In establishing the guidelines for the Mitzvah of סיפור יציאת מצרים, relating the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim, the Mishnah in Pesachim (דף קט"ז.) states that one must be "מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח," meaning that one is to begin the story by highlighting some of the shameful actions of Bnai Yisrael, and conclude on a positive note, describing actions of our people which are worthy of praise and tribute. The Gemara (שם) offers two opinions as to what "מתחיל בגנות" means. Rav states that the passage beginning with the wordsמתחילה עובדי עבודה" זרה היו אבותינו," describing the spiritual shame of our early forefathers who engaged in idolatrous practices, is the negative beginning, and Shemuel suggests that the paragraph starting with the words "עבדים היינו לפרעה במצרים," reflecting the lack of freedom and independence of our people as we were forcefully enslaved, is the negative beginning. The editor of the Haggadah has incorporated both of these opinions, and both these ideas are thus fully developed: the physical slavery and the transition to freedom, as well as the spiritual decadence and the change leading to Kabbalas HaTorah, with a full acceptance of Hashem's Mitzvos.
After stating "מתחילה עובדי עבודה זרה היו אבותינו" and offering a certain proof text, the Baal Haggadah says: "Blessed is Hashem who fulfilled His promise to Israel," and then quotes the Pesukim which describe that Hashem had said to Avraham that his children would take up residence in a strange land, and that they would be enslaved for some 400 years and then leave having accumulated enormous wealth (בראשית ט"ו:י"ג-י"ד). Despite the fact that the Torah there states that Bnai Yisrael would be slaves for 400 years, in reality they served for only 210 years, as Hashem calculated or manipulated the numbers so that the 210 years would actually equal the stated 400 year requirement.
HaRav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, whose second Yahrtzeit will be observed this Pesach, once shared an incredible analysis which offers a radical perspective on those Pesukim (בראשית שם). At the beginning of פרק ל"ז of Sefer Bereishis, the Torah states, "וישב יעקב בארץ מגורי אביו בארץ כנען. אלה תולדות יעקב יוסף...," "And Yaakov lived in the land in which his father had resided, in Eretz Canaan. These are the descendants of Yaakov, Yosef..." (שם פסוקים א'-ב'). Rashi (לפסוק ב' שם בד"ה אלה) comments "בקש יעקב לישב בשלוה קפץ עליו רוגזו של יוסף," "Yaakov wanted to dwell in peace but the anger of Yosef jumped at him." What exactly does it mean that Yaakov wanted to dwell in peace? Did he plan on retiring? Moreover, why is it necessary to characterize Eretz Canaan here as "ארץ מגורי אביו," the land in which his father had resided, when we all know that Yitzchak, Yaakov's father, lived in Eretz Canaan?
HaRav Soloveitchik suggested that Yaakov believed that he had already fulfilled the promise made to Avraham that "גר יהיה זרעך בארץ לא להם ועבדום," indicating that Avraham's descendants would be strangers in a foreign land and be enslaved (שם ט"ו:י"ג). Nowhere does the Torah state specifically that the land had to be Egypt. Yaakov thus felt that since he had lived in Charan with his father-in-law, Lavan, who worked him very hard for twenty years, he had personally seen the fulfillment of that promise. As for the predicted 400 years of servitude, if Hashem could manipulate 210 years to somehow equal 400 years, He could also arrange that 20 years of servitude could equal the stated 400 years. As such, Yaakov was now returning to Eretz Canaan thinking that he was entitled to take up full occupancy of Eretz Yisrael, never to have to leave it. This is what Rashi (שם) means by saying "בקש יעקב לישב בשלוה," that Yaakov wanted to dwell in peace. With this idea, we also understand the description of the land here as "ארץ מגורי אביו," "the land in which his father had resided." Yitzchak never left Eretz Canaan, and Yaakov was now planning to dwell in the land in the same fashion as did his father Yitzchak, that is, permanently, without being compelled to leave again for any reason.
As he prepared to occupy the region, Yaakov formulated plans for his government by selecting Yosef as the leader of Klal Yisrael. He dressed Yosef with a כתונת פסים, a multi-colored robe, as a sign of royalty. Yosef then began to dream of the fulfillment of this vision; bundles bowed down to him, and the sun, moon, and stars all bowed to him as well. Bnai Yisrael's permanent occupation of Eretz Yisrael thus seemed about to begin. As an aside, accepting this notion will help us understand a Posuk later in that Parsha which presents a list of Edomite kings who ruled "לפני מלך מלך לבני ישראל," before the rise of a Jewish king (שם ל"ו:ל"א). Why does the Torah inform of this idea here, when the first Jewish king, Shaul, will not rise for several hundred years? Apparently, a Jewish kingdom was imminent and Yosef was the king. Prior to describing his reign, the Torah highlights the reign of the kings who preceded him.
Something happened, however, which changed the course of Jewish destiny. The Torah says, "ויקנאו בו אחיו," "the brothers were jealous of him [Yosef]" (שם ל"ז:י"א), and they were not prepared to accept Yosef as king. Bickering and in-fighting was thus the result, and not Jewish unity. Had the brothers united in their desire to fulfill Yaakov's plan, שעבוד מצרים, the period of enslavement in Egypt, would not have taken place. We Jews would have established our kingdom and dwelled in Eretz Yisrael permanently, but the lack of אחדות, unity, was responsible for the גלות מצרים, the exile in Egypt, and the altering of Jewish history. The Haftorah of Parshas VaYeishev, the Parsha which contains the description of these events, reaffirms this tragedy. Amos the Novi describes Yosef as having been sold for a pair of shoes (עמוס ב':ו'), the equivalent of a pair of "Nikes" or "Reeboks." As a general rule, every Haftorah concludes on a positive note; even the Haftorah of Shabbos Chazon and of Tishah B'Av, which appropriately are mournful passages, conclude on a positive, uplifting note, and give Bnai Yisrael something to dream about. This Haftorah, however, ends on a most despairing note, with the words "אריה שאג מי לא יירא ה' אלקים דבר מי לא ינבא," "if a lion roars, is it possible that one will not be frightened, and if Hashem speaks, is it possible to just ignore His words?!" (שם ג':ז'). Apparently, even Amos can find no comfort when there is bickering and in-fighting between brothers.
Unfortunately, this lack of unity has persisted throughout our history. Chazal tell us that the second Beis HaMikdash was destroyed because of שנאת חנם, needless hatred. Later, 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זה בזה, because they did not respect one another, and no single student would tolerate another's opinion. Tragically, this continues today as well. Perhaps for this reason, our Haggadah laments the fact that the situation has not yet changed. By opening with הא לחמא עניא, recited in Aramaic, we highlight the fact that we are still in Golus. Immediately, however, we state that we are prepared to change our attitude, as we say "כל דכפין ייתי וייכול כל דצריך ייתי ויפסח," meaning that we invite anyone to come and share in our Seder with us. Halachically, this may be a difficult phrase to comprehend, for after all, אין הפסח נאכל אלא למנוייו, consumption of the Korban Pesach is limited to those who have been assigned to it at the time of the Shechitah earlier that day; one can not simply join a family at the Seder. However, what we do accomplish through this statement is that we declare that we wish to fundamentally change the attitude of Yosef's brothers. We want to remove jealousy, quibbling, fighting, animosity, and lack of tolerance. Only then will we experience that which we hope for when we say "לשנה הבאה בארעא דישראל," "next year in Eretz Yisrael."