Yakov had a difficult life. He was not recognized by his father for who he was, he fled from his murderous brother, was an indentured servant to his swindler father in law, was betrayed by his firstborn, lost a wife in childbirth, and watched his sons fight bitterly to the point one went missing under mysterious circumstances.

Yet the Torah says that Yakov lived the best years of his life in Egypt – וַיְחִי יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם / וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט.

How could exile from his home in Israel turn out to be the best years of his life?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that like exercise, a dose of resistance training can do a world of good. By adapting to the resistance, we have become stronger. Yakov could be in exile and still recognize that his life had come full circle and he could live out his days in peace and tranquility – even when far from home.

At Seder, after quoting Yakov’s happy years in Egypt, we eat Maror sandwiched between Matza. Matza is the bread of freedom which is also the bread of affliction; because they complement each other. The Sfas Emes explains that we cannot celebrate being free without owning the fact we were slaves as well.

Setbacks and comebacks are the ebbs and flows of life. It’s simplistic to put a label on things in isolation – “this is good,” “this is bad.” Life is rarely black and white, and mostly a long continuum of grey.

There is no such thing as a life without its share of problems, and we can’t just go on hoping for this thing to conclude and move on to something else. They form one cohesive canvas of life and we have to be present for each moment.

The Jewish People have been in exile for far longer than they haven’t, yet we don’t harbor an end time fantasy at which point we will then become happy and live our best lives. There is beauty and goodness in the daily grind of today if we look for it. So become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Because the good stuff happens outside your comfort zone.

The Seder is replete with strange customs and rituals to encourage questions that we answer with stories.

But why don’t we just tell the story?

R’ Tzadok haKohen explains that the year-round mitzvah of remembering our history is not enough on Seder night. The goal is of the Seder is not simple history communication and knowledge acquisition; the goal is engagement, and the vehicle for engagement is questions – וַאֲפִילוּ כֻּלָּנוּ חֲכָמִים כֻּלָּנוּ נְבוֹנִים כֻּלָּנוּ זְקֵנִים כֻּלָּנוּ יוֹדְעִים אֶת הַתּוֹרָה מִצְוָה עָלֵינוּ לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that the Hebrew words for inheritance – נַחֲלָה / יְרוּשָׁה – have two very different meanings. The root נחל means a river that naturally flows, and the root רשת is the word for conquest or capture.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches the obvious truth that our tradition will not flow like a river – we cannot make the grave error of assuming our children will just follow their heritage. Tradition is secured through conquest because something you put energy into is earned. Questions are central to the Seder, because questions are the vehicle to transmit memory and identity. By asking questions, the children make what is ours into theirs too.

When the wise son asks what the point of it all is, we answer that we don’t eat anything after the Korban Pesach; which Rav Kook allegorizes to mean that the taste of our traditions should linger.

We all grew up sharing a table with extended families, and we don’t just tell stories. We taste the strange foods, the matzah, maror, and charoses, talking about what it means to be free, singing songs to celebrate all our blessings. Everyone remembers being the one to ask the four questions and stealing the afikoman. And as we grow up, we become the one to answer the questions, and it’s our afikoman getting stolen. The Seder’s enduring power is its way of transmitting our memory and identity across generations.

That’s the power of ritual, simple things we do as children because it’s fun, and as adults, because we know that our identity is one of the most precious things we can pass on.

We can’t just tell stories at the Seder because it would miss the point entirely. The Seder rituals are the things we do together as an expression of collective memory and shared ideals. Accordingly, it should be no surprise that more people go to a Seder than to shul on Yom Kippur.

The Hagadda is the story of the Exodus from Egypt; yet early on, there is a strange section that doesn’t really seem to fit the theme:

צֵא וּלְמַד מַה בִּקֵּשׁ לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי לַעֲשׂוֹת לְיַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ: שֶׁפַּרְעֹה לֹא גָזַר אֶלָּא עַל הַזְּכָרִים, וְלָבָן בִּקֵּשׁ לַעֲקֹר אֶת־הַכֹּל – Go out and learn what Lavan from Aramean sought to do to our father Yakov; Paroh only oppressed the males but Lavan sought to destroy it all!

