One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist
“An Aramean was destroying my father, and he went down to Egypt and he sojourned there with a small number, and he became there a nation: great, powerful and numerous.” – Passover Haggadah
Rabbi Lori Shapiro
The phrase “An Aramean was destroying my father” is a sliding door to history.
According to biblical scholarship, the phrase itself dates as far back as the Mari texts (of the 18th century B.C.E.). These ancestors were nomads; moving with their herds, they lived on the land. A lingual fossil, this phrase connects us with the imaginations of those who came before those who came before us, and hints of what we are to uncover at Passover: our unknown history.
There is a wonderful commentary by Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer (1820-1899) that asks, “Why does the haggadah consider Laban worse than Pharaoh?” His haggadah commentary Hukkat HaPesach responds that it is Laban’s inveigling of Jacob that leads to an unintended birth order of Jacob’s children, and that Joseph, the first-born son of Rachel, was actually meant to be the first-born son. Had this been the case, Rabbi Hildesheimer suggests, Joseph (and his family) would not have ended up in Egypt nor known Pharaoh.
The phrase is the prompt for the Maggid that demands that we consider all of the fate that brought us to this place in time, as well as arouse our curiosity about those things that we do not yet know. We are all living narratives of our lives unfolding; which stories have yet to be unearthed? This Passover, while sitting at the table with those who may move into memory next year, may we reclaim the stories of what actually was,as we continue to Become.
Author of “Israel History Maps”
The haggadah wants us to experience the seder in historical perspective. This night is different from all other nights and we know why we’re celebrating. Or we think we know. What was the real threat from which HaShem saved us?
Surprisingly, the haggadah talks about how bad Laban was, and how he was worse than Pharaoh. Interpretation of this verse is controversial and the haggadah chose an interpretation that, in essence, is telling us that the real threat was from the “acts of Laban” and not the from “acts of Pharaoh.” According to the midrashic (exegesis commentary) explanation of this verse, Pharaoh “only” wanted to kill the boys. It was Laban who wanted to annihilate Jacob’s entire family by means of assimilation (Jacob said he feared Laban would take his wives and children). Our ultimate salvation from Egypt wasn’t from slavery or death, but from our drowning into the Egyptian culture, society and way of life.
As we celebrate Passover every year, let’s reflect on how, in every generation, the greatest enemy of our existence is the temptation to completely blend in and erase our identity and morality. HaShem can save us from wars and physical threats, but only we can save ourselves from spiritual and cultural threats. Toward the end of the haggadah, we realize the final step of salvation by God, which is Jewish sovereignty in Israel. Only with a Jewish homeland in Israel, can we keep our Jewish identity strong and proud around the world.
“Harry,” thunders the producer to the studio executive, “I’ve got the next ‘Mission: Impossible’!”
“It’s about my ancestor Jacob whose father-in-law tries to destroy him. He relocates to Egypt, where his people are first hailed and then forced into slavery. They almost lose their souls, but miraculously they grow in numbers and, get this, never lose track of the family mission.”
“I didn’t know you had such an amazing family, Phil.”
“So do you, Harry. It’s yours, too.”
“What happens next?”
“With a lot of help from the Master of the Universe, they escape slavery and become a great nation.”
“You got a hook for the publicity?”
“First of all, it’s an event, not just a story. It’s filled with action, heroism and touching human drama. And it doesn’t just tell a tale; it helps bring on the messianic redemption through personal liberation and transformation — for everyone who hears it and allows themselves to be moved by it.”
“What about the kids? Will they find it interesting?”
“Are you kidding? It’ll trigger their imaginations more than ours. They’ll be asking questions through the night and fighting to stay awake. They’ll be telling their kids about where they were when they first heard it. It’s a story for the ages, Harry.” Harry thinks for a moment.
“Phil, that’s the greatest story I’ve ever heard.”
Torah Teacher and Lecturer
“An Aramean sought to destroy my father” refers to Lavan, who wanted to destroy our father Yaacov. This verse is taken from Mikra Bikurim, the positive commandment to express praise and thanksgiving to God when bringing the first fruits to the Temple.
The whole structure of the story of the Exodus from Egypt in the haggadah is based on the verses of Mikra Bikurim (Deuteronomy 26:5-8), and every detail mentioned there is expounded on in the haggadah.
Why was Mikra Bikurim chosen as the foundation for telling the story of the Exodus? Why not go straight to the source, to the Torah verses that actually describe the Exodus? From this we learn that when we thank HaShem for the fruits, we should be thankful for all the events that make this offering possible: From the time he saved our patriarch Yaakov, through the exile and redemption from Egypt, until the bequeathing of the land of Israel.
This sequence teaches us to start at the beginning when thanking HaShem. It is written (Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer) that from Pharaoh we learn that ingratitude is tantamount to heresy. Its opposite is praiseworthy. In telling the tale of our Exodus, “whoever elaborates on the story is to be praised.” At the seder, we thank HaShem for his eternal protection over us. That’s why the haggadah was based on Mikra Bikurim — the verses in the Torah that express gratefulness.
Rabbi Mendel Schwartz
The Chai Center
Bashert is a magic word, which we use for upbeat divine intervention. Many times, however, there is a dark side to the chain of events. We usually don’t call the dark side bashert, but nothing happens by chance, and there are no coincidences in life. We may not like it and we may not accept it, but we cannot ignore it. Divorcing your first spouse is the dark side of bashert.
I recently met somebody who excitedly told me he remembered my father, Schwartzie, and had great respect for him. He said, “Schwartzie introduced me to my first wife.” His current wife was standing right there and looked a bit uneasy. I asked the woman if she was happy. She said yes. I asked the fellow if he was happy. He said yes. I said, “Schwartzie was the matchmaker for this marriage, as well.” I feel this person became a better human being, a wonderful husband and a mensch, all because of that first marriage. I don’t desire this on anyone, but if God chose that first marriage to begin and end, there is a bashertness in this, as well. I call it the dark side of bashertness.
The Torah and the haggadah suggest this very message to us when the verse proudly states, “An Aramean was destroying my father, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there with a small number, and he became there a nation: great, powerful, and numerous.”