A tale of two stories
The overarching mitzvah on Seder night is to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Crucially, it’s specifically defined as a mitzvah of storytelling. The word haggadah itself means “telling”. And although the events we refer to are historically true and accurate, and well-documented in the Torah, part of the seder’s purpose is to actively – verbally – hand over that history and testimony from one generation to the next.
Think about how a journalist tells a story. You can have a look through an article and it may be that the entire article is true from the first word to the last, but it’s a question of how you present those facts. Telling a story is a very important art form. What do you put in? What do you leave out? What do you choose to emphasise? What do you leave in the background? You can see how important this is from the way Israel is often negatively presented in the press. Sometimes you can go through an article and not find any specific line that is untrue, but a false overall impression is created simply by what is edited in and what is edited out.
Two stories, two journeys
And so, therefore, on the night of the seder what is important – apart from the fact that we are conveying historical facts from one generation to the next, facts that are the foundation of our people – is how we tell the story. It’s actually a debate in the Gemara. The Mishnah says as a framing principle for how we tell the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim (The Exodus from Egypt), we begin with the negative dimension of the story and then we proceed to the positive. And then in the Gemara expounding on this Mishnah, Rav and Shmuel debate what this means. One opinion is that it means telling the story from our slavery to our freedom; how we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and how through great signs and miracles and wonders, Hashem redeemed us from Egypt and gave us our freedom.
But then there is another opinion – that the story to be told is the story of how we were once idol worshippers, and how G-d brought us close to Him and gave us His Torah and showed us the way of truth. The Rambam brings both opinions, which means that we actually have the mitzvah to tell both stories – the story of our liberation from Egyptian slavery, and the story of our journey from idolatry to receiving – and accepting – the Torah.
And you can find this in your haggadah. We say Avadim hayinu lepharo b’mitzrayim, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt”, and we say Mit’chila Ovdei Avoda Zarah Hayu Avoteinu, “In the beginning (in the times of Terach, the father of Abraham), our forefathers were idolaters”. And, in fact, the Rambam mentions this latter story even before the story of slavery to freedom.
The question is simply this: we’ve now learnt that besides the story of our journey from slavery to freedom, there is another story we give over at the Seder – that of our journey from idolatry to Torah. Of course, this story is an important foundation of who we are as people. But surely this is the story of Shavuot? What is it doing on the night of the Seder? And what is the connection between these two stories?
One way of understanding the connection is to refer to the Rambam’s treatise on the “Laws of Idol Worship”. In the first chapter of these laws, he gives a synopsis of world history, right from the beginning of Adam and Eve, all the way through to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai (he does this in just a few paragraphs, and with its grand historical sweep, it’s a remarkable passage to read). Here, he deals with a very interesting problem. When Adam and Eve were created they believed in G-d. They experienced Him. They understood that there was one G-d who controlled the entire universe, G-d spoke to them. Surely they told their children and their grandchildren about that, and they in turn told their children and grandchildren? Yet by the time we come to the generation of Noach, ten generations later, the world is filled with idol worship. The world has lost the belief in one G-d and people are worshipping the sun and moon and stars, and the forces of nature.
And actually, by the time we reach Abraham – ten generations from Noach, and twenty from Adam and Eve – the world is so filled with idolatry that nobody even knows of the concept of one omniscient, omnipotent G-d. The idea is so lost that Abraham has to come and rediscover it.
The Rambam explains a very important dynamic here – that cultural change happens not overnight but in an evolutionary, gradual fashion. Initially, says the Rambam, people did believe in G-d and recognised Him as the Creator of the universe. But then they started to notice there were very powerful forces in nature – the sun and the wind and the oceans. They knew G-d had created these forces, and because they saw them as serving mankind, they felt obliged to thank and praise G-d for them. That practice evolved gradually, until people were praising the forces of nature themselves. And then false prophets arose who started a new religion. They called on people to worship the sun and wind and oceans. They still acknowledged G-d’s existence but were getting further away from the Source. Eventually more prophets arose, more religions were established, more places of worship and infrastructure were built. Inevitably, it reached a point where people started saying there were only these forces of nature, and they forgot about G-d altogether.
This deterioration process that took place over many generations provides a very important lesson. Change, whether on a societal or individual level, happens gradually. So what you have to identify in a society is not where things stand today but what the trends are. And similarly, in taking account of your physical or material or spiritual status, what you have to identify about yourself is not where are you today, but what the trend is in your life. Is it a positive/growing/improving trend? Are you moving forward over time, or are you going backwards? Are things improving gradually or deteriorating gradually?