How was Lavan worse than Paroh, and what’s it doing at the Seder?

Lavan didn’t oppress Yakov; Lavan made him successful, powerful and rich!

Before Moshe’s death, he warned the people about a mistake they and we would repeatedly make:

הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ, פֶּן-תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת-ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לְבִלְתִּי שְׁמֹר מִצְותָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם. פֶּן-תֹּאכַל, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ; וּבָתִּים טֹבִים תִּבְנֶה, וְיָשָׁבְתָּ.וּבְקָרְךָ וְצֹאנְךָ יִרְבְּיֻן, וְכֶסֶף וְזָהָב יִרְבֶּה-לָּךְ; וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-לְךָ, יִרְבֶּה.וְרָם, לְבָבֶךָ; וְשָׁכַחְתָּ אֶת-ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, הַמּוֹצִיאֲךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים – Take care that you don’t forget the Lord your God and fail to keep His commandments, rules, and laws, which I instruct you today: when you have eaten and you are satisfied, and built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, be careful that your heart not grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, home of slaves… (8:10-14)

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that Lavan is included in the Haggadah as a powerful warning us that the story does not end with Pesach. Across the ages, the more the Jews have suffered, the more they studied, prayed, and improved their observance – וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ. The danger of Lavan was more insidious – that Yakov would forget who he was and stay with Lavan – לַעֲקֹר אֶת־הַכֹּל. The paradox is that the greater threat to Jewish continuity is affluence and freedom, as our generation knows all too well.

Affluence, no less than slavery, can make us forget who we are and why.

It is one thing to believe in God when you need His help. It is another thing entirely when you have already received it.

The Exodus story is plain on its face that just as much as the Jewish People must understand there is a God and there are consequences, Egypt must also know and understand.

In the story of Jewish redemption, why is it important for Egypt to know that God is God?

When the entire Egyptian army was drowning in the waves of the Red Sea and the Jews were celebrating their escape, God didn’t celebrate – “Will the angels sing while my creations drown?!”

Egypt was pagan and polytheistic, and the plagues were an exhibition on monotheism, demonstrating a higher unified force controlling all the underlying elements that Egypt deified. The plagues were all delivered using media the Egyptians well understood – they worshipped nature, and nature turned on them.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe shrewdly noted that שְׁפֹךְ חֲמָתְךָ אֶל־הַגּוֹיִם is only on אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדָעוּךָ. The Torah’s vision, from it’s earliest moments, is not just that the Jews have a national redemption; the utopian future we hope for is one where all will recognize God. While the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his followers have certainly taken outreach to it’s furthest conceivable limits, it is worth dwelling on the principle.

The Torah is not a pathway to personal joy and reward just for us. When the Torah is properly lived, it is supposed to influence and impact the people and world around us.

When the Torah narrates Moshe’s interactions with Paroh, the Torah describes how at various points in the story, God hardens Paroh’s heart, or Paroh does it himself.

By doing so, the story just dragged out.

The Seforno offers a compelling close reading.

There are two verbs the Torah uses to describe Paroh’s heart: heaviness and strength – כבד / חזק. Being strong is not a bad thing! For the first seven plagues – all uses of כבד are in reference to Paroh acting in such a way. Where Hashem acts directly, there is only חיזוק – Hashem gave him the strength to continue.

The key to understanding the Exodus story is to consider the end goal. It wouldn’t be hard to flatten Egypt with the proverbial lightning bolt, and it wouldn’t be hard to just airlift the Jews out. But instead, lots of other things happened that weren’t reducible to the goals of a defeated Egypt and a free Jewish People.

The story is very clear why, and it slips right under the radar. Hashem explicitly states the purpose of what is to come to Moshe, foreshadowing the first plague:

וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי-אֲנִי ה, בִּנְטֹתִי אֶת-יָדִי עַל-מִצְרָיִם; וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִתּוֹכָם – Egypt will know that I am the Lord, when I stretch My hand over Egypt, and take the Jews away from them. (7:17)

Having been conspicuously absent in the story up to now, Hashem wants to be recognized.

