Making the Story Come Alive

Yakov Z. Meyer
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The sages gather in Bnei Brak on seder night, in a 1740-41 Haggadah illustrated by Jankew Sofer, Hamburg.
Yakov Z. Meyer

On seder night, Jews are commanded to sit at a festive table and retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Yet, year after year, instead of recounting that story, we sit at the table reading the Passover Haggadah. The Haggadah is not the story of the Exodus from Egypt, but rather a reflection on the manner in which the sages dealt with that story. The text’s Maggid section opens with a description of five Tannaim (rabbis of the Mishnaic period, 10-220 C.E.) sitting in Bnei Brak and telling the story of the Exodus all night. Following that description, the Haggadah presents homilies on the biblical text that illustrate how this story was recounted. All we can do is feel envy when we hear how these Tannaim told the story of the Exodus while we have only the Haggadah.

It should be noted, however, what biblical passage is discussed by the scholars in Bnei Brak. Chapter 12 of the Book of Exodus depicts events in literary “real time.” At midnight, God afflicts the Egyptians with the 10th and final plague – the killing of the firstborn – and the Israelites leave their homes to set out on the long journey through the desert to the Promised Land. This is the first literary description of the Exodus, and one would logically expect the sages to discuss that during the seder. Instead, though, they choose another, later and seemingly less important passage in Deuteronomy.

In the weekly Torah portion Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8), the Israelites are commanded to bring the first fruits of their fields and trees to the sanctuary. This is a command that becomes relevant only at the end of the long journey to the Promised Land – that is, only after the Israelites enter that land, secure it, settle it and are able to cultivate their crops in an atmosphere of tranquility and peace. Once they have undergone this process, they are required to bring their first fruits before the priest and to recite before him the Confession of the First Fruits:

“And thou shalt speak and say before the Lord thy God: ‘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).

The passage goes on to describe what the farmer must do with the first fruits that are to be presented in the sanctuary: “And thou shalt set it down before the Lord thy God, and worship before the Lord thy God. And thou shalt rejoice in all the good which the Lord thy God hath given unto thee, and unto thy house, thou, and the Levite, and the stranger that is in the midst of thee” (Deut. 26:10-11).

The brief narrative recited in the sanctuary succinctly sums up Jewish history from exile and slavery in Egypt, to the Exodus, the arrival in the Promised Land, the settling of the land and the presentation to God of the first fruits symbolizing that history. The first fruits are thus the blessed result of the Jewish people’s entire historical experience.

This is the biblical passage chosen by the sages in Bnei Brak for discussion and analysis on seder night – not the story of the Exodus itself.

Perhaps the reason why the sages turn their gaze away from the Book of Exodus and instead focus on the passage in Deuteronomy is linked to the manner in which the passage is phrased. The Confession of the First Fruits is the first example of an individual speaking about himself in first-person singular and relating his own individual experiences as part of the collective that emerged from Egypt.

The narrator of this confession is a homilist who is very familiar with the verses in the Book of Exodus that recount the story of God’s rescue of Israel from bondage. This narrator takes those verses, reads through them and creates a homily told wholly in first-person singular that describes how he himself and his first fruits have made the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. The Confession of the First Fruits is the first – and perhaps the finest – application of the statement appearing in the Haggadah, that “each person should look upon himself as if he himself participated in the Exodus from Egypt.”

Just as we do not in fact recount the story of the Exodus but instead reflect on the manner in which our ancestors recounted it – similarly, the Tannaim do not sit around the seder table recounting the entire story, but instead reflect on the manner in which it is recounted by the person who was bringing the first fruits to the sanctuary. The historical, literary and mythological Exodus from Egypt remains a sealed source; no one recounts it and no one interprets it through any homily.

As the Haggadah text states, “In each generation, each person should look upon himself as if he himself participated in the Exodus from Egypt.” But what about those who themselves participated in the Exodus itself? Could they actually see themselves and could they understand the magnitude of the event in which they were taking part? The person who stands at some distance from that event and who manages to recount in first-person singular how he was a part of it serves as a more relevant model for the members of succeeding generations than the person who himself participated in it. In this respect, the passage in the Book of Exodus depicting the departure from Egypt would not be suitable for those undertaking the task of recounting the story. It was too concentrated an event, too crystalline to be broken down into details and to be told year after year.

The sages needed the “ladder” of the Confessions of the First Fruits, from Deuteronomy, which taught them how to recount the story of the Exodus from Egypt, how they must envisage themselves as a necessary consequence of history, and how they must see themselves as if they themselves participated in the Exodus. Thus, the passage in Deuteronomy containing the Confession of the First Fruits becomes the model of the manner in which the written text can become a living text for the sages. Similarly, the seder night that was celebrated by the sages in Bnei Brak and documented in the Haggadah becomes the model of the manner in which the written text can become a living text for us.