And so, by the time that Abraham is born twenty generations after Adam and Eve, the world has completely forgotten about the concept of one Almighty G-d. And Abraham then begins a journey of discovery. There is a discussion in the Midrash, with one opinion saying he discovered G-d at the age of three, and another, at the age of forty. The Rambam combines the two opinions and says his journey began at the age of three as an inquisitive child trying to understand the world around him, and it culminated at the age of forty when he really understood this idea of one G-d. And his immediate reaction upon that discovery was to share it with as many people as possible.
Avraham Avinu, our father Abraham, challenged his father. He broke the idols in his father’s shop. He went about gathering disciples and teaching people and writing about it and speaking about it. And he was an activist and started to change the direction of society. And he handed it on to his son, Yitzchak, Isaac, who handed it on to Yaakov who handed it on to his sons. Many of the converts Abraham brought with him along the way fell by the wayside. But the tradition, the belief, the knowledge continued through the family line. And then an interesting thing happens. We know that Abraham’s grandson, Yaakov, Jacob, goes down to Egypt with his children and grandchildren because of a famine in the land of Canaan. There, they are reunited with Yosef, Joseph, and spend the years of the famine in Egypt, where – thanks to Joseph’s prophetic foresight – there are food reserves stockpiled during the times of plenty to see the country through the times of scarcity. And so Jacob’s family, embraced as royalty on account of Joseph, settle in Egypt.
And then what starts to materialise is something that we’ve seen in modern Jewish history. The descendants of Jacob begin to assimilate into Egyptian society – a society at the time filled with idolatry, worshiping not one G-d of the universe, but many gods of nature. And the children and grandchildren of Yaakov start to become like the Egyptians. They start to think and dress and act like Egyptians – until, as the Rambam describes, the world was in danger of a complete relapse to the time before Abraham.
History was repeating itself. In the same way that Adam and Eve encountered G-d, but ten generations later it was all lost, so, too, the descendants of Jacob – the holy Yaakov Avinu, who communed with God himself, and was the grandson of Avraham Avinu, the founder of monotheism – were drifting away from the Source of all life, and the danger that the world would once again forget the idea of one Almighty G-d was very real. The Rambam describes in evocative language that “the sapling that Abraham had planted was almost at the point of being uprooted”, and that the children of Yaakov were set to return to the mistakes of the past.
Deliverance and destiny
But what happened? G-d intervened. He took the people out of Egypt and he brought them to Mount Sinai and he gave them the Torah. What’s interesting here is that in telling the story of our journey from idolatry back to the Source of All Truth and the giving of the Torah, the Rambam emphasises the fact that we were taken out of Egypt. Of course, it makes perfect sense to do so – because had we not been taken out of Egypt, we would have assimilated completely, and the idea of and belief in one G-d, and the values of the Torah, would have been lost to the world.
And so we see that for the Rambam there is a very deep connection between the two stories we are obligated to tell on the night of the Seder – the story of our physical journey from slavery to freedom, and the story of our spiritual journey from idolatry to Torah and belief in G-d. What is the connection? That in taking us out of Egypt, Hashem was able to give us His Torah. And with that, the idea of a belief in one G-d – and the values and ethics that come along with this belief – could be entrenched in humanity forever.
We know that ten generations after Adam and Eve, this idea was all but gone from the world, and that after twenty generations, it was completely gone, and needed an individual like Abraham to rediscover it.
The world could not afford for that to happen again. And so this time, instead of leaving the fate of truth in the hands of individuals in the hope they would hand it onto their children and that it would somehow remain in the world, G-d created a people that were going to carry the truth forward. And fundamental to the birth of that people was taking us out of Egypt and giving us the Torah at Mount Sinai. That’s why on the night of the Seder we tell both stories. We don’t just tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, we go right back to the beginning “when our forefathers worshipped idols”. You will notice the haggadah refers to the final speech Joshua gave the Jewish people when he was dying, in which he gives a summary of Jewish history. He says to the people (and this is after the land has been conquered and the people are settled): “Your fathers dwelt on the other side of the river from earliest time – Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nahor; and they served other gods.” Yehoshua is saying, in effect, remember where you came from.
We came from Terach, and he worshipped idols along with the rest of his generation, and it was Terach’s son, Abraham, who rediscovered the idea of one G-d, and G-d took us out of Egypt in order to give us this truth – and we are responsible for guarding and carrying this truth in the world. And at the Seder table, we hand down the truth to our children – that we were in Egypt, that G-d saved us through signs and wonders, that G-d exists – the one, Omniscient, Omnipotent G-d Who gave us a way of life to live in accordance with his mitzvot. And He charged us with the responsibility to share the light of that truth with the entire world, with the responsibility to carry that legacy forward.
And that’s what we are doing when we gather round the seder table. We are there to reaffirm what it means to be a Jew, to discuss our purpose in life, our divine mission in this world – and to hand that down to the next generation in a manner which is inspiring and uplifting for all.
Have a wonderful Yom Tov, and an inspiring Seder.