What Freedom?

Conventional wisdom holds that the Passover seder is a celebration of our liberation from slavery in Egypt. But the Hagaddah really has a different agenda.

by Rabbi Judah Kogen

Conventional wisdom holds that the Passover seder is a celebration of our liberation from slavery in Egypt. But imagine the Jews who celebrated the holiday while living under the Spanish Inquisition. Or those enduring the evil empires of ancient Rome or Czarist Russia. How could they have ignored the elephant in the room, namely, were they really better off than their ancestors had been as slaves in Egypt?

The Hagaddah, under the guise of celebrating liberation from Egypt, really has a different agenda. It is actually a template for a liberation that we anticipate from our present conditions of enslavement. This explains why we don’t tell the Passover story by recounting the narrative from the book of Exodus. Instead, the rabbis chose a Torah passage (from Deuteronomy 26) that makes no reference at all to Moses. And in the accompanying Midrash, the Haggadah makes very clear that our people were liberated by God himself, and not by an angel or by any other agent of God’s plan.

All this is necessary because the Hagaddah is meant to inspire our faith that history will repeat itself. If, as in the account in Exodus, Moses is a central figure, he is also indispensable. But for history to repeat itself, liberation has to be possible without Moses. At the end of the seder, as we complete our ritual of thanksgiving for the Exodus, we climactically proclaim, “Next year in Jerusalem.” More to the point, we invite Elijah the Prophet to join us. We do not assume that Elijah is present at every seder, like a Jewish Santa Claus. Rather we invite Elijah to play his most important role: announcing the coming of the Messiah. We thus celebrate the seder as if we were celebrating contemporary liberation. We give thanks for the miracles of the Exodus and anticipate the miracle of future redemption. We reenact the night of the Exodus – originally with the Passover sacrifice accompanied by unleavened bread and bitter herbs, now with a festive meal centered around the unleavened bread and bitter herbs and the retelling of the story of the Exodus. As in ancient times, we recite Hallel because these Psalms (particularly 114) are central to our giving thanks for liberation from slavery. We celebrate this night in such unique ways because it reflects the most fundamental experience in the birth of our people and because we believe its recurrence will be the basis of our people’s rebirth.

But even with this understanding, we still face a dilemma: Why on Passover do we explicitly not give thanks for our return to the land of Israel? Indeed, the passage in the Mishnah that tells us to include Deuteronomy 26 in the Passover seder, called for continuing to the end of the paragraph, through verse 11. Yet we end at verse 8. The reason is that the next verses give thanks for God bringing us “to this place…a land flowing with milk and honey.” Until the exile, the practice of reciting Hallel on the same night we recite these verses was the essence of the celebration of independence (before the exile). Ironically, the rabbis’ transformation of the Passover seder from a celebration of ancient liberation to the anticipation of future redemption deprived us of a biblically-mandated vehicle for commemorating Israel’s modern independence.

Still, how should the establishment of Israel affect our quest for liberation? Secularists have an easy answer: We celebrate Israel’s independence on Yom haAtzmaut while Passover is about the past. The religious right also has an easy answer: Nothing essential has changed so our hopes remain the same.

For those of us who are modern enough to celebrate the establishment of the state of Israel and traditional enough to be inspired by the message of Passover, the two observances actually overlap. We feel that what we pray for on Passover is at least partially fulfilled as we commemorate Israel’s Independence Day just a few weeks later. Many people, in fact, use the tools of tradition to go beyond parades and fireworks in celebrating Independence Day. We recite a new version of Al haNissim, from the celebrations of Chanukkah and Purim adapted to commemorate the founding of Israel, and we recite Hallel as we do on other festivals.

The destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, accompanied by our people’s loss of its ancestral homeland, was perceived by the rabbis as the greatest tragedy in our history. Everything about Judaism changed in the aftermath of these events. New patterns of worship and leadership were devised to substitute for ancient norms. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the introduction of the Passover seder as we know it, which replaced the ancient Passover feast. Since that time, we have left out the verses of thanksgiving for the land and its goodness and focus instead on a future redemption that will restore those blessings.

Today, as we bear witness to the fulfillment of an ancient dream, we celebrate Israel’s modern independence by reciting the same Psalms of Hallel that were at the core of our ancient independence day, while at the Passover seder, we continue to look ahead to the realization of the Messianic ideal in full measure.