The Meaning of the Seder (Part 2)

Recounting the story

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God's Promise

After recallingAbraham's spiritual journey to God and his ascent to Eretz Yisrael [the land of Israel], the Haggadah will recount the descent of his great grandchildren to Egyptian slavery ("The Wandering Aramean"). But first the Haggadah reassures us, as God did to Abraham, that there is a divine pledge to Jewish continuity whatever the ups and downs of history.

The Plagues

We spill drops of wine while reciting each of the Ten Plagues.It is a medieval custom to dip one's finger in the seder's second cup of wine and to remove 16 drops of wine. As each plague is recited we decrease our own joy, drop by drop, as we recall the enemy's pain. Besides the ten plagues, the extra six drops correspond to the three prophetic plagues mentioned by the prophet Joel--blood, fire, and smoke--and the three word abbreviation of the ten plagues invented by Rabbi Yehuda--d'tzach, adash, b'achab.

The spilling of the 16 drops has been understood traditionally in opposite ways. Either it signifies sympathy for the enemy Egyptians who suffered as a result of the painful process of liberating the Jews from Egyptian tyranny, or it reaffirms the righteous vengeance of God's sword exercising judgment against a relentless, cruel, and stubborn oppressor.

Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, the 12th century Spanish physician and poet, explained the division of plagues into twos:

Two plagues from the water (blood and frogs from the Nile).

Two plagues from the earth (lice and wild animals).

Two plagues from air-carried infections (plague and boils).

Two plagues from air-carried damages (hailstorms and locusts).

Two plagues from supernatural acts (darkness caused by an eclipse and the plague of the first born).

Dayyenu: How Much is Enough?

"Had God but split the sea, and not passed us through it on dry land, it would have been enough." How could it have been enough? Had Israel not escaped through the Red Sea, they would have been slaughtered by the Egyptians!

The point of the poem is to express gratitude for every facet of God's miraculous deliverance. There is a sense that the Exodus, which reached its fulfillment in the entry into the land and the building of the Temple (a process of over 400 years!) unfolded in many steps, each constituting a miracle in itself. The poet feels the living power of each gesture of divine favor, irrespective of the total result. Had You only done this and no more, it would have been enough for me to feel Your divine love.

The principle of "dayyenu," of giving thanks even for the partial and incomplete, is crucial for living in this uncertain world in which few dreams ever come to total fruition. We thank God every day for the miracle of being alive. In learning gratitude to God, we also learn to show gratitude to parents, teachers, loved ones, and friends, even when their efforts fall short of completeness.

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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.