Torah Portion of the Week: The Exodus From Egypt

Parashat Pesach: The Haggadah prompts far more than a mere four questions.

The Birds' Head Haggadah, on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Sebastian Scheiner, AP

The Passover Haggadah is mostly based on midrashim. The term “midrash,” by which one refers to the collective body of these texts, refers to a literary genre, drawn from classical rabbinic authorities, that creatively interprets biblical verses. The intent is not to reconstruct the original meaning of those texts, but to discover additional meanings in the belief that the divine text contains an infinite number of new meanings. The midrashim in the Haggadah recount the story of the Exodus from Egypt in various ways, some of which express a reflective approach to the act of telling it – a focus on why, how, when and to whom we should tell it.

One of these reflective passages opens with “The Torah refers to four sons.” Indeed, in four passages in the Torah we find the commandment to tell the Exodus story to future generations. The reason for this abundance of commandments is ostensibly the immense importance the Torah attaches to this event and to its consolidation within the Israelite tradition. From midrashic literature’s standpoint, however, this is an opportunity to regard these four commandments as four different models of instruction, each of which matches a specific category of child or pupil.

This new interpretive framework detaches each of the commandments from its original context. But in so doing, it allows for a precise, comparative reading. The most detailed question is attributed to the wise son: “What mean the testimonies, and the statutes, and the ordinances, which the Lord our God hath commanded you?” (Deuteronomy 6:20). In the biblical context, this son knows the content of the commandments, but wants to know their meaning: He sees what his family and nation customarily do, but does not know the reason, justification or benefit of these actions. We can glean his attitude from the long answer he receives, which presents the essence of the history and meaning of the Children of Israel and their religion.

In the Haggadah’s context, the wise son’s situation is reversed. He knows the commandments’ meaning but not their content; he knows the narrative framework, and what remains is to fill it in and to teach him the details of Passover’s laws. Whereas the other three sons present their parents with an educational challenge, the wise son presents them with an intellectual one.

The wise son’s opposite is not the wicked son, who appears next, but the simple son. One might think that the opposite of wisdom is foolishness; the simple son, however, lacks not intellectual capabilities, but prior knowledge or an understanding of the broad context. The question assigned him is the shortest: “What is this?” (Exodus 13:14). Whereas, in the Bible, this question pertains to the sacrifice of first-born calves and the redemption of first-born human infants, when divorced from that context the question sounds general and vague. The simple son does not know how to define the question’s topic, and thus reminds us of pupils who, when asked what it is precisely they did not understand, reply “I understood nothing.”

The reply given to the naïve son in the Bible opens with the Exodus, ending with its implications for first-born calves and human infants; in the Haggadah, the reply, in the same verse, is a single sentence: “By the strength of hand the Lord brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage.” The naïve son needs an introduction; if he were given the reply reserved for the wise son, the naïve son would be able to recite it back by heart. However, he would not understand it, because recital by rote of religious laws is useless without an understanding of their historical and theological contexts.

Regarding the four commandments in the Torah, the reference to the Exodus is not a direct response to a question, but is, rather, an initiative of the parent: “And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying: It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8). In the Haggadah, this commandment is matched up with the model of the son “who knows not how to ask questions.”

The pupil who is confused or embarrassed, or who lacks knowledge, presents the most difficult didactic challenge, because learning happens in the teacher-pupil dialogue. For this son, the obligation to initiate the dialogue belongs to his parents and teachers; he is a warning sign for them: When pupils do not ask any questions, the reason is probably not that they fully understood the lesson, but more likely that they understood nothing.

The most difficult part in this section of the Haggadah concerns the wicked son, to whom the question “What mean ye by this service?” (Exodus 12:26) is assigned. In the Bible, this is a legitimate question; in the Haggadah, “ye” is interpreted as a sign of his detachment from the community. He talks about “you, not him”; the homilist in the Haggadah categorically declares that “since he has divorced himself from the group, he is a heretic. You must rebuke him with the reply, ‘It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt’ (Exodus 13:8) – what the Lord did for me, not for him. Had he been in Egypt, he would not have been redeemed.”

It is a harsh, alienating answer that is a familiar device for silencing criticism – delegitimization of the question because of the questioner’s allegedly ulterior motives. The son receives no reply. The parent refuses to answer him; instead of identifying the provocative question as an expression of the son’s desire to learn and get closer to Jewish tradition, he reacts with a counter-provocation.

In order to take a different approach to the wicked son, we must understand what he opposes. He “is a heretic”; however, his heresy does not express doubt concerning God’s existence or archaeological evidence of the Exodus. His heresy is that he does not see himself as part of the group. The parent replies that, as long as he does not see himself as part of the group, he will receive no reply. The parent’s refusal comes not because he has no desire to answer, but because the Exodus is in essence a story of the collective.

When we consider the biblical contexts of the questions and answers in the Haggadah, we realize that the Exodus not only explains many of the Torah’s commandments, but also that it provides an overarching basis for all of the commandments. The obligation to recount the Exodus story is anchored in the Torah; the obligation to observe the Torah’s commandments is based on the Exodus. It is a circular pattern of justification whose persuasive power is thus limited. Its role is to enable the community to explain its actions to itself.

This does not mean that the wicked son should be rejected. We must give speak frankly with him and must admit that the Exodus story and the way of life related to it cannot be explained or justified outside their context: The Exodus story is not necessarily better than other stories; but it is our story. This answer does not pretend to show the wicked son his error; for that reason he will likely accept it.