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Unlocking the Haggada: Making Sense of the Seder II – A Historical Perspective

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Haggada, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

Making Sense of the Seder II: A Historical Perspective


From a historical perspective, the Seder can be seen as a recreation of a powerful moment, critical to the birth of the Jewish nation. Contrary to what we would expect, however, the moment recreated at the Pesach Seder is not that of the Exodus itself…

The Torah narrative is clear. Pharaoh, the Egyptian king, summarily releases his Israelite slaves in the middle of the night, in the immediate aftermath of the devastating final plague of the firstborn. Nonetheless, Moshe does not lead his people to freedom until the next day. Based upon a midrashic tradition, the Ramban explains that the first footfalls of the nation’s journey are not to be those of thieves slinking away in the darkness of night. Instead, the Israelites will leave Egypt victoriously in the middle of the day, with their heads held high, in full view of their erstwhile masters.

If the Seder is designed to be a recreation of the actual Exodus from Egypt, therefore, it should be marked at high noon on the fifteenth day of Nisan, the first day of Pesach. Instead, across the generations, Jews have gathered in their homes on Pesach Eve to reexperience the night before the Exodus.

Historically, the Israelites in Egypt marked that night, at God’s command, by retreating to the safety of their homes in extended family groups. There, each group consumed a Korban Pesach while, outside their doors, the final plague rained down upon the Egyptians. Centuries later, we mirror their actions. We join in family groups for the Seder, commemorating the moment when our ancestors prepared for an unknown future through the consumption of their first ritual family meal. The question, however, is obvious. Why is the moment of the Korban Pesach memorialized each year through the Seder, while the actual moment of the Exodus, midday of the following day, passes unmarked? Wouldn’t it be logical to celebrate the moment of the Exodus itself on the
festival clearly designed to commemorate that event?


The answers to our question may well lie in a series of powerful lessons that emerge from the rituals of the first Korban Pesach – lessons that we are meant to remember and commemorate each year…

I. Between Liberty and Freedom 

Most immediately, the first Korban Pesach draws our attention to the two different dimensions of freedom that exist in Jewish thought: dror and cherut.

A. Dror (liberty) – the removal of external constraints, physical or otherwise, that impede upon an individual’s personal choice and independent action. Dror is either conferred upon an individual by an outside force or attained by an individual through severance from that force.

B. Cherut (freedom) – the injection of positive purpose and value into one’s life. The individual who enjoys cherut, by choosing to pursue a higher goal, actively frees himself from servitude to the surrounding world and its potentially enslaving influences. Cherut is not granted by another but must be attained by an individual alone.

One can be free even when not at liberty. One can be at liberty yet not be free. 

While still enveloped in the darkness of Egyptian servitude, the Israelites are commanded to declare their cherut. By setting aside a lamb, the god of Egypt, on the tenth day of Nisan; by publicly waiting four days and then slaughtering and consuming that lamb on Pesach Eve, the Israelites demonstrate that they are already free from Egypt and the Egyptians. Although physical liberty will only be achieved on the morrow, the Israelites attain their spiritual freedom while still in Egypt, on the night of the Korban Pesach.

How appropriate, then, that we mark this night each year at the Seder. How many times through a long and arduous history have we, the descendants of those first Israelites, been forced to relive  the scene of the Korban Pesach in actual life? How many times has our nation been called upon, against the backdrop of physical darkness and persecution, to declare spiritual and philosophical freedom from its oppressors? How many times will we be forced to do so again, before the dawn of the messianic age?

As we sit in the comfort of our homes, we recall Sedarim courageously observed under very different circumstances; from basements in Catholic Spain to prisons in Arab lands, from Nazi labor camps to the Soviet Gulag. And, through these collective memories, a sobering message of the Seder becomes abundantly clear. The ability to achieve freedom, even in the absence of liberty, has always been and continues to be a talent crucial to the survival of the Jewish nation.

At the same time, reliving the night of the Korban Pesach also reminds us of the emptiness of liberty without freedom. Had the Israelites left Egypt without first experiencing the rituals of the previous night, their emancipation would have been incomplete. Dror only has meaning when it is accompanied by cherut, when the removal of external constraints is accompanied by the injection of positive purpose.

