IN EVERY GENERATION, PART ONE: STANDING IN THE SHOES OF SLAVES.
First Dvar Torah For Pesach (Shabbat HaGadol) 5770.
Between this morning and Yizkor, on the eighth day of Pesach, we are going to look at one famous passage of the Mishnah, the tradition of Jewish oral law. This Mishnah, which is quoted in full in the Haggadah, is one of the liturgical and spiritual centers of the Haggadah and the Pesach seder. I want to learn it with you from three different perspectives as we celebrate the holiday together. Please look with me at the text of the Mishnah, Tractate Pesahim 10:5:
Rabban Gamliel said: “Whoever has not referred to these three matters connected to the Passover has not fulfilled his obligation (to tell the Passover story), and these are they: Passover, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs.
Passover: because the Omnipresent passed over the houses of our ancestors in Egypt.
Unleavened bread: because our ancestors were redeemed in Egypt.
Bitter herbs: because the Egyptians embittered the lives of our ancestors in Egypt.
In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he personally has gone forth from Egypt, since it is said (in the Torah), “And you shall tell your son on that day, saying, ‘It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt. (Exodus 13:8)’”
Therefore we are obligated to thank, praise, glorify, honor, exalt, extol, and bless the One who performed for our ancestors and for us all these miracles. God brought us forth from:
Slavery to freedom, anguish to joy, mourning to festival, darkness to great light, subjugation to redemption.
So, we should say before God, Halleluyah! (that is, the psalms of Hallel, Ps. 113-118.)”
Some background information will help us understand this passage more completely. Our teacher, Rabban Gamliel, lived in the land of Israel and was the patriarch of the Jewish community there in the decades immediately following the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans. He hailed from the family of the great Hillel, and was the preeminent religious leader of his time. Rabban Gamliel derived his ruling about the obligation to talk about Passover, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs during the telling of the Exodus story at the Seder from the famous verse in Exodus, 12:8: “They shall eat the flesh of the Passover offering that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs.” Exodus 12 contains God’s instructions to our ancestors concerning the first Passover meal prior to their leaving Egypt. Whatever the Torah’s original reason for the Passover offering and for eating these three foods together, our teacher offered three unique explanations for them that are not found explicitly in the Bible, all of which emphasize the dual experience of slavery and redemption from slavery. Note that his entire teaching then transforms the Torah’s commandment into a three-fold obligation of continuity, remembrance and gratitude.
The first obligation—continuity: In the wake of the trauma of the Romans’ destruction of Jerusalem and the holy Temple, Rabban Gamliel directed the Jewish community to continue offering the Passover sacrifice –in their time a rapidly fading memory- through words: the words of the retelling of the Passover story and the words recalling the Passover sacrificial ritual through which our ancient ancestors prepared for freedom. For Rabban Gamliel, Temple or no Temple, Roman occupation or no Roman occupation, freedom or no freedom, all Jews then, now, and always were, are, and will be preparing joyously for the Exodus through the Passover sacrifice.
The second obligation—memory: Rabban Gamliel then took one step further. Not only are you and I obligated to continue offering the Passover, howbeit in a different way. We are also obligated to see ourselves as having personally been slaves who were liberated from Egypt by God and Moses. This is an intriguing psychological dimension that our teacher adds to the celebration of Passover. My telling of the Passover story is not a mere retelling of someone’s else’s history: it is my history, a traumatic experience of transition from slavery to freedom that happened to me. In its original context, the proof verse used by Rabban Gamliel to make his point was originally addressed to the Israelites who actually left Egypt and were on their way to the land of Canaan. He turned it into a verse applying to all of us for all time. For him, regardless of time and place, all Jews, then, now and always, are tasting the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of freedom.
The third obligation—gratitude: Rabban Gamliel understood that constantly reliving the experience of redemption from slavery should naturally lead to spontaneous, and uncontained, expressions of thankfulness to God for transforming us and our situation. After all, if we are always at the crossroads of slavery and freedom with our ancestors, then the trauma and catharsis of that experience is always ours, and our gratitude should be a spiritual and moral no brainer! However, he also understood human nature well enough to comprehend that, left to our own devices and at an increasing distance from the original experience of freedom and redemption, we will not feel or express gratitude for the most part. Such is the narcissism and lethargy of human experience, especially when a person or people take freedom for granted. Conversely, the actual experience of suffering oppression distracts us from genuine gratitude because who can feel thankful for freedom when one is immersed in slavery? I suspect that when Rabban Gamliel and his fellow Jews were surrounded by the living evidence of their own oppression at Roman hands, their natural motivation to thank God for freedom was likely pretty weak.
Yet these reasons are precisely why his teaching is set up as a series of three obligations, not pious suggestions or requests. Under the best conditions of freedom, a person will not make great efforts remember the oppressions of the past, and would certainly not try to imagine that experience as a living, personal one. Under the worst conditions of oppression, a person would not feel overly thankful for deliverances of the past, and would certainly not be so inclined to see God or any force in his or her life as a redemptive presence. Rabban Gamliel’s teaching worked so well in the past, and it works so well now, because it is a powerful personal and communal discipline that applies universally. Using ritual, psychology, and spirituality, it directs us to do what we find hardest to do under the best and worst circumstances: feel and live like slaves crossing over to freedom, who can internalize that experience and apply it to the seder and to our everyday lives. In words, deeds, and feelings, Rabban Gamliel, the seder ritual, and Judaism call us to choose the actions, the words, the feelings, and lives of free people. That is not only what gives us purpose as Jews, it is what gives us dignity as human beings.