I would like to share with my readers some thoughts which come to mind in preparation for the seder, based on sections of the Haggadah.
I once heard that the Rov, Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik, said that when he sits down to learn, he sees Rashi before him on his right, Rabbeinu Tam on his left, and the Rambam in front of him. In their presence the learning must be on the highest level.
The Haggadah, in the same way, endeavors to put us into a similar mood. By invoking the exalted personalities of five great rabbis and relating their way of celebrating the Seder, we are one with them in spirit. Our Seder must reach a high level of understanding and experience if we are in the literal company of the greatest of our teachers! No better introduction to the Haggadah could have been composed.
Is the correct translation of this phrase "And the Egyptians treated us badly"? No, the correct meaning is that "the Egyptians pictured us as bad." In other words, they maligned us.
This is borne out by the fact that the Haggadah's proof for this statement is taken from Pharaoh's first appeal for the enslavement of the Jews: "Hava nitchakma lo," "Come, let us deal wisely with them." This plan could only be put into effect by launching a hate-propaganda campaign against the Jews, based on an alleged danger which the Jews represented.
Hitler, too, could not have gotten his people to participate in the physical destruction of six million Jews had he not, through such thugs as Goebbels and Streicher, previously pictured the Jews as dangerous vermin.
One of the oldest and most sinister arguments of anti-Semites has been the accusation that Jews are disloyal and are a potential danger to the state's security.
Pharaoh, by using the word "gam," "also," implied that such a thing had happened before. Indeed, Egypt had seen the invasion of Semitic shepherd kings, the so-called Hyksos, who, once inside Egypt, took over the kingship and ruled Egypt for a long period of time. Only at the beginning of the 18th dynasty, around 1500 B.C.E., did the Egyptians rid themselves of the foreigners. The Jews came to Egypt about this time, so it made political sense for Pharaoh to invoke that relatively fresh memory of other Semites who had rebelled. Of course, no plan was further from the minds of the Jewish slaves than to make themselves rulers over Egypt; their only aim was to return to their own land, which had been promised them by G-d.
However, if we look at our history we find the same incident repeated again and again. For example, in the preamble to the Purim story, found in Chapter 4 of the Book of Ezra, we find that the Samaritans wrote a petition to Achashveirosh in which they pointed out that if the Jewish State were rebuilt, the king would lose almost half of his kingdom and the equivalent in tax receipts. The Jewish State, they said, had often rebelled against foreign rulers, whether Assyrian or Babylonian. This malicious lie convinced Achashveirosh to stop the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple. It took much doing, and the efforts of Mordechai and Esther, to achieve the lifting of that prohibition and the resumption of the rebuilding of the Jewish State. The lie of our enemies became apparent in good time.
In more recent history, no better example can be found than the period of Napoleon. In my recent article on the history of Messianism, I quoted the extraordinary appeal by Napoleon for the reestablishment of a Jewish State in 1799. About this I received a letter from Mazal Linenberg, a highly respected historian and the sister of former President Yitzchak Navon:
"The period of Napoleon's campaign in the Holy Land was a very troubled and dangerous time for the Jews. The Moslems suspected them of being spies and traitors and of planning to join Napoleon. There was a rumor circulating that ten to twelve thousand Jews had joined his army. The danger and threat from the Turks and the Arab population were more imminent than the salvation offered by Napoleon.
"For a whole year, beginning from June 1798, the Jews were oppressed and in dire straits, and had to prove their loyalty to the Turks by helping to fortify the walls of Jerusalem. In the summer of 1799, as soon as it was possible to do so, Jerusalem's Jewish community sent several rabbis as emissaries to different countries to seek much-needed financial help. Among them were Rabbi Yona Sa'adia Navon, my father's great-grandfather, and Rabbi Yona Moshe Navon, his cousin, and later Chief Rabbi from 1836-40."
The ironic part of this tragedy is that at the very same time the Turks were ac- cusing Jews in the Holy Land of being disloyal spies and soldiers for the French Emperor, over in Russia, Jews were being accused of spying for and supporting the Turks! It was in connection with such accusations that the Baal Hatanya was imprisoned on two occasions.
A parallel to this type of slander in current affairs is the campaign being waged by the Palestinians, Israel's sworn enemies, to petition the United Nations and governments around the world for support in their assertion that the Jewish State should be dismantled, based on various utterly false accusations.
In brief, Pharaoh's age-old call for anti-Semitism—on the basis of a charge of disloyalty and a perceived threat to the security of the state—has accompanied us throughout history. It all bears out the traditional saying, "ma'ase avot siman labanim," meaning that the history of our forefathers is a prototype of our own.
Our history is filled with incidents—many known and many unknown—where we were saved by the Almighty at the last moment from total destruction.
A study of the history of the Second World War reveals instances in which our very existence was threatened, yet we were inexplicably saved. One such moment was the situation on the beaches of Dunkirk, in June 1940:
The Allied armies had collapsed, mainly because of the Belgian king's cowardly surrender to Germany on March 28, 1940 (a date I cannot forget, for on that day I arrived in the United States as a young boy). The English army, called the "British Expeditionary Force," was scrambling to go home. Over 300,000 men and their equipment crowded the beaches of Dunkirk, just south of the Belgian border, waiting for large and small craft to ferry them back to England.
