The Seder is the central focus of Passover. During the Seder, there are a number of primary laws. We read the following in the Talmud (Pesachim 117a) and in the Haggadah: “Rabbi Gamliel taught, ‘Anyone who does not explain three matters on Passover, does not fulfill his obligation; 1) the Paschal lamb, 2) matza and 3) the bitter herbs’.” We wonder why these three elements are so central to Passover. How do these define the nature of the holiday? Another interesting feature is that there were two Passovers: an Egyptian Passover, and all others celebrated after the Torah was given. Why are there only one Sukkos, and one Shavuos? What aspect of Passover demands two versions? The Talmud and Haggadah also teach that we are obligated to view ourselves as if we were redeemed from Egypt, and that we must also recline while eating matza and drinking the four cups of wine to express this newfound freedom. And, “even if we are all wise…all knowing the Torah”, we are still obligated to recount the Exodus. But why? How can we learn more, if we already know this story inside out? We then read of every generation who attempts to destroy us, but that God saves us. We recount Laban’s evil, and God’s salvation; we recount at great length the Egyptians’ evils, and how God heard our cry, and saved us with miracles. Another law is that when reciting the Haggadah, we must recount our history, commencing with our degraded events and concluding with our praiseworthy status: we commence with our having been slaves and idolaters, and conclude with God’s redemption and granting us Torah. We follow this theme with the recital of Hallel, praising God. Astonishingly, our Haggadah that recounts so much about our life in Egypt and God’s plagues, mentions Moses just once: Maimonides’ Haggadah omits Moses’ name altogether. We would think Moses’ role in Passover should be present. Why is Moses of little or no focus? Although we have cited many laws, there is one reason for all of them…can you determine it? If not, let’s investigate further.
“Rabbi Gamliel taught, ‘Anyone who does not explain three matters on Passover, does not fulfill his obligation; the Paschal lamb, matza and the bitter herbs’.”
What is the significance of the Paschal lamb? As we recount our history in the Haggadah, we learn of our state as idolaters before Abraham’s times, and God’s oath to make us a great nation. We learn of our Egyptian bondage and God’s miracles. Why did God deliver so many plagues? God desired to direct Pharaoh and his people to the error in their ways, and each plague targeted another misconception. The first three plagues displayed God’s sovereignty over Earth; the next three, over Earthly events; and the last three, over the heavens. All three realms, Earth, the heavens, and all in between are shown to be under God’s control: the Egyptian gods could do nothing to deflect God’s plagues. Finally, when Pharaoh sustained his denial of God, God delivered a plague inexplicable by nature: firstborn deaths. Thereby, God taught conclusively of His exclusive reign as Creator and Governor of the universe: as He created everything, He alone controls all natural laws, and no realm escapes His control. We learn of our Egyptian bondage, and the central flaw of our oppressors: they worshipped something other than God. And we learn how God attempts to offer man truth before delivering the final blow.
To be entitled to freedom and accept a Torah from the true God, we must understand what “God” refers to. If we assume the Egyptian meaning, we do not deserve redemption. Thus, God commanded our sacrifice of the Egyptian deity, the Paschal lamb. It is only through this sacrifice, that we deny the false god and affirm the true God, earning our delivery from a bitter existence to taste freedom: embodied in matza, as it could not rise due to God’s swift delivery.
The Paschal lamb is the Egyptian god; an idolatrous culture which projects its fantasies onto reality, also projecting its need for human domination, which caused our embittered, slave existence. For this reason, when no Temple exists and no Paschal lamb is sacrificed, the bitter herbs also cannot be fulfilled as a Torah law, but are only Rabbinic. The bitter herbs (our bitter existence) result from the lamb-worshipping culture who feels favored by their gods, and who can justifiably oppress others who devour their God, “For the Egyptians could not eat bread together with the Hebrews, for it is an abomination to the Egyptians.” (Onkelos; Exod. 43:32)
Our Torah law reflects this relationship between idolatry and oppression, by commanding the bitter herbs only be eaten when the idolatrous Paschal lamb is present. Exodus 12:8 reads, “And you shall eat the flesh on that night, roasted by fire, with matza and bitter herbs you shall eat it (the Paschal lamb).” It teaches of the relationship between the matza and bitter herbs, that they depend on the Paschal lamb. Meaning, it is through the denial of the lamb-god that we earned a delivery from the bitter life, to taste freedom: the matza.
