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Pesach, we learn in Exodus 12:2, should occur at “the head of months, the first month of the year.” The Pesach Seder is, therefore, the Jewish New Year celebration. Many people will say, “Stop! Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year.” This is a mistake. As Rabbi Meir Soloveichik says, “The most common statement made about this holiday, one which I habitually make as well, is actually incorrect. . . . Rosh Hashanah is known as the ‘Jewish New Year’ . . . [but] Rosh Hashanah is not the Jewish New Year.” Or, as the scholar Nehemia Gordon concludes, the designation of Rosh Hashanah as the Jewish New Year is “outright bizarre.”
With the Torah having established Pesach as the Jewish New Year, it immediately moves to how the holiday should be celebrated. And it does so with a level of detail accorded no other holiday in the Torah. The menu, the way the meat should be prepared, and the purpose of the dinner discussion are just a few of the instructions pertaining to Pesach that are required in Exodus. Why, we are drawn to ask, would the Torah include such detailed instructions regarding how Jews are to celebrate our New Year? Perhaps the author of the Torah was sculpting Judaism, designing Jewish life, and creating Jews— and wanted our celebrations to reflect the kind of people we would ideally become. More than we design celebrations, they actually design us. This is something that is easily observable. The best single way to understand an individual or a community is to observe their celebrations.
How does a community acknowledge Memorial Day? How does an individual celebrate his fortieth birthday? How does a family celebrate B’nai Mitzvah or a couple a wedding? Even a glimpse will enable an observer to reliably project the aspirations, priorities, and values of the celebrants. And by telling us how to celebrate, on the verge of our becoming a free people, the Torah leads us to consider just what kind of people celebrate this way and thus what kind of people we should become.
God’s order, as communicated through his beloved prophet, Moses, is placed in Exodus 13:8. Moses says, “You shall tell your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’”
Given the clear mandate in the Torah to tell the story of the Exodus, the structure of the book that enables us to do so should be clear enough. The story of the Exodus— about how the Jews were enslaved in Egypt for two hundred years before God, working with Moses, liberated us— is described in the biblical book of Exodus. One would presume, then, that the obligation to tell the story of the Exodus would be best discharged through a synopsis of Exodus. And, sure, the Haggadah does draw from Exodus. But it also draws from Genesis, Deuteronomy, Ezekiel, Joshua, Chronicles, Joel, Psalms, stories from a Seder held by five rabbis, songs from throughout Jewish history, Jewish prayer— and an invitation to use all those subjects as the basis to interpret and discuss contemporary concerns and questions.
We tell the story of the Exodus, therefore, through a book that essentially curates the Greatest Hits of Jewish Thought with sources long before and after the great event itself. This alone constitutes a radical interpretation of the Exodus. Constructing it this way, the authors of the Haggadah were saying that the Exodus was not an event that began and ended but one that previous Jewish experience was spent preparing for and all subsequent Jewish experience is still living.
The authors of the Haggadah had only one night in which to distill the entire Jewish corpus of freedom, to imprint the story of the Exodus into the Jewish memory of our children. So much to cover— dozens of topics, hundreds of questions— and the authors of the Haggadah decided to have us sing the table of contents, “Dayenu,” the Four Questions, and others?
Similarly, one observing Pesach from afar might think it is a religiously themed cooking show. The Seder leader ensures the presence of special foods, arranges them thoughtfully, points to them, and discusses them. Yes, clearly, the Jewish New Year celebration commands a good meal. So do other Jewish events. Yet only on Pesach, when we have dozens of the most fundamental questions to discuss in one short evening, do we devote so much time to preparing and talking about the food.
What is going on? First, music. One of the seminal themes and functions of the Pesach experience is the constructing and strengthening of Jewish community. This purpose is evident from when the Torah establishes that the Pesach meal would be constituted by households joining together— and, as we will see, rises to maximal importance in the Haggadah text. From military fight songs to chants at protest marches, from national anthems to school cheers, from the Four Questions to “Dayenu” at the Seder, groups of people often express their fidelity to each other and build their shared commitments to each other by singing together.
Why? Again, 21st Century science explains the logic informing an ancient Jewish practice. Oxytocin is the neuropeptide that is produced by the most profound activities of human bonding— sexual intercourse and breastfeeding. Hence its nickname: the “love hormone.” Experiments in the 2000s have shown that there is another activity that induces the release of oxytocin: singing together.
