take place. This discussion revolves around the very important mitzvot of the Seder night – the matzo and the maror; we do not just mention the Exodus but are really involved with it at every level, with the sensory activities of eating the matzo and the maror.
The question-and-answer format of the Seder
I would like to focus on one dimension of the Seder which makes it particularly special and that is that its structure is in the form of questions and answers. A Seder should not be a presentation; it is not a shiur or a lecture, but should really be a dialogue, a discussion. We all know that the highlight of the Seder is the Ma Nishtanah, the asking of “in what way is this night different from all other nights?” We encourage the children to ask questions, as well as the adults. The question-and-answer format is used in telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt; it is not just a monologue. As we learn in the Haggadah, even if a person knows many of the answers he or she must still engage in a dialogue. It is not just about imparting information but about being engaged in discussion. The question-and-answer format promotes discussion and this is the art of a good Seder – finding a way of drawing the participants into a discussion so that it becomes real and relevant to everyone at the Seder.
On a psychological level, this question-and-answer format draws people in and they gain a sense of ownership. Having a sense of ownership is a very important concept in general when it comes to Torah. Learning Torah is not just about leaning information or a set of instructions, but necessitates a dialogue and interaction. This is why Torah study is such an important part of Judaism. In learning Torah we discuss, probe, debate, ask, think things through and own the knowledge. People tend to take on things which they feel are a part of who they are. These things can only become part of who we are if we have ownership of them, and we can only have ownership if we actually get involved.
There is great wisdom in the Torah instructing us to do this mitzvah of recounting the Exodus in a question-and-answer format – as the Chumash itself says, that on that day when your child will ask you, what is this? You will say this is what happened when we were taken out of Egypt. The whole discussion about the Exodus – in the Torah and in the Haggadah – is a question-and-answer format. The psychological benefit of this discussion format is that it makes us all part of the process.
But there is a philosophical rationale as well for why the discussion of the Exodus is in a question-and-answer format. There is a fundamental principle underlying the question-and-answer format of the Seder. In his book on Pesach, Rav Yitzchak Hutner, one of the great rabbinic scholars of the 20th century, offers a novel approach to Pesach and to the importance of the question-and-answer format.
The Three Important Tens
There are three events which are very important to us, which are expressed with the number ten. We have discussed in the past how the number ten is significant and how, according to the Maharal, ten is not a new number like the previous ones but is the number that brings together all the apparently disparate parts into one unit and represents a unified whole.
The Mishnah says that G-d created the world with ten utterances or, in Hebrew, asara ma’amarot. This is the first set of tens. The second is the ten plagues in Egypt. The third is the Ten Commandments. The term “Ten Commandments” is a loose translation of the Hebrew term Aseret HaDibrot, which correctly translates as “the ten statements.” Although the Ten Commandments are commandments, if you tally up the number of detailed commandments that emerge from them you will see that there are actually more than ten, as many halachic authorities point out. Thus, the “Ten Commandments” is not an accurate translation – they’re not called Aseret HaMitzvot in Hebrew, but Aseret HaDibrot, the ten statements.
Rav Hutner points out the pattern here, ten, ten, and ten: ten utterances with which the world was created; ten plagues that broke the resolve of Pharaoh and the Egyptians and freed the Jews from slavery; and then the ten statements, Aseret HaDibrot, or as we know them the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. Rav Hutner asks, what is the link between these three big tens?
Two forms of communication
Rav Hutner asks another fascinating question. When describing how G-d created the world with ten statements, the Mishnah uses the term Ma’amarot, from the Hebrew word ma’amar, from the root aleph, mem, reish, whereas the Ten Commandments are called Dibrot, from the Hebrew word ledaber, with the root dalet, bet, reish. In Hebrew, we have two options for the verb “to speak”: lomar and ledaber. Asks Rav Hutner, why is it that when we talk about the ten statements with which the world was created the Sages of the Talmud use the word Ma’amarot and when we talk about the Ten Commandments they call them Dibrot? What is the difference between ma’amar and dibur?