As Rabbi Gamliel teaches, explaining this triad forms our primary obligation in Haggadah: 1) killing the idolatrous Paschal lamb (Pesach) is the means by which we earn redemption from 2) bitterness (maror) to 3) freedom (matza). Without explaining these three, we do not fulfill our command, and for good reason.
The goal of Passover is to engender a feeling of appreciation for God, who took us out of Egypt. God transformed our slave nation into a dignified, free people who received Divine laws for our own good. To emphasize this contrast and to create our real sense of thanks, Passover is the only holiday possessing two forms: A) the Egyptian Passover, and B) all later Passovers. The objective of these two holidays is to highlight this very contrast of our having A) been slaves, and B) our present freedom. Samson Raphael Hirsch states the reason for the Egyptian Passover: we were to focus on our “current” bondage, eating poor man’s bread, bitter herbs and sacrificing the lamb…to be contrasted suddenly by God’s swift salvation. We must realize we did nothing to cause our salvation: it was God alone. This contrast is the key aspect of Passover. For it is only through contrasting bondage to freedom, that we might feel thankful to God. Therefore, Passover is the only holidays with two versions: since the holiday is one where “contrasting” our “bondage to freedom” is the focus, so as to engender our thanks for God’s kindness.
We therefore recline to embellish our freedom, and recount our tragedies followed by our successes, again offering a ‘contrast’ and thanks for the good God bestowed upon us. This explains why we are obligated to view ourselves as if we were redeemed from Egypt. Now, “even if we are wise…”, we are still obligated to recount the Exodus”. Why is this? The answer: this is not an exercise in “learning”, but in generating “appreciation”, something we must and can do yearly. So it matters none that we repeat what we know already, as wise, elderly Jews. For even at that prime age, we must renew our appreciation for God who redeemed us. And as our appreciation reaches its crescendo, we recite the Hallel, as an expression of our thanks, for true thanks would be lacking, if we were not moved towards expression. We might also suggest that Moses’ role is downplayed in the Haggadah, since God is to retain full focus of our appreciation.
Matza recalls poor man’s bread, but also teaches of God’s salvation. So when no Temple exists and the sacrifice cannot be brought, despite the absence of the means of our redemption – killing the Egyptian god – we may still eat matza, as matza embodies the “objective” of Passover. Of course we lack the complete picture portrayed in the triad of “Pesach, Matza and Maror”, nonetheless, Passover’s objective of matza – “redemption” – is significant enough to stand alone. So significant is the objective of freedom embodied in matza that the Torah verses command us in matza again by itself, (12:18) in addition to the matza commanded to be eaten with the Paschal lamb and the bitter herbs.
This holiday is called the “Holiday of Matzas” and not the “Holiday of Pesach” to emphasize the matza’s independent lesson, not reliant on the lamb or the herbs. However, bitter herbs are commanded only when the Paschal lamb is present, as we said, for they reflect the bitterness associated with the culture deifying the lamb-god. More precisely, our bitter bondage was a result of an idolatrous culture, devoid of Divine morality. Therefore, the two – bitter herbs and the lamb – are inseparable. We cannot talk about a bitter bondage if the cause of that bitterness – idolatry (the lamb) – is absent. So with no Paschal lamb, there are no bitter herbs. But since matza embodies the overall objective of “redemption”, and since the Torah commands eating matza even when no Paschal lamb is present, matza retains an independent role.
God designed us to find the most satisfaction when we engage our highest element: our intellects. It is our intellect that we sense as our center, and it is only when we engage our intellect that we will find the most profound sense of purpose and satisfaction. For this reason, God delivered us from Egyptian bondage, with the objective of giving us the Torah. Regardless of our state of affairs, the Torah lifestyle will definitely brings us towards fulfillment and happiness. Perhaps, it is for this reason that the Talmud teaches, even a poor person must recline, for even though impoverished and with no means, he must realize that the redemption applies to everyone and affects everyone, poor and rich alike. The Torah system was given to an entire “people”, not to an individual. As such, is must be God’s meaning that Torah improves everyone’s life. We commence the Haggadah with the words, “all who are in need, come and eat.”
Torah laws target specific areas, from relationships to objects of mitzva, from seasons to daily needs, and from actions to proper thoughts. Passover, which too contains many truths, carries the broader goal of imbuing us with an appreciation for God’s redemption. Truly, Passover targets the general feeling of “appreciating God”. It is through all these laws that Passover leads us towards recognition that God created us, and governs us with His intervention and His gift of Torah. It is only through following Torah law and philosophy, that we will indeed become joyous in our lives. With that thought, I wish a truly happy Passover to everyone.