A Strange Beginning by Doniel Sherman


From the time Purim ends, the most pressing thoughts on many Jews’ minds are Pesach related: when do I plan to clean and cook, where will I be for Sedarim, and who am I having for company. As the weeks pass and Pesach nears, the frenzied tempo of cleaning, cooking, learning and preparing increases, not relenting until the Seder begins with Kiddush. But the moment the individual leading the Seder lifts the cup of wine and begins to recite Kiddush, the atmosphere palpably changes; the stress of preparing for the Seder dissipates as everyone settles in for the hours of recounting the formation of Am Yisrael.

Ask any child sitting at your table what the point of the Seder is and they will likely answer that it is to tell the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim, the redemption from Egypt. Ask any adult sitting at the table what the function of the Seder is and they are likely to offer a similar answer, albeit in a more sophisticated manner, that it is to relate Hashem’s fulfillment of his covenant with Avraham and the transformation of a Semitic tribe into an Am Segula, a chosen people. Both are correct. It is fascinating, therefore, that, after the Ma Nishtana has been coaxed from the youngsters, the episode of the Rabbis in Bnei Brak has been told, and the four sons have presented their views on Pesach, the beginning of the narrative of the Jewish people does not start in Egypt with Bnei Yisrael’s suffering. Rather, when the Haggadah begins to tell the story of Yetziat Mitzraim, it begins with “Mitchilah Ovdei Avodah Zara Hayu Avoteinu, ViAchshav Kervanu HaMakom LaAvodato” “From the beginning our forefathers were idol worshippers, but now HaKadosh Baruch Hu brought us close into his service.” Whom does this phrase refer to and why is it the line that thousands of Jews worldwide will say to start their Seder’s narrative?

The Brisker Rav, quoting the Rambam (Hilchot Avodat Kochavim: Perek 1, Halacha 3), notes that Avraham worshipped Avodah Zarah for the first forty years of his life and only at age forty did Avraham recognize HaKadosh Baruch Hu as the creator of the universe. Operating under this premise, the Brisker Rav claims that the “Ovdei Avodah Zara Hayu Avoteinu” refers to Avraham and his early years of idol worship.

Avraham’s pre-Hashem, idol worshipping life, however, is not where one would naturally place the opening for the Haggadah. If Chazal believed it was important to include history from our Avot to provide background for the exodus, why not begin with the account of the Brit Bein HaBitarim and Hashem telling Avraham that his children would descend to Egypt or with the actual account of that descent to Egypt? Why does the Haggadah begin with Avraham’s early history as the starting point for discussing the exodus from Egypt?

The Gemara Pesachim (116a) records a discussion about this troubling phrase. Referring to the way a father should teach his son about Pesach, the Gemara states that one should “Matchil BeGnut UMesayaim BiShevach” “Begin with degradation and end with praise.” The Gemara then records a debate between Rav and Shmuel regarding where in the Haggadah this degradation is found. Shmuel interprets the degradation as referring to the phrase of “Avadim HaYinu,” the first time the Haggadah mentions our enslavement in Egypt. Rav, however, quotes our puzzling passage of “Mitchilah Ovdei Avodah Zara Hayu Avoteinu.” Why does Rav feel that this passage is a more appropriate commencement than Avadim HaYinu? From our customary understanding of the Haggadah and the Seder, it would seem that Shmuel offers a more logical beginning.

Masterfully, the Rov, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, offered insight into this seemingly lopsided argument between Rav and Shmuel. The Rov explained that Rav and Shmuel were referring to two different aspects of Bnei Yisrael’s beginnings. Shmuel, claims the Rov, was referring to the material aspects of Bnei Yisrael’s transition from an enslaved people to a free people. As such, it is fitting that we begin the Haggadah with Avadim HaYinu, a statement of our physical shackles in Egypt. Rav, however, was concerned with Bnei Yisrael’s spiritual transition from an idolatrous people to a holy nation of God’s servants. As Bnei Yisrael sojourned in Mitzraim, they lost much of the spiritual connection that they had with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. When Hashem freed Bnei Yisrael from their physical bonds, he also liberated them from their spiritual shackles. For Rav, that transition is typified by Avraham’s shift from idolater to monotheist. As the first person to experience the change from Oveid Avodah Zarah to Eved Hashem, Avraham became the template which Bnei Yisrael followed in returning from idol worship to Hashem. Avraham’s transition, therefore, is evoked at the beginning of the Haggadah as a reminder of the spiritual transition that occurred in the exodus.

The Rov emphasized that both the physical and spiritual aspects of redemption were essential elements of Hashem’s deliverance. While our Sedarim often seem to focus exclusively on our physical exodus from Egypt and our physical transformation from slaves to freed people, we must remember that our redemption was just as much a spiritual salvation. The Brisker Rav seems to make the same point in his comments on “ViAchshav Kervanu HaMakom LaAvodato” “but now HaKadosh Baruch Hu brought us close into his service.” He notes that while the Gemara includes a discussion about the degradation that must begin the exodus narrative, it never describes the substance of the praise that concludes the Haggadah’s narrative of the exodus. The Brisker Rav explains that for both Rav and Shmuel, the positive ending is found in the phrase ViAchshav Kervanu HaMakom LaAvodato. Had only Shmuel’s or only Rav’s view of the degradation and the nature of the redemption resulted in Bnei Yisrael’s freedom, one could intuit that the exodus was either a more physical or a more spiritual event. But their joint endorsement that ViAchshav Kervanu HaMakom LaAvodato was Bnei Yisrael’s ending praise demonstrates that both approaches accurately represent the events of Yetziat Mitzrayim.

It becomes our duty, therefore, to understand that the physical items and actions present at our Sedarim (the wine, the matzah, and the leaning), while necessary in helping us relate to our physical redemption, do not exempt us from recognizing our spiritual freedom. Only through a careful reading of the Haggadah and the recognition and development of our connection to HaKadosh Baruch Hu can we fully appreciate the spiritual dimension of our spiritual redemption. May we all be Zocheh to experience a Seder that both physically and spiritually recounts and relives our redemption; through that Seder, may we merit to return to Yerushalayim for future Sedarim.

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