Communication can take a soft form or a harsher form. In Hebrew the aleph-mem-reish root is the softer form of communication, amira. The dalet-bet-reish root, is the tougher, more demanding form of communication, dibur. Rav Hutner explains that the softer language, amira, is a one-way statement. Sometimes in a conversation you make a statement which does not require a response and is not demanding anything from the listener; it merely relays information. The term ma’amar conveys a particular position but does not require anything of the listener, whereas the term dibrot coveys a statement which does requires a response.
Rav Hutner explains the difference between the ten utterances with which the world was created and the ten statements of the Ten Commandments as follows: when G-d created the world- -and indeed, when he re-creates the world daily – He revealed Himself with great miracles and showed us His mastery of nature. These are his statements; the world is an expression of His creativity, an expression of His will in the world. Before the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, G-d’s communication with the world was in that paradigm – the paradigm of revealing information, revealing His genius, revealing His creativity and His greatness without asking us to do anything in response.
The paradigm shift at Mount Sinai
With the giving of the Ten Commandments, says Rav Hutner, there was a paradigm shift. The world shifted into a different state of being where G-d was now speaking to human beings. He spoke to us at Mount Sinai and gave us the Torah and that is where a new kind of conversation between G-d and human beings began. From that point on G-d’s statements were not just statements of fact, not just statements revealing G-d’s genius but were now statements which came with certain demands of us.
The root of the word ledaber is related to the Aramaic word dabar which means to lead. Similarly, in Psalms we have the word yadber, from the same root, which means to push and to guide, to demand of people that they move in a certain direction. The term ledaber conveys a much stronger interaction, where G-d is expecting something in return. Hence the Ten Commandments are Aseret HaDibrot. Remember the Shabbos day to keep it holy; honour your father and mother; do not use G-d’s name in vain; do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not covet – these are statements which require us to act in response to them.
This was a paradigm shift. Until the giving of the Torah, G-d’s interaction with the world was limited to His revealing Himself, His genius and His ideas, but He did not make any demands. At Mount Sinai the nature of this interaction shifted.
Rav Hutner explains that the paradigm shift that took place was actually an expression of G-d’s kindness. In the book of Psalms – and we say this in the Haggadah as well – there is a chapter that starts with hodu laHashem ki tov, ki le’olam chasdo “give thanks to Hashem, for His chesed, His kindness, is forever.” The chapter is a long list of G-d’s kindnesses, and if you add up the number of times ki le’olam chasdo, “His kindness is forever,” is repeated, you will find that there are 26. The Talmud says that the 26 times it says ki le’olam chasdo, in this chapter refers to the 26 generations from the creation of the world till the giving of the Torah. The Torah had not yet been given and yet He put up with the world for 26 generations. The list of 26 kindnesses refers to the 26 generations of His unrequited chesed, of kindness.
A deeper form of kindness
This does not mean to say that G-d’s kindness ceased with the giving of the Torah; in fact, G-d’s kindness deepened with the giving of the Torah. Rav Hutner gives the following analogy by way of explanation: when we want to help somebody, we can help them by giving them something for nothing – and there certainly is a chesed in that. Giving them charity, helping them with food, with clothing – whatever it may be – is kindness. But giving a person a job, a way of earning that money, is a much deeper level of kindness. On the surface one might think that this is a lesser level of kindness, that it is much better to give without making them work for it. But in truth we know that human beings are such that their dignity and self-esteem are so important that it is a much greater level of kindness to give a person a job so they can earn the kindness rather than just giving it for free.
This, says Rav Hutner, was the paradigm shift. With the Ten Commandments comes a new vocabulary. G-d is no longer just saying to us, well, here I am, and here’s what I think. He is actually saying these are My instructions for what you must do and how you must lead your lives and this deepens the chesed. The first 26 generations was one level of chesed, where G-d gave unconditionally, no matter what people did. Once the Torah came into the world, things chanced; we now have to earn His kindness by doing the right thing and this actually deepens His kindness. It is a kindness that comes to us with justice, not a “freebie,” and because we have earned it, it can never be taken away from us.