The Germans, stunned, stood nearby, ready to swoop down and wipe out the English forces. But General Rundstedt, the German Chief of Staff, had to get instructions from Hitler himself to start the attack. The order never came. Nobody, to this day, can understand why Hitler hesitated to destroy the only military barrier between himself and victory over England—for without those men, England could not have defended herself. And so, in a miraculous phenomenon unheard of in naval history, the entire British Army was saved by an armada of large and small ships of all sorts and descriptions.
On those ships was riding not only the fate of the civilized world, but also that of the Jews of Britain and of Eretz Yisrael. The hope for a Jewish homeland, promised by Britain in 1917, would have been snuffed out if those brave English boys had not made it home. It was the kind of historic salvation which can only come from Hakadosh Baruch Hu Himself.
I recently came across another great miracle of salvation which occurred during World War II, to which we were all totally oblivious while it was unfolding. In a recently published book, Heisenberg's War, the author describes the desperate scramble of both Germans and Allies to win the race for producing the first atom bomb. Hitler had forced all the great Jewish minds among the leading physicists of Germany to emigrate, most of whom came to the United States. Not only Einstein, but a host of other brilliant scientists arrived as refugees in the U.S. But there were those who remained, dedicated Nazis and admirers of Hitler, who worked feverishly to solve the scientific and technical problems involved in creating a workable atomic bomb. This would be the ultimate "secret weapon" with which Hitler would wipe out the entire civilized world.
Especially after the Nazis' crushing defeat at Stalingrad and in North Africa, Hitler egged his scientists on to produce a secret weapon that would offset the losses on the battlefields. Because of their close connection to the German physicists, and the information they gained through very clever intelligence, the Jewish refugees were up-to-date on German advances, and were able to convince President Roosevelt to launch a monumental program to produce an atom bomb ahead of Hitler. Roosevelt accepted their recommendations, which is how billions of dollars were set aside for this fantastic project.
If one looks through the list of the scientists involved, they were mostly Jews—starting with Oppenheimer, Teller, Niels Bohr, Fermi, Lise Meitner, Szilard and many others. Their zeal to help the Allies win over the Hitlerite evil motivated and inspired them to do the unthinkable: to harness the unknown, unexplored, vast force locked in the secret chambers of the atom!
Meanwhile, Germany slowed down its efforts to build the bomb, either because they did not have the resources or because, as some theorize today, some of her own scientists—including the leading German expert in nuclear science, Nobel Prize winner Werner Heisenberg—somehow sabotaged those monumental efforts. Hitler lost his enthusiasm for the project, and it was shelved. The world, and the Jews in it, were saved in that moment from total destruction.
This, in my mind, was a miracle of no lesser proportion than the many other miracles of salvation in our history. So, during the Seder, we can sing in deep gratitude: "Vayifr'keinu mitzoreinu, ki l'olam chasdo," "And He delivered us from our oppressors, for His kindness is everlasting."
The word "seder," which is not originally a Hebrew word, but Aramaic, has come to mean the night when we read the Haggadah. It means to "put things in order." This meaning is learned from such verses as Leviticus 1:7-8: "Aaron's sons shall place fire on the altar, and arrange (archu) wood on the fire. Aaron's sons shall then arrange the cut pieces (of the sacrifice). . . on top of the wood which is on the altar fire." The Targum translates "archu" as "vi'sadrun," which has the same root as the word "seder." In other words, "Seder" means to put things into their proper order, neatly arranged.
When we look objectively at the Haggadah we must admit that it represents a mass of seemingly unconnected passages and portions, jumping from one subject and style to another. There certainly seems to be no logical order nor symmetry. Its sections do not appear to be "neatly arranged," nor "put into their proper order." Why then the name "seder," if what we really encounter is a state of "no-seder"?
I think the true answer only comes at the very end of the Seder, in the popular song Chad Gadya:
If we look at each of the ten situations the song mentions separately, there is no way of knowing that they are connected to each other in any kind of order or logical sequence. What is so special about an ox drinking water? Similarly, there is nothing seemingly significant in a stick being burnt by fire, or a dog biting a cat. It is only when the author puts them all together that we discern a logical sequence, in which all of the insignificant steps in the "ladder" add up to one goal: Utopia, and the Messianic Era, when G-d finally smites the Angel of Death, and total peace reigns on earth. To reach that goal, we had to follow the seemingly unconnected steps linking the kid, the cat, the dog, the stick, and so forth. The same applies to the Hagaddah as a whole.
The lesson, I think, is that even seemingly disconnected incidents in our history—involving Jewish communities totally isolated from one another, the ups and downs in our fortunes, Golden Ages here, meager times elsewhere, migrations to this or that country, good children, bad children, loyalty, disloyalty through assimilation and so on—all move toward one destiny: the final, full redemption of the Jewish people.
And that is the message of Pesach, as embodied in the fifth cup of wine, the cup of the Prophet Elijah, the "Cup of Geulah."
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