Thoughts on Pesach

The Haggadah

Teaching the Children

There is a positive Torah commandment to relate the story of the Exodus on the night of the fifteenth of Nisan. It is praiseworthy to relate, and elucidate at length, the great kindness Hashem showed us by saving us from the Egyptians and taking revenge upon them for us; to explain the significance of the signs and wonders that Hashem performed  at that time for our sake; to discuss the laws of Pesach;, and to express our gratification to Hahem for all that He did for us. The essence of themitzvah is to relate these matters to our children, as it is written, “You shall tell your son on this day, saying, ‘It is because of this that Hashem did for me when I went out of Egypt’” (Shemot, 13:8). Even a person who does not have children is commanded by the Torah to recall the Exodus on Pesach night, as it is written, “Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, from the house of bondage, for it was by strength of hand that the Lord took you out from there” (ibid. 3).

Nonetheless, according to the Torah,  the essence of the mitzvah is to relate the story of the Exodus  to the children, and this is stated in many verses. As such, this mitzvah is different from all other mitzvot, for though we are commanded to educate our children in the performance of all other precepts (likeobserving Shabbat, to eating kosher, the recital of blessings, and prayer) our duty to instruct them is  rabbinic in origin. Only regarding two mitzvot are we commanded by the Torah to educate our children: the mitzvah to relate the story of the Exodus, and the mitzvah of Torah study. This is because these commandments are so fundamental, they build the character of the Jewish child. Through the story of the Exodus, children come to recognize the greatness of the Creator Who watches over His creatures, and they learn that Hashem chose us from among all the other peoples to be His special Nation. And through Torah study, children learn to live in a manner that gives expression to the unique relationship between Israel and our Father in Heaven

It is interesting that the obligation to study Torah also begins with children, as the verse states, “You shall teach them to your children, to talk of them” (Devarim 11:19). Chazal explain that he who is obligated to teach his son Torah must himself study Torah (Kiddushin 29b). From this we can learn that the fundamental goal of the Torah is to positively influence others  and add life to the world, not just to elevate the individual Jew. Therefore, the Torah emphasizes in this commandment the obligation to teach the children, for the essential goal of the Torah is to influence  the entire people of Israel in every generation. Obviously, it follows that every individual is commanded to study Torah according to his ability. What is more, when a person studies in order to teach others, his study is more thorough and meaningful. Therefore, the primary emphasis of the mitzvah to relate the story of the Exodus is to pass the tradition on to the children, and it obviously follows that the father too is commanded to study about the Exodus for himself. In fact, parents themselves learn the Haggadah better when they know they have to teach it to their children.

The Central Message of the Haggadah

In order to fully understand the aim of the Haggadah and the story of the Exodus from Egypt, we must reflect upon the question of the wise son and the answer he receives, for he is the ideal son, and we pray that all of our sons develop and advance to become wise like he is.

The wise son asks in a detailed manner, as it says, “When your son asks you in the future, saying, ‘What are the testimonies and decrees and ordinances that the Lord, our God, has commanded you?’ ” (Devarim, 6:20). At first the answer deals with the Exodus from Egypt, and then the explanation broadens to include the overall purpose of the Jewish People: to go to the Land of Israel, to cling to HaShem and fulfill all of His mitzvot, and to merit His Divine favor, as it is written, “You shall say to your son, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The Lord brought great and terrible miracles upon Egypt and upon Pharaoh and his entire household before our very eyes. He brought us out of there in order to bring us to the Land he promised to our fathers, and give it to us. The Lord commanded us to keep all of these laws,  to fear the Lord our God, for our good always,  that He might preserve us alive as we are today. And it shall be considered our virtue to keep and safeguard all these commandments, before the Lord our God, as He commanded us” (Devarim, 6:21-25). We see, then, that the aim of Leyl HaSeder is to implant in the hearts of our children the desire to belong to the Nation of Israel, to build the Promised Land, to cling to Hashem, and to perform all of His mitzvot. This great teaching is done through the story of the Exodus from Egypt.

In order to help us tell the story of the Exodus to the wise son without leaving out any of its essential components, the Men of the Great Assembly, who lived at the beginning of the Second Temple period, instituted the text of the Haggadah. Over the generations, the great TanaimAmoraim, and Geonim, also added passages containing important fundamentals relating to themitzvot of the Haggadah. Finally, about eight- hundred years ago, an agreed upon version was accepted by the congregations of Israel, based on the Haggadah of Rav Amram Gaon.

The text of the Haggadah, then, is the comprehensive story, and whoever recites it covers all essential aspects of the Exodus from Egypt. Nonetheless, the more one explains the Haggadah and expands upon it with illuminating ideas, stories, and laws related to Pesach and the Exodus, the more praiseworthy he is.

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