Having read this story a few times, our minds glaze over because we know it too well. At this point in the story, no one knows what God can do. Not Moshe, and certainly not Paroh. Even the Jewish People only knew they were descended from Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov; and that they believed in the One God of their ancestors. But that’s really it – no one knew God had actual power; no one had ever seen or heard of a miracle. Arguably, there hadn’t been a miracle since the Flood. So not without good reason, Paroh mocked Moshe:

מִי ה אֲשֶׁר אֶשְׁמַע בְּקֹלוֹ לְשַׁלַּח אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יָדַעְתִּי אֶת־ה וְגַם אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחַ – Who is this Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go?! I don’t know this Lord, and I won’t let Israel go! (5:2)

So when God flexed a strong and outstretched arm on Egypt, people would rightly be terrified. So Paroh needed strength – חיזוק. He could not free the Jews for the wrong reason; it could not be because Egypt was being toyed with. He needed strength to comprehend the nature of what he was facing.

After the 7th plague, the task is seemingly complete; and Paroh concedes, completely:

יִּשְׁלַח פַּרְעֹה, וַיִּקְרָא לְמֹשֶׁה וּלְאַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, חָטָאתִי הַפָּעַם: ה, הַצַּדִּיק, וַאֲנִי וְעַמִּי, הָרְשָׁעִים. הַעְתִּירוּ, אֶל-ה, וְרַב, מִהְיֹת קֹלֹת אֱלֹהִים וּבָרָד; וַאֲשַׁלְּחָה אֶתְכֶם, וְלֹא תֹסִפוּן לַעֲמֹד – Paroh sent for Moshe and Ahron, and said to them, “Now I have sinned. Hashem is righteous; my people and I are guilty. Beg the Lord to bring an end to this flaming hail; I will free you; you will be here no longer…” (9:27,28)

Mission accomplished, and Egypt has been educated. With three more plagues to come, Hashem tells Moshe the student to be educated has changed:

וּלְמַעַן תְּסַפֵּר בְּאָזְנֵי בִנְךָ וּבֶן-בִּנְךָ, אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם, וְאֶת-אֹתֹתַי, אֲשֶׁר-שַׂמְתִּי בָם; וִידַעְתֶּם, כִּי-אֲנִי ה – So that you tell over to your sons and daughters how I toyed with Egypt, with my wonders that I cast on them, and you will know that I am the Lord. (10:2)

Now it is about the Jews.

The Jews needed to understand what Hashem would do for them. It was understandably mind-bending for them to comprehend what was taking place, and they fought a life of miraculous redemption the rest of their days. But even if that generation wouldn’t see it, their children would.

God cares about the slaves. God cares about the victims. God cares about us all. And God will do something about it.

The Haggada is the story of the birth of the Jewish people and their liberation from Egypt and slavery.

But there is an elephant in the room, without which the entire Seder is irreparably compromised with no contemporary relevance.

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that Jews have celebrated this throughout the highs and lows of our history, in the camps and in the ghettos, under conditions similar or worse than Egypt.

Yet the question remains, what is the point of talking about redemption that happened long ago when we’re not yet redeemed today?

The Exodus was imperfect – it did not lead to a full and final utopian life in Israel. The freed slaves fought God and Moshe the rest of their lives, yearning to go back to Egypt.

Yet however flawed that generations ability to embrace a new path might have been, the seeds of redemption were planted in the blueprint of our DNA. Humans are not robots, and we are all perfectly imperfect in our own way.

We don’t have a Seder to celebrate an ancient generations historic liberation; we have a Seder to celebrate an innate ability to redeem ourselves, that germinates from the seed planted by the Exodus.

It is remarkable that the Torah and Haggada embrace the notion of an imperfect redemption – neither has a happy ending that results in the Jewish people living happily ever after in peace and prosperity in Israel.