Another deeply important purpose of the Seder is to strengthen and instill Jewish memory. The Haggadah guides us to consider Jewish life from the Torah as a continuous story, and the enslavement of our ancestors as part of our experience rather than our history. And the Seder itself is designed, in ways that we will see, to create lasting Jewish memories for our children.
In 2018, the Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease published a paper about the autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR)— which is the brain function that is aroused by music. Even as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia destroy the memory, the ASMR generally remains unaffected. Music, modern science instructs us, is the most durable part of the memory.
A night devoted to the cultivation of memory, as the Seder in large part is, would need music. Long before social science, the authors of the Haggadah seemed to know that and acted accordingly.
The designers of the Seder— from the author of the Torah to the ancient rabbis— knew that food would have to be an integral part of an evening devoted to memory. And everyone who has been to a Seder is familiar with these foods: maror, charoset, the roasted bone, the roasted egg, karpas, and matzah. These foods are far from customary. Indeed, most appear on our tables only on Seder night. As everything in the Haggadah is designed to teach us something or guide us somewhere, we are led to ask: Why these foods? What can we learn from them specifically? We can begin with the egg. The twelfth- century Spanish authority Ibn Ezra said that the egg is a rebuke to the slave masters of Egypt. Egypt prohibited the consumption of eggs and meat together, and so we symbolically defy them by doing so.
The 19th Century Polish Rabbi Yaakov Leiner wrote that the egg looks like a final product— but its essence (the animal within) has not even presented itself yet. This, he said, symbolizes the Exodus from Egypt.
Our liberation might seem like a glorious end, but it is just the beginning. According to the sixteenth- century Polish rabbi Moses Isserles, the egg symbolizes mourning. Indeed, the egg is the staple food at Seudat Havra’ah, the Meal of Condolence— the first a family has following a loss. The egg, because of its circular shape, serves to remind that life always goes on. Why would we incorporate mourning at a Pesach celebration? For the same reason that a groom breaks a glass under the chuppah (wedding canopy) at his wedding, and that we don’t sit shiva (formally mourn) on Shabbat or during holidays. We ritually experience sadness at times of joy, and joy at times of sadness to remind ourselves that neither should ever constitute the entirety of one’s expectations.
The 20th Century Polish Rabbi Meir Shapiro, known as the Lubliner Rav, said that the egg exemplifies the learning from Exodus 1:12: “The more [the Jews] were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread.” Just as Jews respond to even existential challenges by getting stronger, the egg becomes harder the longer it is boiled.
So which commentator is right? All of them. There is no suggestion that any of the aforementioned rabbis ever said that any alternative belief is wrong. Instead, this mutual regard is a manifestation of the Jewish conviction that “there are seventy facets to Torah.”
There can, and often are, multiple correct interpretations of the same thing— each of which summons a different truth. It is deeply instructive that Pesach should be the moment when we consider the fact that multiple interpretations of the same thing can be right. Rabbi Elie Kaunfer of Mechon Hadar writes, “Understanding something as having multiple meanings is one of the deepest expressions of freedom.”
The ability to recognize multiple truths, demonstrated by the egg and the charoset on the Seder plate, does more than enable us to derive the deepest guidance from the Haggadah and the Torah. It just might provide the basis for good citizenship, especially in an easily divided society.
The wise son loves God, he is curious, he has absorbed the Jewish teaching about distinctions, he thinks about these issues in the future. Where does all this lead? He finishes his question by asking his parent what has been commanded to you— not to us! So does he accept the testimonies, decrees, and ordinances or not?
The simple son is often portrayed visually in Haggadot and at the Seder discussions generally as stupid. The Hebrew word for simple— as used in simple son— is tam. It is used dozens of times in the Bible as tam or tamim, and figuring out its unifying meaning will help us understand the second son in the Haggadah and at our Seder. In Genesis 17:1, God appears to Abraham and offers him the most meaningful, ambitious, and inspiring directive possible: “I am the Almighty God; walk before me and be tamim.” God is not telling Abraham to be stupid.
We are introduced to Abraham’s grandson Jacob, with God referring to him as an ish tam— a simple man. Jacob is, like every developed biblical figure, full of virtues and flaws. He also seems to have understood genetic engineering millennia before Gregor Mendel “discovered” it. The “simple” person, therefore, can be a genius— and also highly complex.
