The Meaning of the Seder (Part 2)

Recounting the story

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In beginning the seder with genuine (not rote) questions, the Rabbis show that we not only tellthe story of freedom, but we act like free people.

The Two Stories

After the youngest child has asked the four questions and everyone else has added their own questions, then it's time to tell the story that will explain why for us this night is different from all other nights. The Rabbis recommended:

"The parent should teach according to the intelligence and personality of each child. Begin with describing the degradation and culminate with the liberation" (Mishna Pesachim 10: 2).

However, Rav and Shmuel, the Babylonian rabbis, disagreed about the central story to be told at this point in the seder:

Shmuel said: Start with, "We were slaves in the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 6:20),and move from physical enslavement to political liberation.

Rav said: Start with Terah, Abraham's father and the state of idolatry to which we had descended. "Once upon a time our ancestors were slaves of idolatry who worshipped pagan gods, Now--since Mount Sinai--God has brought us close to the Divine service".

The editors of the Haggadah bring both stories: first Shmuel's "We were slaves" and later, after the Four Children, Rav's story.

The Importance of Memory

The Talmud relates that Ben-Zoma felt that the Messianic redemption would wipe out the memories of all previous troubles and rescues. The Rabbis insisted that while the Messianic redemption would be the greater one, we must still recall the earlier ones, including the Exodus.

This argument has to do with the importance of memory. For Ben-Zoma, contemporary events have the decisive weight. Some modern Zionist thinkers like David Ben-Gurion [Israel's first primer minister] seem to prefer this position, arguing that the founding of Israel has made 2000 years of exilic experience irrelevant. In their view, the Bible, reflecting the experience of a sovereign people in its land, must be the pivotal educating force for Jewish culture, not the Talmud which grew in the shadow of destruction and conquest by the Romans. Similarly, some might argue that the enormity of the Holocaust makes the recalling of all previous sufferings of the Jews seem trivial and irrelevant.

The Rabbis maintained that history should add, but not erase, memories. Recent dramatic historical events may indeed be accorded prominence, but we should never forget our earlier experiences. In their view, even in the Messianic Era--when war, poverty, and human suffering have been eradicated--it will still be incumbent to remember daily the saga of bondage and liberation.

The Four Children

The Rabbisturn the commandment of "ve-heegadta" ("you shall tell") into a mitzvah of dialogue, with give and take on both sides. Successful dialogue means that each side, and especially the side anxious to "pass on the message," be keenly attentive to what the other is saying and feeling--to the particular personality and his or her needs.

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Noam Zion

Noam Zion is the Director of Shalom Hartman Institute's Resource Center for Jewish Continuity. He specializes in teaching Jewish Holidays, Bible and Art, and has edited several educational books for the Shalom Hartman Institute.

David Dishon

David Dishon has been with the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978 and founded their Torani High School for Boys, where he currently teaches.