The Talmud tells us that the structure of the Haggadah is based on one major theme: We begin by recounting the bad and then we conclude with the good. Our story begins when we were slaves in Egypt; from there we moved to liberation and our prophetically promised destiny of final redemption.
The sequence is meant to convey a fundamental truth of our faith. The bad is but a prelude to the good. When Moses asked God, "Show me, I pray thee, Thy glory," (Exodus 33:18) the Talmud tells us he was really asking the ultimate question of theodicy: Why do bad things happen to good people? God's response was, "You will see My back, but My face shall not be seen" (Ex 33:23). The commentators explain God's meaning: Events can never be understood as they occur, but only in retrospect, with the benefit of hindsight. Kierkegaard put it beautifully when he said, "The greatest tragedy of life is that it must be lived forwards and can only be understood backwards."
The Jewish people were first taught this truth in the story of Joseph. The tragedy of his sale by his brothers turned into the possibility for saving his family in the time of famine.
At the end of the story, Joseph reassures his brothers that he will do them no harm. "And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive" (Genesis 50:20).
The word Haggadah in gematria (numerical value) adds up to 17. That was the exact age of Joseph when he was sold into Egypt – the real beginning of the story of our Egyptian exile and ultimately of the Exodus commemorated by Passover. By numerical allusion, Haggadah reminds us of the terrible act that started it all.
But there is yet another meaning to the gematria of 17. That is also the numerical value of the Hebrew word tov, the word good. We need to remember that the tragedy of Joseph's sale at the age of 17 led to the miracle of our redemption and the revelation at Sinai.
No matter how black any event may appear at the time, the dark of night is always followed by the dawn. "And it was evening, and it was morning" is the theme of our history – and the secret of the word Haggadah.
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