Insights into the Haggada: Part 1

Rabbi Dr. Darrel Ginsberg

The unifying experience of the seder night is indisputable.  Jews from around the world, regardless of religious background, gather together to mark the night of our exodus from Egypt. The centerpiece of the experience is the haggada, a guide to the main concepts one must internalize to make this night truly memorable. Within the magid section, where the story is brought to the forefront, we encounter different verses with explanations that seem to be the opposite of their intent. It is imperative to approach this material, analyze it and try to uncover the deep and formidable ideas lying underneath the words. In this two part series, we will analyze one section of verses and hopefully shed light on this momentous night. 

The crux of the magid involves the interpretation of the verses from the Torah that begin with “Arami oved avi…” At the end of these verses, we see the following:

 “The Lord took as out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and with a great manifestation, and with signs and wonders."

We then see a dissection of this verse, with each phrase or word being explained. As we will see, it is difficult to remain satisfied with the literal explanation offered in the haggada. 

The first of these interpretations seems to hone in on one point:

“The Lord took us out of Egypt," not through an angel, not through a seraph and not through a messenger. The Holy One, blessed be He, did it in His glory and by Himself! Thus it is said: ‘In that night I will pass through the land of Egypt, and I will smite every first-born in the land of Egypt, from man to beast, and I will carry out judgments against all the gods of Egypt, I the L-rd.’ ‘I will pass through the land of Egypt,’ I and not an angel; ‘And I will smite every first-born in the land of Egypt,’ I and not a seraph; ‘And I will carry out judgments against all the gods of Egypt,’ I and not a messenger; ‘I- the L-rd,’ it is I, and none other!”

As we can see, the primary theme here is that it was God and nobody else that took the Jewish people out of Egypt. What is interesting is the tie-in to the last of the ten plagues, the plague of the firstborn. Why was it through this plague that this idea of God being the sole Cause of the exodus is emphasized? There is one other description of God that, at first glance, may not catch one’s eye. When describing how God performed these actions, we see the following: “…in His glory (bekvodo) and by Himself (uv’atzmo).” Why is insufficient to just state that God did it by Himself? What is added by His glory? 

The connection to the tenth plague is, of course, no coincidence. In fact, as we will demonstrate throughout these different explanations, the objective of this piece in the haggada seems to be about bringing out different insights about the ten plagues. In this first statement referencing God’s hashgacha, or relationship to the universe, we see an important point. One of the main ideas that emerged through the exodus, with the plagues serving as the vehicle for it, is God’s complete dominion and control over nature. All the plagues had this feature attached to them, revealing that there was a Being who could manipulate the laws of nature. At the same time, the plagues were immense aberrations within nature. The tenth and final plague, though, stood apart from the others. It was this plague that truly and ultimately demonstrated that it was from God, and no other explanation would suffice. At an exact time on a specific day, a tremendous number of people sharing a completely arbitrary characteristic (first born) would die from an unexplained cause. There was no rational explanation, no scientific basis, no turning away from the reality that God was in control of the natural world. 

Within this idea lies the answer to the second question. God manifesting Himself in this manner served a two-fold purpose. On the one hand, it was imperative that the world see God operate in a manner that refuted any intermediary. This was one of the original errors made by the “original” idolaters, believing in God but maintaining that there were sub-deities. In this instance, God needed to refute this possible distortion – “by Himself”. On the other hand, this was an opportunity, an event that would never happen again, that provided man with insights into God on a very high level. This was the other purpose of the plagues – “in His glory.” 

To reiterate, the plagues demonstrated without question God’s control over nature. With this idea firmly entrenched, we can now continue with the next interpretation.

 "With a strong hand," this refers to the dever (pestilence) as it is said: ‘Behold, the hand of the Lord will be upon your livestock in the field, upon the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the herds and the flocks, a very severe pestilence.’"

What immediately jumps out here is the reference to dever, the fifth plague. Why are we focusing now on this plague? And there is nothing in the description that seems to tie the idea of “a strong hand” with dever. The Ritva offers an interesting explanation of this vague reference to dever. He explains that dever was a clear demonstration of the hand of God. Yet it was not the “complete” dever, which was manifest during the tenth plague. What is the Ritva referring to with this comparison? How is one dever “partial” while the other is “complete”? As was stressed above, the main feature of the revelation of God through the plagues was His control over nature. But there were other ideas that came out as well. In this case, the common theme between the fifth and tenth plague has to do with the clear and undeniable result – death. In the fifth plague, the primary objective was the death of the cattle of the Egyptians. And with the tenth plague, it was the death of the Egyptian first born, the “complete” dever. That is not to say there was no death with the other plagues (although the Torah does not openly record it). However, if people died, it was an indirect effect of the plague, not an explicit result from the plague itself. Even with the most physically destructive plagues such as barad (hail), the Egyptians had the means to hide from the effects of the rain of fire and ice from the sky. Not so with makas bechoros. With dever, then, we see the introduction of a new idea. When the Egyptians saw the death of their cattle, they came to realize something deeper and of great impact, beyond “just” God’s being in control over the natural world. Within this idea lies God as Creator as well. Control is one thing, so to speak, but the ability to create and destroy life is a different quality of control, a characteristic of the Creator. The Egyptians came into contact with this at the time of dever, as they identified with the death of the cattle. The idea that our lives are dependent on God became evident with this plague, culminating with the death of the first born. This, then, is the concept of the “strong hand” – it is the quality of Creator that is expressed, His ability to control life itself.

The next part of the verse deals with another important component of God’s manifestation of control. 

"And with an outstretched arm," this refers to the sword, as it is said: "His sword was drawn, in his hand, stretched out over Jerusalem."

Again, we see here a vague concept, the “sword”. In what context is this to be understood? The Ritva offers another important insight. He explains that this is slang of sorts, referring to the revenge God brought to the Egyptians. We see this attribute expressed when the covenant between God and the Jews is in danger – “nekom nikmas bris”. What does revenge have to do with this? Once again, we see another important idea about God emerge with the ten plagues. In God’s manifestation of control, one should not think it was completely arbitrary in its effects, or that there was something unjust about its force. Instead, it reflects schar v’onesh, the overall system of God’s justice. There was a reason why the Egyptians were being pummeled with these different plagues. The concept of revenge is, in fact, the vehicle to seeing how God’s system of justice is being expressed. Therefore, we see through the makkos how God was expressing schar v’onesh, the Egyptians meriting these punishments.

In the next part, we will complete these explanations. Stay tuned.