Why do so many citizens of the United States and other democratic countries remain deeply unhappy in spite of the liberties they possess – liberties unimaginable in other times and places? How many of us and those around us, living at liberty in free societies, nonetheless feel enslaved to the pressures of an outside world? The ancient formula proposed by the Talmudic sages rings true to our day: “Ein lecha ben chorin ela mi she’oseik b’talmud Torah” (No one is free except for he who involves himself in the study of Torah). Meaning in life is attained through the recognition of a purpose beyond oneself. Only through belief in and pursuit of such a higher cause can a human being truly be “free.”

II. A Societal Blueprint

Digging a bit deeper, another critical layer of meaning can be uncovered in the rituals surrounding the first Korban Pesach.

A careful reading of the text reveals that the instructions concerning the first Korban Pesach unfold in three stages, ritualistically outlining a three-stage societal blueprint by which the emerging Israelite nation is to be built:

Speak to the entire assembly of Israel, saying: On the tenth of this month they shall take for themselves, each man, a lamb for each father’s house, a lamb for the household. And if the household shall be too small for a lamb, then he and his neighbor who is near to his home shall take according to the number of people; each man according to his ability to eat shall be counted for the lamb.

A. “A lamb for each father’s house, a lamb for the household.” The first and foremost pillar of Jewish society is the family unit.

God deliberately refrains from marking the birth of the Jewish nation with constitutional conventions, mass rallies or declarations of independence. Each Israelite is, instead, commanded to return to the privacy of his home, where he is to participate in the family meal that is the Korban Pesach.

By insisting upon a retreat to the home as a prelude to our nation’s birth, God delivers a simple yet powerful message: As you prepare to begin your historical journey, stop and mark this evening within the societal unit most critical to your success. Remember always that your survival will depend upon the health of the family. If the family is strong, if the home fulfills its educational role, your people will be strong and your nation will endure. The Jewish home is and always has been the single most important educational unit in the perpetuation of our people. What our children learn at home, more than what they learn in any other setting, indelibly shapes both their knowledge of and attitude toward Jewish tradition and practice.

Furthermore, Jewish experience will be enriched across the centuries, not only by the nuclear family, but by the extended family, as well. God, therefore, insists that the Korban Pesach shall be “for each father’s home” as well as “for the household.”

B. “And if the household shall be too small for a lamb, then he and his neighbor who is near to his home shall take…” Moving beyond the family unit, the text arrives at the second foundation of Jewish society: the community.

The family unit, as important as it is, cannot operate in a vacuum. Each household will be required, at times, to reach beyond its walls, either to ask for or to offer assistance and support. God, therefore, instructs any family that cannot perform the Pesach rituals on its own to turn outward. If neighbors work together, creating communal institutions of mutual support, the nation they build will survive and thrive.

An apparent redundancy in the text underscores the mindset that must characterize these shared communal endeavors. A neighbor is, by definition, an individual who lives in close proximity to another. Why, then, does the Torah state that the Korban Pesach should be shared with “his neighbor who is near to his home”?

Perhaps the text stresses that we should adopt an attitude toward our neighbors that defines them as “near to our home.” By recognizing the vulnerabilities, rights and dreams that we and our neighbors all share, we will be moved to assist those around us to reach their goals, even as we strive to achieve our own.

C. “Each man according to his ability to eat shall be counted for the lamb.” Finally, the Torah reminds us that no individual can escape the obligations raised by the third societal foundation: personal responsibility.

Strong families and communities can, at times, serve as a refuge for those who wish to escape the burdens of their own obligations. After all, if there are others to “do the job,” why should we?

Such an attitude clearly robs our people of essential human resources. Each and every individual has a unique and invaluable contribution to make to our nation’s story – a contribution that is solely his or her own. God therefore symbolically demands that the computation concerning the size of each Korban Pesach be based upon the full participation of all involved in that korban. Our national aspirations will be fully met only if “each man” performs “according to his ability.”

Gathering in their homes on the first Pesach Eve of our nation’s history, our ancestors ritually underscored the three societal foundations that would make their nation’s journey enduring. Centuries later, we commemorate that moment by underscoring the very same foundations. We gather in extended family units in the comfort of our homes; we invite others to join us, even formalizing our invitation through the recitation of a special paragraph (Ha lachma anya); and we encourage the personal participation of each and every individual at the Seder, young and old alike.

III. Hurry Up and Wait

A third lesson emerges from the notion of ritualized haste and urgency that seems so central to the observance of the Korban Pesach: “And so shall you consume it: your loins girded, your shoes on your feet and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste; it is a Passover offering to God.”

At face value, this sense of haste seems totally unnecessary.

