The Hole in the Haggadah — Thoughts for the Seder in Memory of my son 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 eleven years ago during Pesach. A pdf file of the Hebrew original, which appears in this week’s issue of “Shabbat Shalom,” the weekly Torah sheet published by Oz Veshalom, the religious peace movement, can be downloaded here.

Nothing is more present than an absence. In an event, as in a story, that which is not stated explicitly, and the person who does not speak, are sometimes the most important. This truth stands out in our family on Pesach. This year we will gather for our Seder for the eleventh time without our son and brother Niot, who left us after the first day of Pesach and never returned.

Toward the end of Chapter 4 of the Pesahim tractate of the Babylonian Talmud (54b), the rabbis adduce a puzzling bereita that seems unconnected to the surrounding material. The chapter’s central subject is the differing customs regarding the time of the Pesach sacrifice and other tasks that need to be accomplished on 14 Nisan, before the Seder that evening. The bereita states:

The Sages taught: Seven matters are concealed from people, and they are: [The] day of death; and the day of consolation; the profundity of justice; and a person does not know what is in the heart of another; and a person does not know in what [way] he will earn a profit; [and] when the monarchy of the house of David will be restored; and when the wicked monarchy will cease.

Among these concealed things, I want to focus on the two that are, for me, most present at the Seder since Niot’s death: a person does not know the day of his death, and cannot truly know what is happening in the heart of another person. Both of these are part of the journey we take on Seder night through the Haggadah. They do not appear explicitly in the text of the Haggadah, but they are present absences.

And they are connected to a precept that lies at the center of the laws of Pesach but which is absent from the Haggadah—the injunction not to leave any remains of the Pesach sacrifice until morning.

The Pesach sacrifice becomes what the halakhah governing sacrifices terms a remainder (notar) at sunrise on the 15th of Nisan, the morning after the Seder. But that dawn never arrives in the Haggadah itself. On the contrary, the Haggadah is a book of the night, from “Why is this night different from all other nights,” to the sages who discussed the Exodus from Egypt all night, to the verse “For that night I will go through the land of Egypt and strike down every first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and I will mete out punishments to all the gods of Egypt, I the Lord” (Ex. 12:12), and ending with the afikoman, which we are enjoined to eat before midnight.

The Haggadah’s focus on the night creates a picture that the Exodus from Egypt occurred at night—even though the story as told in the book of Exodus does not make it clear whether it indeed happened at night or the next morning. There are verses that point to the night: “And Pharaoh arose in the night, with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians—because there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead. He summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said, “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship the LORD as you said!” (Ex. 12:30–31). But there are others that, according to some commentators, indicate that the Children of Israel left Egypt in the morning, for example: “Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts. None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning” (Ex. 12:22).

Whatever the ambiguity regarding the hour of the Exodus, there is one event that unambiguously occurs in the night. Pharaoh and all his servants and all the people of Egypt awaken in the middle of the night and discover that their oldest children have died in their homes. Death has passed over only the houses of the Israelites, where, the previous day, they slaughtered the Pesach sacrifice and smeared its blood over their doorposts, before roasting it and eating its flesh. They were permitted to eat the meat all night if they wished, but any of it that remained at dawn had to be burned.

But the command not to eat the remainder would seem to be superfluous because, that night, in the middle of the first Seder, a great cry was heard throughout Egypt. And Pharaoh immediately summoned Moses and Aaron and ordered them to take their people out of Egypt. Whether the journey began at night, or whether they waited until morning, from this moment on the people were busy packing and making arrangements. So what happened to the remainders of the Pesach sacrifice? The verses in Exodus say nothing about it being burned. Presumably there were those who quickly ate whatever remained. Others, perhaps, in violation of the law, shoved the remaining meat into their bundles, because in just a short while they would turn from slaves into refugees, and refugees never know where they will find their next meal. We do not know, because there is a hole in the Haggadah exactly where we would expect to see the observance of this precept.

If read in this context, the bereita I quoted above sounds like a description of the panic that quickly spread among both the Egyptians and the Children of Israel. The Egyptians, sure of themselves and their power over their slaves, were staggered by death’s incursion into their homes, something they had never thought could happen. In the course of a single night they turned into a nation of bereaved parents. The Children of Israel, in the frenzy of preparing for their journey from slavery to freedom, could not know, and presumably had no interest in understanding, what was happening in the hearts of the Egyptians.

I suggest that the remainder of the Pesach sacrifices represents both these states of mind. When the Children of Israel made the Pesach sacrifice and painted its blood on their doorposts, they knew what the Egyptians did not know—the day, actually the night, that death would come. The remainder of the Pesach sacrifice that they ate frantically that night or on their journey the next day signifies for us, today, the obligation to acknowledge the mourning of the Egyptians. This does not mean, of course, that the Egyptians were unjustly punished—after all, in the end it was only this horrifying blow, the tenth of the plagues, that impelled them to free their slaves. And even then, they very quickly regretted their leniency and tried to recapture the refugees. Nevertheless, just as we are commanded to acknowledge and be grateful for the justice of God’s judgment, so we must also endeavor, difficult as it may be, to feel what happened in the hearts of our enemies.

None of this appears in the Haggadah. It is an abyss that gapes there, on the festival of our freedom. But its very absence demands our attention. In my case, this absence is amplified by a personal absence, that of my son Niot z”l, the person most present at my Seder.

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

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Previous thoughts on Pesach in memory of Niot:

Henry V’s Distressful Bread (2021)

How Should We Tell the Story? (2020)

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)