The ten plagues as the bridge in the paradigm shift
In any paradigm shift, people need to go through a process; it does not happen overnight. How can it be that the world operated in one paradigm, the paradigm of amira, the ten utterances which did not place any demands on us, and then at Mount Sinai it shifted to the other paradigm, the dibur paradigm, where G-d’s statements require a response from us? How did this paradigm shift occur? It could not just happen in one moment. There had to be a bridge between the two paradigms.
The ten plagues in Egypt are the bridge between the ten statements of Creation and the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. Rav Hutner gives a number of reasons why the ten plagues in Egypt serve as the bridge in this paradigm shift, one of which is that for the first time in history we as a nation started engaging with G-d. Prior to the giving of the Torah, when the communication paradigm was one-way, G-d spoke to us without making any demands of us as the recipients of His words. We were totally passive. Our identity meant nothing, just like when someone offers you kindness that you haven’t earned. It is almost as if the recipient need not be there; the kindness just pours out, regardless of who is receiving it, and the recipients are totally passive in that relationship.
But when we shift into a paradigm of two-way communication, where G-d says I need you to do such and such, these obligations, duties and responsibilities meant that we became part of the conversation. We were no longer passive recipients; our actions now became important. Even though G-d is the King of all Kings and immortal and we are just flesh and blood, we stood up, so to speak, and became partners in a conversation with G-d. With the Ten Commandments G-d raised us from anonymity and passivity to the level of a mentsch, to being someone important and directly engaged with G-d.
The importance of dialogue versus monologue
This is how Pesach becomes the bridge. And this is why, says Rav Hutner, the concept of dialogue and the question-and-answer format is so important on the night of the Seder. We recount how during the whole Exodus experience we were not just passive recipients of G-d’s kindness. G-d said, I am going to give you the kindness on Pesach but you are going to have to do something. You are going to have to put the blood on the doorposts, you are going to have to bring the paschal lamb, you are going to have to join Me on this journey and you are going to have to teach your children about it. You are not just going to passively receive the kindness of Hashem. G-d says, you must be involved in it; you are not just passive passengers. Get involved, engage with what is going on and take responsibility for it. We are called upon to join Hashem in this process.
This is why dialogue is so important. The difference between monologue – Hashem broadcasting His statements in the world – versus dialogue as we engaged in with the Ten Commandments is that in dialogue we are active participants. Up until the giving of the Torah, Hashem’s interaction with the world was limited to a one-way kindness. It did not matter who the recipients were or what they did. With the Ten Commandments, however, G-d created a dialogue with us, making demands to which we have to respond. Thus, we became proper partners in this dialogue with G-d, where we have to respond to His requests and demands and get involved.
The ten plagues of Egypt are the bridge between the ten statements with which the world was created and the Ten Commandments, because it was in Egypt that we became active participants in history, and where G-d called upon us to debate and discuss. This is why dialogue is so important; when we debate and discuss the Exodus at the Seder, this serves as the bridge between the two paradigms. We are not yet at the level where we are engaging with a request and demand from G-d and have to actually do things – that comes with the giving of the Torah – but we are already moving from just being passive participants in a monologue to active participants involved in a dialogue.
This is why the active involvement, the debate, discussion and dialogue at the Seder is so important: it paves the way for us to stand on our own two feet and accept the mitzvot of Hashem, to do the right thing and make a difference in the world – not as passive passengers but as active participants in G-d’s plan. The Seder then becomes the bridge, the link to going to Mount Sinai.
Please G-d we should all have a good Yom Tov. I would like to take this opportunity to wish our entire community a Chag Kasher veSameach, a joyous and a kosher Pesach. May we all have wonderful Seders together which are meaningful and inspiring. A good Shabbos and a good Yom Tov to you all.
Pesach: Bridge To A New World (Edited Transcript)
Listen to audio