A time for questions
The Haggadah gives us the opportunity to ask questions about these verses and to ask for the answers, just as our sages did on Passover eve centuries ago, from the same verses.
The Haggadah has the honor of being recited each year at every Passover seder table, and each time it is received with mixed emotions. This is an eclectic text, parts of which refuse to stick together to form a cohesive whole. Although the Haggadah clearly deals with the Exodus from Egypt, that story is not told in proper order and readers tend to get lost in its different parts. The key to understanding the Haggadah lies not in a profound reading of the text, however, but rather in distancing ourselves from it.
Tractate Pesachim in the Mishna provides three simple rules regarding how to recount the story of the Exodus: "A father should teach his son according to the child's level of understanding; he should start with the negative aspects and finish with the positive ones; and he should interpret the [biblical] passage beginning with 'a wandering Aramean was my father' until he finishes the entire passage" (Tractate Pesachim, Mishna 10:4 ).
The first rule is thus to adapt the narrative to the child's level of understanding. The story, says the Mishna, is dialogic in nature and the narrator should aim his account of it at the listener; it follows that, just as no two children are identical, similarly no two stories are identical.
The Mishna's second rule concerns the father's presentation of negative and positive dimensions of the narrative. The story must have an axis, and a beginning and end. It must describe a developmental process, but not a binary one that moves from evil to good, or from exile to redemption - rather one formulated in terms of a value judgment: negative and positive. This kind of formulation demands the moral engagement of both narrator and listener in the story; they must decide when the events being depicted are negative and when they are positive. The narrator must present a plot axis that will not leave him or the listener indifferent.
The third rule is that the story must be molded as an interpretive text, explicating a single passage in the Book of Deuteronomy, a passage that consists of only a few verses and that constitutes the skeleton upon which the story must be built. After the Israelites enter Canaan, settle on their own land and begin growing crops, they are commanded to reap their first fruits and bring them to the Temple. When doing so, they must recite a few verses that briefly depict the historical process that has brought them to this festive moment: "A wandering Aramean was my father ), and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. And we cried unto the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression.
"And the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders. And He hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which Thou, O Lord, hast given me" (Deuteronomy 26:5-10 ).
These words sum up briefly the historical narrative depicted in the Torah. The reciting of verses and presentation of the first fruits endow those fruits with a powerful historical "charge." Each piece of fruit becomes in essence a platform on which history is written, and on which history is brought back to its source.
On seder night, we should not be content merely to read the verses but should read them slowly and carefully, lidrosh: interpret them, ask questions and search for answers in the text.
Initially, perhaps one could settle for the kind of creative reading described in the Mishna, which involves telling the story in accordance with a child's level of understanding, touching on negative and then positive parts, and improvising on the verses concerning "a wandering Aramean." But when the first attempts were made to implement such a process, the text began to grow. Two Babylonian Amorites, Rav and Samuel, who were among those who abided by the Mishna's rules very early on, disagreed over the first one: With which negative element should the reading of the Haggadah begin? "What is the negative point at which the recital of the Haggadah should begin? Rav says, 'Initially, our ancestors were idol worshipers,' whereas Samuel says, 'Initially, we were slaves'" (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim, p. 116a ).
According to Rav, the axis leading from negative to positive is a theological one: Our ancestors worshiped idols, and "God has drawn us close to him so that we can serve Him." Samuel, on the other hand, thinks in terms of a political axis: "We were Pharaoh's bondmen ... and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand" (Deut. 6:21 ). This disagreement reflects an interpretive difficulty in the explication of the first three Hebrew words in the passage recited at the seder. Rav explains the words "a wandering Aramean was my father" as follows: "My father," meaning the patriarch Abraham, was initially an Aramean. In contrast, Samuel believes the Aramean to be Laban, who sought to destroy the father, Jacob. Thus, this scholar interprets the phrase as "an Aramean sought to destroy my father," and when faced with this threat, Jacob makes the journey to Egypt. In Rav's opinion, "Aramean" connotes a defective element in the identity of his ancestor Jacob, whereas in Samuel's view, the "Aramean" is the person who generates all the problems with which Jacob must deal: Laban.
Both interpretive "improvisations" on the text, carried out in accordance with the third rule established by the Mishna, have been incorporated in the Passover Haggadah that we use today, and both are presented there as an introduction to the midrash on the passage in Deuteronomy about the "wandering Aramean," which is the very heart of the Haggadah's narrative.
To a certain extent, it might be preferable at the seder to set aside the Haggadah and to focus instead on the Book of Deuteronomy, paying attention to the principle of the child's level of understanding and progress from a negative to a positive element in the story. Although such an approach could turn out to be an interesting experiment, it does run the risk of failure. After all, not everyone knows how to interpret a biblical text creatively, to plunge into it and to forget about the food that awaits. It is for this reason that the Haggadah is used at the seder. Reading the Haggadah allows the possibility of an individualized interpretation of the biblical text.
The midrash on "a wandering Aramean" continues until the words "And the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders." The Mishna explicitly states: "and he should interpret the passage beginning with 'A wandering Aramean was my father' until he finishes the entire passage.'"
But the passage in Deuteronomy does not end with the signs and the wonders. It continues with what is the principal positive feature of the Exodus narrative: "And he hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which Thou, O Lord, hast given me."
If the participant has closely observed the reading of the text up to now but has not fulfilled the obligation of interpreting the text by himself, here the Haggadah makes room for him to ask questions about the text, in accordance with a child's level of understanding. Indeed, the last verses, which the Haggadah doesn't interpret, offer a wide range of topics that may inspire many questions: questions about the land we live in, about happiness, about good, about the possibility of sharing that good with others, about the connection between all this and history, and about the ability to imbue our "fruits" with a historical dimension. The Haggadah gives us the opportunity to ask questions about these verses and to ask for the answers, just as our sages did on Passover eve centuries ago, from the same verses.