In the Pesach sequence in Exodus, God tells Moses that the sacrificial lamb— which the Israelites are to consume during their last meal in Egypt— must be tamin. In Deuteronomy, there are two uses of tam that are deeply instructive for these purposes. God calls himself tamim— and explains what he means: “The deeds of the Rock are tamim, for all His ways are just; a faithful God, without injustice, He is righteous and upright.” And God commands us, “Be tamim with God.” Achievement of tamim has long been the spiritual ambition of the Jew. It is wholeheartedness. And this quality is personified at the Seder by our tam— the child who is really our “wholehearted son.”
A question for the parents (and their children) at the Seder: Who would you want your daughter to marry— the wise son or the simple/wholehearted son?
As a father of two girls (and two boys), I choose for my daughters—wholeheartedly— the wholehearted son.
It must have been quite a Seder in Bnei Brak, with these five rabbis telling the story with such fervor that they had to be interrupted in the morning by their students! The ideas, the perspectives, the wisdom, the analysis, the connections, the dreams, the predictions that must have filled the Seder! One wonders, what did they talk about?
We are only given one subject that they discussed. It is not about any of the great men and women of the Exodus or their precursors in Genesis. It is not about freedom, slavery, and liberation; it does not contain anything of ritual significance; it does not address any of the obligations or questions that are aroused on this Jewish New Year; it does not reference anything from the Torah.
We don’t even get to it right away, and that’s not only because the discussion of its conclusion comes first. First, we learn who brings up the subject— Elazar ben Azariah. He is known as “the young man who became gray overnight”— a distinction manifested by his being put on the Sanhedrin, the ancient Jewish court, as a teenager.
He was likely a teenager at the time of this Seder at Bnei Brak that is immortalized in the Haggadah. We also learn how Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah introduces the subject of discussion. He says, “I am like a seventy-year-old man.” This is interesting and instructive for multiple reasons, which build on the fact that this self-reference is regarded positively.
That Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah would so positively describe himself as being like an old person is just one of the striking things about his introduction. The even more striking thing is that he describes himself so positively at all. We have a word for publicly describing oneself positively, and it does not have a positive connotation. It is: bragging. If this young rabbi really had the wisdom of a seventy- year- old, wouldn’t he just make his point and let others marvel at his being wise beyond his years? Why would a great rabbi be immortalized for bragging, an act for which he suffers no criticism— at the Seder or subsequently?
The inclusion of such a mystery in the Haggadah can only exist to teach us something, to lead us to consider something that will help us in the new year, to guide us in some way. And sure enough, it does.
The Torah almost never uses adjectives to describe people. Instead, the Torah presents its characters in stories and allows readers to come to their own conclusions. There is an exception, illustrating the importance of the quality it wants to establish with perfect clarity. In Numbers 12:3, God calls Moses “a very humble man, more than any man on the face of the earth.” Yet Moses single- handedly takes on a gang that is harassing women, flares with anger at the Pharaoh, confidently leads a maddening people through wars and rebellions in the desert, and defiantly confronts God multiple times.
This is the humblest of all men?
There is more. Moses acquiesces when the artisan of the Torah, Bezalel, effectively tells him that there is a better way to design the Tabernacle. Moses tells God to “blot me out of your Torah” if God abandons the Jewish people. Moses is delighted when two other people, Eldad and Medad, are “prophesying in the camp”—an act that even his protege, Joshua, thought should be reserved for Moses. When Moses is insulted by his sister and she falls ill,
he prays for her.
Like God who praises his own creation and allows his name to be erased to save a marriage, Moses fully acknowledges his accomplishments and the abilities that enable them— and always sublimates himself to the principles that he stands for. At seemingly every opportunity, he demonstrates his willingness and even eagerness to sacrifice his honor in order to benefit his family, his people, his faith, or his mission. It is only because of his robust self- assuredness that Moses is able to appreciate where others are better than him, brush off slights (and focus on genuine threats), and always sacrifice his personal interests for the principles that he is devoted to serving. The humble person, the Christian writer C. S. Lewis says, “will not be thinking about himself at all.”
How can the lesson in humility be best understood and lived by those at the Seder? Perhaps by starting with the question: Is life a gift from God? Most people, from every faith, would answer: “Yes, of course.” However, Rabbi Moshe Scheiner suggests another approach— which begins by understanding the nature of a gift.
A gift is something valuable that is given with nothing expected in return. In fact, any reciprocal obligation negates its status as a gift. A recipient of a gift may want to reciprocate, but he has no need to do so.
