It’s the most famous Seder in history. The one we read about every year in the Haggadah. Five great rabbis – Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarphon – are sitting round the table in Bnei Brak, discussing the Exodus from Egypt. They’re so engrossed in their discussions, in their Pesach experience, that they lose track of time. Eventually, one of their students arrives to announce that it is time to recite the morning Shema.
It’s a nice little vignette, but why is it recorded in the Haggadah? What is its significance?
We are all familiar with the Seder. Year after year, we read the same Haggadah, tell the same story, probably even make the same observations. And we can risk losing interest in the whole affair. Yet we see that this certainly wasn’t the case for these five great rabbis. You can be sure that they knew the story of the Exodus from Egypt back to front, that they’d plummed unimaginable depths and gleaned untold insights. And yet it was still so fresh, so compelling, that they spent the whole night discussing it again, re-analysing, re-examining, retelling, and before they knew it, it was morning.
Keeping it fresh
This story opens our eyes to a foundational idea of Pesach – the power of renewal. It’s not incidental that Pesach coincides in Israel with the beginning of spring. It’s a time of rebirth and renewal. The Haggadah itself mentions, and the Rambam codifies, that a person is obliged in every generation to see themselves as if they had personally gone out of Egypt. The Pesach experience has to be fresh and immediate – as does life in general.
Pesach is of course the moment of conception of the Jewish people, of our birth as a nation. Rav Yitzchak Hutner (1906-1980), one of the great modern rabbinic philosophers, says that it’s for this reason that many of the laws of conversion are actually derived from the Exodus experience. He goes on to draw an interesting connection between the Exodus from Egypt and the creation of the world. The Torah mentions the mitzvah of Shabbos in two separate places. In the book of Shemot, we are commanded to keep Shabbos because “…in six days G-d made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.” Later, in the book of Devarim, we are commanded to keep Shabbos as a remembrance “that you were slaves in the land of Egypt”. So we see that the Exodus from Egypt and the creation of the world are connected through this common thread of Shabbat.
G-d renews creation on a constant basis. As we say in our morning prayers, ““G-d renews Creation in His goodness each day.” He didn’t just create the world and leave it to run its course. He recreates the world at every moment. Similarly, the Exodus from Egypt is a process of rebirth and renewal, and every year, we are tasked with recreating that experience. It’s as if we go out of Egypt again and again, each year feeling the full force of the Exodus as if for the first time.
The Gemara in Kiddushin says that a person’s evil inclination – the aspect of our being that moves us to pursue our base drives and desires – is very innovative and inventive. And this is what makes it so difficult to overcome. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Rav Hutner explains that G-d has placed within each one of us the power of innovation, and we can choose to exercise it either for positive ends or negative ends. We can utilise this power in our service of G-d, in doing good for others, in making the world a better place, in building beautiful, vital relationships – but if we don’t use it for such purposes, then the part of us that looks to do the wrong thing will harness the power of innovation against us. If we don’t put our innovative powers to positive use, we will find ourselves pitched in battle with a negative inclination that is far more agile and formidable.
Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarphon sitting at a seder in Bnei Brak enraptured by a story they’d heard and told countless times before provides a vivid illustration of the idea of channeling the power of renewal and innovation for positive purposes; of the importance of looking at life from fresh new perspectives, and experiencing the world as a new creation from moment to moment.
Light breaking through the darkness
But there’s a question here. Something about this picture doesn’t seem quite. Why is the Seder taking place in Bnei Brak? It should have been in Jerusalem, where the Temple stood and where everyone would gather together from distant lands to bring their offerings and celebrate Pesach as one united Jewish nation.
The obvious answer is that the Temple was no longer around – it had just been destroyed. Can you imagine how difficult this particular Pesach must have been for these five Jewish leaders? They lived in a time of tremendous darkness. The Roman Empire occupied the land of Israel. The Temple lay in ruins. A long exile lay ahead for the Jewish people. The very future of the Jewish people seemed uncertain and precarious. And here they were, gathered together in Bnei Brak as friends and as colleagues, to find faith and a sense of confidence to face the future, so that they would be able to lead the Jewish people through these dark times. Because as much as Pesach is about renewal, it’s also about faith in Hashem.
