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Passover I 5776-2016

“The Children, The Children!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As we have previously discussed (Passover 5760-2000), children play a central role in the Passover Seder and in the Haggadah.

The rituals of the seder seek to involve the children as much as possible. To maintain the children’s attention and encourage them to ask questions, the Matzahs are frequently covered and uncovered and the seder plate is removed from the table and returned to the table. Perhaps the best known part of the seder is the מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה–Mah Nishtanah, the four questions that the children ask. Another popular feature is the “Four Children”: the wise child, the prodigal child, the innocent child and the one who does not know to ask.

Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel, who is known widely as the  Malbim is one of the preeminent Bible commentators of modern times. His insights are so penetrating, that his comments are often assumed to be of a scholar who lived a thousand years earlier, in the times of Rashi, Nachmanides and Ibn Ezra.

The Malbim, who wrote a commentary on the Haggadah called Medrash Haggadah, raises many fundamental questions about the structure of the Haggadah and proceeds to elucidate the underlying principles that guided the authors of the Passover Haggadah.

Those of us who have sat through many Passover seders are convinced that the Haggadah brilliantly tells the story of the Egyptian slavery and the exodus from Egypt, melding both Talmudic exegesis and storytelling, to make a maximum impression on the participants. Meaningful rituals are added to create an enchanting atmosphere for all the Passover celebrants and to drive home the message of Divine salvation.

Because many are so familiar with the text of the Haggadah, it is barely noticeable that the structure of the Haggadah is complex and jumbled, often appearing to be in no meaningful order. Despite the confusing array of unconnected paragraphs, we have become so accustomed to the confusion that we take for granted that the compilers knew exactly what they were doing.

At the Passover seder, every Jew is required to fulfill five mitzvot. The Biblical mitzvot are to eat matzah (Exodus 12:18) and to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 13:8). The three rabbinical ordinances include, drinking four cups of wine, eating Maror and reciting הַלֵּל–Hallel, the psalms of praise.

The Malbim knew very well that the Haggadah, one of the most important Jewish liturgical books, was designed to teach a profound lesson. He therefore sets out to elucidate the seemingly confusing structure and to clarify its message.

The Malbim explains that the word הַגָּדָה–Haggadah, comes from the Hebrew verb, לְהַגִּיד, which means “to tell.” The word, לְסַפֵּר–tsah’pehr, to relate or to recount, also appears in many places in the Passover story (e.g. “In order that you relate, tsah’pehr, in the ears of your children,” Exodus 10:2). The name of the volume, however, is “Haggadah,”–telling, and not סִיפּוּר—-“Sippur” recounting.

The Malbim points out that although there are several verses in which the Torah commands to recount the story of exodus they all relate to telling the story of Egypt in response to a child asking and questioning. Only the verse of Exodus 13:8, וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר, בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה השׁם לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם, and you shall tell your child on that day, saying: “It is because of that which the L-rd did for me when I came forth out of Egypt,” is not prompted by a child’s question. Since only this verse indicates that the commandment to tell the Exodus story applies whether or not a child asks, it serves as the definitive source of the Passover mitzvah for every Jew to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt, and serves as the primary basis for the Haggadah.

The Malbim underscores this by clarifying the seeming disorder of the structure of the Haggadah.

The section of the Haggadah known as מַגִּיד–“Magid,” tells the story of the exodus from Egypt, and consists of sixteen separate sections. Beginning with הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא–“Ha lach’ma anya”– This is the bread of affliction, it is followed by the “Mah Nish’tah’nah”– Why is this night different?, עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ—“Ah’vah’dim ha’yee’noo”– We were slaves in the land of Egypt, the four sons and the declaration that the covenant with G-d has sustained Israel throughout the years and generations. This is followed by the requirement that every person see him/herself as if he/she went out of Egypt, and concludes with the beginning of “Hallel,” the psalms of praise.

Noting that the Haggadah does not follow chronological order, the Malbim asks why does the text of “Ah’vah’dim ha’yee’noo,” we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt precedes מִתְּחִלָּה עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה הָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ, that at first our fathers were idolaters? After all, that narrative speaks about Terach, Abraham’s father, who lived hundreds of years before Abraham’s children descended to Egypt. The Malbim in fact asks an entire series of challenging questions about the order of the sixteen sections of the Magid section.

The Malbim explains that only because we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt are we obligated to tell the story of the exodus. The experience of slavery is the fundamental reason why we have the seder in the first place and read from the Haggadah. Although, “Ah’vah’dim ha’yee’noo,” “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt,” is not the story itself, it is the basic reason why there is a mitzvah to tell the story. It is because we were slaves to Pharaoh that every Jew, even the wisest of sages, must tell the story each and every year, even though they know it well.

The Malbim declares that telling the story of the exodus is intended to serve as much more than a mere expression of gratitude to G-d or a basic acknowledgment of His role in our salvation. The greater purpose of the seder is not at all to serve our own spiritual benefit, but to serve the children’s benefit. Of course, we must be certain that we too not forget what G-d did for us, but more importantly, we must conclusively guarantee that our children and future generations will recall the exodus. Only in this way will the children understand that their lives too were fundamentally affected by that miraculous event, and it is their obligation as well to praise and thank G-d. For this reason, every Jew, in every generation, is commanded to tell the story and elaborate upon the events of the exodus. The sages and the wise people must not be exempted from this obligation. After all, the collective consciousness of the Jewish Peoples’ history needs to be regularly refreshed, so that the future generations will perpetuate this practice and do the same.

As we sit at our seder tables this year recounting the story of the exodus from Egypt, let us remember that the Haggadah’s primary message and concern is about “the children, the children!” We must spare no effort to effectively inspire the next generation to pass this vital message on to their children and to their children’s children, as well.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Friday night, April 22nd and all day Saturday and Sunday, April 23rd and 24th. The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Thursday night, April 28th, and continue through Friday and Saturday, April 29th and 30th.

Chag Kasher V’samayach.

Wishing all our friends a wonderful, joyous and meaningful Passover.