How Should We Tell the Story? — Thoughts for the Seder in Memory of Niot z”l

Haim Watzman

This is a Hebrew translation of my annual dvar Torah for Pesach in memory of my son Niot z”l, whom we lost nine years ago during Pesach. The Hebrew original, in this week’s issue of “Shabbat Shalom,” the weekly Torah sheet published by Oz Veshalom, the religious peace movement, can be found here.

I was in shock at the first Seder I celebrated in Israel, in 1979, just a few months after I made aliyah. I was volunteering at the time in a development town in northern Israel plagued by poverty and unemployment. The mother of one of the teenagers I was working with invited me to celebrate the Seder with her family. When we reached the Ten Plagues, the son who was reading the Haggadah explained that, as he named each plague, we were to dip our little fingers into our wine and shake off a drop of it into our plates. He warned that we were forbidden to drink this wine because, by taking this wine out of our cups, we were cursing the Egyptians.

At every Seder I had attended up to that point, most of them led by my father z”l, we learned that we took these drops of wine from our cups to demonstrate that our joy at being redeemed from slavery cannot be complete. Even though the Egyptians who enslaved and oppressed us were evil, this symbolic act made us aware that our freedom came at the price of the lives of large numbers of Egyptians.

I was certain that the family hosting me in that development town was simply ignorant of the correct interpretation of the custom. But when I looked into the matter,

I realized that the practice has been explained in more than one way in Jewish tradition. Indeed, it seems likely that, over the centuries, more Jewish families have cursed the Egyptians with their drops of wine than have regretted the loss of Egyptian lives.

The experience of that first Seder in Israel led me to understand that, each time we sit down to celebrate the Seder, we must make a choice about what messages we want to pass on to the other participants. The Seder night is, before all else, an event at which we convey messages. Nearly every custom and line in the Haggadah invites us to choose between different interpretations.

Principally, we must decide how to portray our bondage in Egypt. Why was it necessary for the Israelites to spend generations as slaves? The sources offer two possibilities. Slavery in Egypt can be seen as punishment for a sin, or as an educational experience.

Given that God is called “the judge of all the earth” (Genesis 18:25), it is only natural to view any event as harsh and long as the Egyptian bondage as the punishment for a sin. On one account it is punishment for the sins committed by the Israelites in Egypt. According to one midrash, “when Joseph died, they ceased to observe circumcision” (Exodus Rabba 1:10). According to another, the Israelites sought to assimilate: “‘And the land was filled with them’: the theaters and circuses filled with them” (Yalkut Shimoni 1, 147, 262).

Other sources place the onus on Abraham. For example, R. Yohanan (Babylonian Talmud 32a) sees slavery in Egypt as punishment for Abraham’s consent to the offer made to him by the king of Sodom after the war of the four kings against the five kings: “Give me the persons, and take the possessions for yourself” (Genesis 14:21). As R. Yohanan understands it, in agreeing to this, Abraham conceded to the king prisoners who would otherwise have “come under the wings of the divine presence.” In other words, Abraham should have taken these people to be his followers.

Those who take the second view, that slavery in Egypt was meant to educate the Israelites, offer different ideas about what its message was meant to be. But they all agree that God sent the Israelites into Egypt in order to instill in them a message that could be learned only through experience. In his thought-provoking article in a recent issue of “Shabbat Shalom,” for parshat Bo this year, Shlomo Fuchs quoted the following passage from the Talmud Yerushalmi (3:5), where R. Shmuel bar R. Yitzhak interprets the verse “So the Lord spoke to both Moses and Aaron in regard to the Israelites” (Exodus 6:13): “What did he command them? The laws of liberating slaves.” In other words, the experience of being slaves in Egypt was meant to teach the Jewish people the importance of releasing their own slaves. While the Torah allows Jews to keep slaves, this passage indicates that they are obligated to free them.

Nechama Leibowitz, addressing the verse “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20), writes: “This is the reason for the exile in Egypt at its inception as a nation, and that is the reason they remained in the house of bondage and of their suffering prior to receiving the Torah and coming to the Promised land—they were to feel on their own flesh what slavery and humiliation were, and what it mean to be subject to the
oppression and depredations of an evil human regime.”

Can the tension between these two approaches be resolved? Is it better to view slavery in Egypt as a punishment for a sin, or as an educational experience? I think the answer to that question can only be given in context—it is the circumstances that Jews find themselves in that must dictate which view is most appropriate. When we gather for the Seder in our homes, we are performing an educational precept, a custom that is meant to convey a message to the next generation. So it is logical to present slavery as an educational experience rather than a punishment. But there is another context that applies to many of my readers. We are celebrating the Seder in the State of Israel. Unlike earlier generations who lived in exile, we are not celebrating Pesach as a weak and dispersed people but as a strong nation in its own land.

The family with whom I celebrated my first Seder in Israel, forty-one years ago, observed it as their ancestors had done in Morocco. They learned there that the drops of wine taken out of their cups while reciting the Ten Plagues were intended as a curse against foreign overlords who oppressed the Jews. It’s likely that my own forefathers in Eastern Europe understood the custom in the same way. Jews living in exile had good reason to want to curse their oppressors, and doing so at the Seder gave them a sense of strength and hope. My father, born and bred in an America in which Jews enjoyed rights that they had never enjoyed anywhere else in history, needed a different interpretation. As America’s Jews felt fairly secure, they were able to turn their thoughts from themselves to the Others in the story.

In Israel today, where Jews are a majority, it is imperative that we present our enslavement in Egypt as a harsh experience that taught us a lesson. We need to impart the messages offered by Shlomo Fuchs and Nechama Leibowitz. As I see it, the message I heard at my first Seder in that development town befit Jews who still felt themselves to be slaves and the victims of oppression. The view that being slaves in Egypt was an experience intended to teach us an important lesson about our attitudes toward the weak members of our society seems to me to be the necessary one for Jews living as a majority in Israel today.

Niot’s memory helps Israeli teenagers with learning difficulties through The Niot Project .

Please make a donation to enable us to continue to provide this help while schools are closed because of the current pandemic.

Previous thoughts on Pesach in memory of Niot:

The Four Slaves (2019)

The Third Child (2018)

Who Walks In? (2017)

The Missing Center (2016)

The Question of Questions (2015)

The Bitterness of Egypt (2012)

1 thought on “How Should We Tell the Story? — Thoughts for the Seder in Memory of Niot z”l”

  1. Thanks Haim-will be using this in our seder
    In addition Corona can be A sort of period where we are limited in freedoms and are able to appreciate the freedom in our lives.

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