When we remember how Hashem looked after us, how He liberated us from the slavery of Egypt through the incredible signs and wonders, we are reminded of His direct involvement in our lives. In doing so, we renew our sense of faith that no matter how difficult things get, Hashem is always with us. And that is the message of this Seder in Bnei Brak, held in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the Temple and the decimation and dispersion of the Jewish people.
And then their students enter the room to announce that the dawn has broken – as if to say that the darkness dissipates; that after delving with such tremendous faith and zest into the story of the Exodus, the light has broken through, and the time has come to recite the Shema, which itself is the ultimate declaration of faith. And perhaps that is why we encounter this episode right at the beginning of the Hagaddah – to remind us that through the Seder experience we are about to embark on, we will be drinking in the waters of faith so that we have the confidence to face the future with all of its uncertainty and all of its difficulties – knowing full well that G-d is with us, G-d loves us, and G-d is looking after us every step of the way.
Though in essence, G-d is one – perhaps the fundamental tenet of Judaism – He has many names, relating to the different ways in which he manifests in the world and relates to creation. And one of the names of G-d is HaMakom, literally, “The Place”. This name comes up twice in the Hagaddah – first in “the four sons”, and then in the passage on the idolatorous practices of our ancestors, and how Avraham (literally) broke the mould and G-d brought us close to Him.
What does it mean when we call G-d “The Place”? The Talmud explains that the world is not G-d’s place, but that G-d is the place of the world. In other words, we don’t look at G-d as part of our universe; rather, G-d contains everything. He holds the universe together. There is nothing beside him. He contains the entire world.
Rav Yosef Dov Soleveitchik (1903-1993) makes a penetrating observation. He points out that the name, HaMakom, always appears in the context of situations where it seems G-d is absent or unavailable. In such instances, the Torah uses the name HaMakom as a form of reassurance; He is “The Place” – He is with you because He is everywhere. As King David said in the Psalms, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” G-d is with us no matter what we are going through. He is always with us.
There are examples throughout Tanach. When Yaakov was being pursued by his brother Esav, leaving behind his parents Yitzchak and Rifka, he found himself alone in the middle of the night, far away from home, the Torah says he came to “The Place”. Rashi (Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105) based on the Midrash, explains this to mean he encountered G-d, Himself. And so, too, in the story of Purim, when Mordechai approaches Esther and asks her to intercede with the king on behalf of the Jewish people, who at the time were facing annihalition, he tells her that if she refuses the task, salvation will come from another “Place” – again, the word is HaMakom. He means salvation from this potentially calamitous situation will come from G-d, Himself. And there’s the example from the Book of Yechezkel. The Jewish People have entered the Babylonian exile and things are dark and difficult, and the future is uncertain – and the Prophet says: “Blessed is Hashem from ‘His Place’.” Again, the message is, we are never abandoned. Hashem is with us always.
There are also various halachic illustrations of this idea. Think of a mourner. It’s one of the most difficult experiences a person endures in life. A person has just lost a loved one, and is bereaved. There is a feeling of being alone in the world, perhaps even a sense of being abandoned by G-d. And what is the blessing we give to mourners? “May HaMakom comfort you amongst the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” In a similar way, we invoke this name of G-d when someone is ill, or when someone has lost a substantial amount of money.
Coming back to the Haggadah – why is HaMakom used in the context of the four sons? Rav Soloveitchik explains that one might assume it’s only the wise son whom G-d is close to. Yet the responses to the simple son, the son who doesn’t know how to ask questions, even the wicked one, all contain the name, HaMakom. It doesn’t matter who you are, how significant your deficiencies, how far you have strayed, Hashem is close and available to everyone.
Similarly, you might think that as idolators, we were a lost cause, that G-d had given up on us. Yet the Haggadah invokes the name, HaMakom, to demonstrate that He was still there with us, even in those degrading circumstances. He is always there with us.
When we sit around the table this Pesach, let us hold in our minds this famous Seder in Bnei Brak. A Seder held during a dark time in Jewish history. A Seder so electrifying its participants lost track of time. And like Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarphon, let us relive the Exodus experience as if we were there ourselves, and throw ourselves into the Pesach story as if we were hearing it and telling it for the first time. As we progress through the Haggadah, let us draw inspiration and faith that will not just ignite our Seder, but uplift us throughout the year. And like those five great rabbis let us remember that HaMakom, G-d, The Place of the world, is with us now, just as he was with us then – and that he is with us always.