R’ Shai Held powerfully notes that the Haggada is suggesting to us that the journey is more important than the destination. The Gemara says that we do not believe someone who says they have searched for answers but found nothing. As R’ Menachem Mendel of Kotzk put it, the search for Torah is itself Torah, and in that search, you have already found.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that the goal of the Seder is not just to remember that an Exodus happened once; but that an Exodus could happen at all.

Every generation must feel as though they personally experienced the great departure from Egypt, to remind ourselves that whatever troubles we face, the tools of redemption are already there, and salvation could be a day away.

We begin the redemption story of the Seder by talking about the Matza as the bread of affliction that our ancestors before us ate, and we invite whoever is hungry to join us; concluding that while we may be in exile now, next year we will be free.

If you think about it for just a moment, it’s a strange invitation.

It is one thing to invite someone to a steak dinner; what sort of invitation is it to share in my bread of affliction?

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that what transforms the bread of affliction into the bread of freedom is the willingness to share with others.

The Maharal notes that the reason the Exodus is so fundamental is that it associates Judaism with an essential quality of intrinsic freedom to act as we choose with no external coercive influence.

Freedom is oxygen for the soul, and mental freedom cannot be taken away.

Rav Kook explains that the difference between a slave and a free man is not solely defined by socio-economic standing. There can be an enlightened slave whose spirit is free and a free man with the mentality of a slave, whose whole life is lived on other people’s terms.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that Elazar ben Azariah discovered Ben Zoma’s teaching to recall the Exodus at nights on the day he came to power; because it is a leader’s duty to be a beacon of hope during times of darkness and difficulty.

The Jews of that time were physically freed from slavery, but mentally, they never left. They stood at the Red Sea and Sinai, yet spent 40 lost years pining to go back “home” to Egypt.

God can save you from Egypt, but not even God can save you from yourself.

At any moment, just by sharing with others, we can become partners in redemption.

Jews have a daily duty to recall the Exodus.

The theme of the Exodus is ever present in various daily prayers and blessings; it seems like everything we do is another זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם. It is so pervasive to so many commands and rituals, to the extent that we could almost miss the point entirely.

It is important to understand first principles because they are the foundational concepts that pervade the systems built upon them. So what do we mean when we say that we remember that God took the Jews out of Egypt?

Simply put, it’s not the history of the that we have to recall; it’s that every single last one of us is worthy of God’s unconditional love.

If we unpack the story, the Jews in Egypt weren’t saved because they were so good or so special, but quite the opposite.

The Zohar imagines the angels arguing whether or not God should save the Jews, and the argument against intervention was that “these are idol-worshippers, and so are these!”

When Moshe told the Jews to set aside and take one sheep per family, the Midrash says that “set aside” meant setting aside their idols, before taking the sheep for the mitzvah.

When even Moshe, already well on his way to Jewish leadership, saw Yisro’s daughters getting bullied and got involved in the fracas to protect them, the onlookers mistook him for just another Egyptian!

Moreover, the generation that left Egypt and stood at Sinai fought Moshe the rest of their lives, begging to go back to Egypt, and was ultimately doomed to wander and die in the wilderness.

The Zohar goes so far as to say that the Jews were on the 49th level of spiritual malaise; just one notch off rock bottom, the point of no return. Rav Kook notes that this adds a certain dimension to the imagery of God’s outstretched arm – it was a forceful intervention, an emergency rescue of a nation that had stumbled and was about fall off a cliff – בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה.

That is to say that on a fundamental level, the Jews didn’t deserve to be rescued at all.

And yet crucially, as R’ Chaim Kanievsky notes, God responded to their cries all the same – וַנִּצְעַק אֶל־ה’ אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ, וַיִּשְׁמַע ה’ אֶת־קֹלֵנוּ.

The Divrei Chaim notes that the very first Commandment is no command at all; God “introduces” himself as the God who took us out of Egypt – אָֽנֹכִ֖י֙ ה אֱלֹהֶ֑֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֧ר הוֹצֵאתִ֛יךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֣֥ית עֲבָדִֽ֑ים. We might not deserve redemption, yet God redeems us all the same. It’s not a command – it is something that simply just is, whoever and wherever we are.