The Exodus is not a sudden, unexpected event. The conclusion of Egyptian exile was clearly predicted as far back as the days of Avraham (see my Unlocking the Torah TextBereishit, Lech Lecha 4; Vayeishev 3). The Israelites themselves have been waiting and hoping for this moment over centuries of servitude. To further complicate matters, as explained above, when Pharaoh finally urges the Israelites to leave Egypt during the night, Moshe insists that the departure take place in broad daylight, midday of the following day.

Why introduce a sense of urgency into the Korban Pesach when the departure from Egypt could well have been experienced in a calm, ordered fashion?

Once again, through ritual, the Torah conveys an idea that cannot be ignored: Great opportunities are often presented in swiftly fleeting moments. While it is true that the moment of the Exodus had been predicted and anticipated for centuries, when that moment finally arrives, an instantaneous decision on the part of each Israelite is required. Hesitation will prove fatal. Only those individuals decisive and courageous enough to leave a known existence for the unknown will merit becoming part of the glorious story of their people. Those who miss this small temporal window of opportunity will be too late and will disappear into the mists of history. The difficulties inherent in the choice to leave Egypt are reflected in the rabbinic tradition that only a small percentage of the Israelites ultimately depart.

(As we will note in our further studies, the challenge presented by fleeting opportunities is further ritualized in another Seder symbol: matza, unleavened bread – see pp.136–38).

Finally, we consider one strikingly strange instruction associated with the ritualized haste surrounding the Korban Pesach. “And so shall you consume [the Korban Pesach]: your loins girded, your shoes on your feet and your staff in your hand.”

Why must the Israelites eat the Korban Pesach already prepared for a journey that will only begin on the morrow? Certainly there will be time to dress appropriately and pick up staffs after the ritual is concluded. Is this detail simply a further demonstration of symbolic speed, or is there an even deeper lesson to be learned?

Commenting on this extraordinary scene, the rabbis only seem to muddy the waters further: “Rabbi Yossi Haglili stated: ‘Here the text comes to provide good advice for travelers, that they should be energetic.’”

What, exactly, is Rabbi Yossi adding to the mix? Are the rituals of the first Korban Pesach to be reduced to “good advice for travelers,” conveying a lesson that is already clearly self-evident?

Upon consideration, however, Rabbi Yossi’s observation emerges as a brilliant example of rabbinic methodology, which often couches complex, critical lessons in easily remembered tales and pictures. According to Rabbi Yossi, the Torah proposes that, from the moment of the Korban Pesach, all Jews become “travelers” in the journey of our people across the face of history. As we travel along that long and arduous road, one talent becomes critical to our survival – a talent captured in the image of the Israelites dressed for tomorrow’s journey the night before. Somehow, we have to learn to be prepared for tomorrow’s challenges today.

In generation after generation, in society after society, the descendants of the Israelites will confront ever-changing circumstances and challenges. At times, change may occur so rapidly and so totally as to seem impossible to predict. Most often, however, the seeds of these transformations will be visible in advance to those perceptive and energetic enough to notice.

At the dawn of their national history, in the darkness of the night, a people gather in groups to eat a family meal while fully prepared for a journey that will only begin on the morrow. From that time on, that people’s ability to determine and prepare for changes before they emerge full-blown will be central to their success and survival.

“Who is truly wise? He who sees that which is a-borning.”

The story is told of the Jewish optician who lives in Berlin in the 1930s. Noting the events taking place around him, he decides to emigrate to Israel. To inform his patients of his departure, he places a sign outside his of fice: “For all of you who are nearsighted, there is a doctor around the corner. For all of you who are farsighted, follow me.” While the story is poignant, it is also, of course, simplistic. How can we judge, from the safety of our own environment, the issues that must have confronted the Jewish community of Europe in the years leading up to World War II? Had we been there, would we have believed that countries such as Germany – representing the height of civilization at the time – could possibly commit the unspeakable atrocities that were to come? Are we so certain that, ensconced comfortably in homes that had been ours for decades, we would have been able to pick up and leave?

And yet…the facts remain. Had we been more intuitive, had we listened to what was being said by the Nazis, had we mobilized in the face of impending danger – who knows how many would have been saved?

We must also ask: Are we any better equipped today? Would we see the danger signs looming on the horizon of our own exiles in time to make a difference? Are some of those signs already appearing? Are we sensitive not only to the open physical threats against us but also to the subliminal philosophical dangers that so often lie beneath our radar screen?

We would do well to keep the image of the first Pesach table before us as we continue our travels. The lessons learned around it continue to inform our journey to this day.