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Oppression and Redemption: A Pesach Reflection
Douglas Aronin

Although there are many commentaries on the Haggadah that seek to draw broad religious or moral messages from its words, the Haggadah's text itself for the most part doesn't do that.  Rather, the messages articulated by the maggid section of the Haggadah (the section through which we fulfill our obligation to tell the story of the Exodus) are for the most part directly related to either the underlying story or the observance of Pesach.

There is, however, one obvious exception: the paragraph Vehi she'amdah, which serves as a transition between the introductory section of the maggid and the recitation and commentary on the encapsulation of the Exodus story contained in Deut. 26:5-8. To symbolize the transitional nature of the passage, it is customary for us to raise our wine cups and cover the matzah when we recite it: "This [promise] stood for our fathers and for us.  For not only one rose against us to destroy us; rather, in every generation they rise against us to destroy us, and the Holy One, blessed be He saves us from their hands."

So why is it that on this particular issue -- the implacability of our enemies and God's recurring intervention to rescue us from them -- the Haggadah departs from its usual reluctance to draw lessons not directly related to Pesach?

One possible explanation is psychological: perhaps the editor of the Haggadah sensed that Jews subject to persecution needed the reassurance that just as God had redeemed the Jewish people from the oppression of Egyptian slavery, so He would in time redeem them from the oppressions that they continue to suffer.

But there is another possibility. Perhaps the ongoing cycle of oppression and redemption of which the Exodus is the prototype is an integral part of the story of Pesach itself. Maybe the Haggadah's implicit point is that we cannot fulfill our obligation to recount the story of our redemption from Egyptian slavery without making explicit that the story of Pesach is but the preeminent example of the ongoing story of the Jewish people, a story in which we have frequently suffered at the hands of various nations but have been consistently saved by God's intervention.

That may be the point of a fascinating Talmudic discussion which the Haggadah alludes to but does not directly quote. That discussion (beginning in Berakhot 12b), between Ben Zoma and the Sages, focuses on whether we will continue to remember the Exodus from Egypt even in the Messianic era.

Ben Zoma states that once the Messiah comes, the Messianic redemption will so eclipse the redemption from Egypt that we will no longer be obligated to remember the earlier redemption. He bases this on two verses from Jeremiah (23:7-8, JPS translation): "Assuredly a time is coming -- declares the Lord -- when it shall no longer be said 'As the Lord lives Who brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt,' but rather 'As the Lord lives, Who brought out and led the offspring of the House of Israel from the northland and from all the lands to which I have banished them.' "   The Sages disagree with Ben Zoma's interpretation, understanding the prophetic verses as meaning not that the redemption from Egypt will be completely eclipsed but rather that it will become secondary to the ultimate redemption.

This Talmudic discussion is prompted by the Mishna (Berakhot 1:5), which (except for the first few words) is incorporated in the Haggadah: "Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: 'I am like a 70-year-old man, yet I did not succeed in proving that the Exodus from Egypt must be mentioned at night until Ben Zoma explained the verse (Deut. 16:3) "in order that you may remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life." The days of your life would mean only the days; the inclusion of the additional word "all" indicates the inclusion of the nights.' The Sages, however, say that the days of your life would mean only the present world; the additional word 'all' indicates also the days of Messiah." (Translation from Reiner and Peerless, "Studies on the Haggadah from the teachings of Nechama Leibowitz.")

In its context in the Mishna, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah's statement relates to the obligation to recite the third paragraph of Shema in the evening. Since the focus of that paragraph (Numbers 15:37-41) is the mitzvah of tzitzit (fringes), which are required only during the day, one might think that this third paragraph should only be recited during the day. According to R. Elazar be Azariah, Ben Zoma's explanation of the apparently superfluous word "all" provides a scriptural basis for the practice of reciting the third paragraph in the evening as well as the morning.

But while R. Elazar's statement in the Mishna may focus on the recitation of Shema, that does not seem to be Ben Zoma's focus. On its face, the dispute between Ben Zoma and the Sages is a limited one. Both agree that, according to the prophetic verses, the advent of the Messianic era will overshadow the redemption from Egypt; they disagree only as to whether the former will completely displace the latter.  Perhaps Ben Zoma's view is anchored in his need for the word "all" ("kol" in Hebrew) to prove that the commandment to remember the Exodus from Egypt daily applies to the night as well as the day.

And that premise, quite apart from its application to Shema, is a critical one. For it is at night, when the world seems darkest, that we most need to remember the Exodus. The Torah commands us to remember the Exodus not just on Pesach but on all the days -- and nights -- of our lives, so that its reassuring message of God's overarching protection will be with us when we need it most. That, I suspect, is why the Haggadah in Vehi she'amdah makes explicit the cyclical nature of the Jewish experience of oppression and redemption.

And that too is why we end the Seder with words -- "Next year in Jerusalem" -- that express our longing for the Messianic era, in which that seemingly endless cycle will finally be broken.

Chag kasher vesameach -- a joyous and kosher Passover to one and all.