Life, unlike a gift, comes with substantial obligations to the giver. Life is not a gift but a loan. And every loan comes with a detailed agreement, full of detailed obligations (sometimes called covenants). God’s side of the agreement contains the unique and substantial abilities he has given each of us. Our side of the agreement— our loan covenants— are the products of these abilities, deployed in service of making the world a dwelling place for God. If one does not read the loan agreement, he is not being humble. He is being irresponsible. One who does not acknowledge and appreciate his special abilities will not be able to do the work God intends for him. For a scientist to advance human knowledge, a doctor to ameliorate human suffering, a lineman to install electrical systems, a parent to raise children, a businessperson to create jobs and donate to sacred causes, a teacher to inspire students, a firefighter to save families, that individual must be fully aware of her significant talents. With that confidence, she can work to develop and deploy them. A falsely humble person will be incapable of participating in that process to the detriment of people and the disappointment of God.
What an inspiration to the young and the old at the Seder! A young person can achieve the wisdom of the elder and warrant a space at the table with the sages of the era. And a 120- year- old person can have the vitality of a youth whose eyes are undimmed. And to everyone: God has extended us an enormous loan— and in his role as the divine credit officer would only have done so if he had the confidence that we had the resources to make
good on it.
The Haggadah tells us that “with seventy persons, your forefathers descended to Egypt.”
Except there is a problem. There are only sixty- nine people, per Genesis 46:26, who descend to Egypt.
Who is number seventy?
Each participant at the Seder. As we will see, the Haggadah instructs that we are still in the process of emerging from slavery and idolatry, and participation in this great Jewish New Year experience of contemplation and commitment, refreshment, and renewal is one of the key moments in that process. If one generation stops, the work of the hundreds of generations who came before us— including the sixty- nine— is for naught. The perpetuation of the story and the continuation of the Jewish people depend on each one of us. We are neither historians nor observers, we are neither commentators nor celebrants. We are participants.
Each of us is number seventy.
This is not a magical or mystical notion. It is within the essence of what it means to be a Jew, and in a way, that is core to the Pesach celebration. The acknowledgment of each person as number seventy ratifies the purpose of Pesach— to assimilate history into memory, to relive the Exodus, to establish every Jew as a member of a community that stretches across generations and across geographies as one.
The first thing about “Dayenu”: It is a magnificent song. We have discussed the intimate connection of music and memory, and “Dayenu” demonstrates it. Its words and its lyrics are among the most recognized parts of any Seder. But it is the familiar things, those that we think we know, that often require the most investigation.
An initial look at the content of “Dayenu” should arouse curiosity. We sing that if God had split the sea but not led us through to dry land, it would have been enough for us. But we would have drowned. We sing that if he had led us through to dry land but not drowned our oppressors, it would have been enough for us. But the Egyptians would have enslaved and/or killed us. We sing that if God had provided for our needs in the desert for forty years but did not feed us manna, it would have been enough for us.
But we would have starved. How does that work? Why are we effectively expressing gratitude for something that would have ended in death?
Read or sung in a vacuum, that dispositive question leads to only one answer: We shouldn’t be! However, nothing about “Dayenu” occurs in a vacuum. Instead, it comes immediately after Rabbi Akiva shows us why it is better to count more miracles. Rabbi Akiva shows us why we should count many miracles, and “Dayenu” expresses how we should do so. The success of gratitude, the defining quality of the Jew, requires both the idea and the execution. So the authors of the Haggadah give us the section on miracles followed immediately by “Dayenu.”
Rabbi David Fohrman shows how “Dayenu” is the ancient Jewish expression of the modern scientific discovery of irreducible complexity. This term irreducible complexity was invented by Professor Michael Behe, who describes it as “a single system of several interacting parts, and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to cease functioning.”
How do we express our gratitude for gifts of irreducible complexity— to our parents for creating and sustaining us or to God for doing the same with that and everything else . . . among other things? In exactly the same way as “Dayenu” instructs. It is by showing appreciation for every component that we express gratitude for the system as a whole.
So does it make sense outside of this context to say that if he had split the sea for us but had not led us through to dry land, it would have been enough for us? No, we would have drowned. Inside the concept of irreducible complexity, the answer is different. The splitting of the sea was meaningless by itself. But it was not by itself. It was an indispensable part of the system working. We should be grateful for it as if our lives depended on it— because they did.