R’ Tzadok haKohen writes that to remember Egypt is to remember God’s first declarative sentence; our God rescues people from Egypt, whoever they are.

The Ropshitzer quipped that תְּחִלָּה לְמִקְרָאֵי קדֶשׁ זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם – the first step towards holiness is remembering that the same Exodus that rescued people from the abyss once before could be just a moment away.

As the Lubavitcher Rebbe put it, God’s redemption is not contingent on our worthiness.

That’s our daily duty. To remind yourself that the first principle of Judaism from which everything follows is that you are worthy.

There’s something interesting about Pesach that is uncommon, if not unique.

There are many mitzvos and rituals which commemorate that something happened. What we don’t find too often is commemorating the way something happened.

The reason we eat Matza is not just that our ancestors left Egypt, but the way they left Egypt, in a hurry – בחפזון. They left in a hurry so didn’t have time to bake bread, so we eat a quickly cooked dough as well.

What’s different and important about the fact they left in a hurry?

Doing something quickly can be good or bad depending on the context. Yet Rav Hutner notes that getting things done quickly is a celebrated principle in Judaism – זריזין מקדימין למצות.

Rav Hutner explains that the source of this principle is learned from the Matza our ancestors ate because they left in a hurry. The Midrash warns us to guard the Matzos / Mitzvos – ושמרתם את המצות. Speed is not just an extra credit; waiting will spoil it!

The Vilna Gaon notes that in our daily prayers, we thank God for creating space, but also for time – ברוך אומר ועושה, ברוך עושה בראשית.

The moment the Jews became connected to the Creator, they underwent a metamorphosis from existing within the system to immortal souls operating on a plane above creation and above time. When something eternal meets something temporal, the result is something quick; where נצחי interacts with זמן, you get חפזון.

Perhaps that is why the final plague happened כחצות, in a non-moment.

This might sound complex, but it’s intuitive. When something is important, you do it as quickly as possible.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that a lack of urgency can profane something from sacred to just another item on the to-do list. And the source of this key concept is the birth of the Jewish People, commemorated by the Matza our ancestors baked in a hurry.

The Torah emphasizes repeatedly that we have the capacity and agency to choose how we live and act. With good reason, Maimonides flags free will as a foundational principle. If we are predestined to be righteous or wicked, we are not morally responsible, and if we are not morally responsible, then there can be no justice, reward, or punishment.

Throughout the story of Egypt, God says that He has hardened Paroh’s heart, and resists overtures to free the Jews. But if God had hardened his heart, Paroh’s free will was compromised; how could he then be punished?

Maimonides exposition of free will allows a person the possibility to do so something so egregious that repentance and making amends is foreclosed, and the person can no longer turn back from the path they have gone down. So by enslaving, torturing, and murdering the Jewish People, justice required that Paroh be prevented from making amends.

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests this is fairly intuitive – we can become prisoners of our own pride. Paroh had obstinately made himself blind and deaf to his peoples suffering, to the point where his adviser please fell on deaf ears:

הֲטֶרֶם תֵּדַע כִּי אָבְדָה מִצְרָיִם – Do you not see Egypt is already lost? (10:7)

The Midrash warns us that sin is like a passing visitor; then a houseguest who overstays their welcome, and before long, it’s master of the house.

It is not difficult to imagine someone becoming so entrenched in their world view that they get tunnel vision and can’t change their course.

As much as we celebrate the prospect of freedom, it is something we must consciously choose for ourselves.

At Kadesh – we drink the first of the four cups of wine. Each cup symbolises a particular highlights of the seder: the first at Kadesh, the second at Maggid, the third at Barech and the fourth at Hallel.

The function of a kiddush is twofold.

Firstly, to distinguish between that evening and other evenings. The word itself means “to separate”. The way we do this is through remembering the Exodus – זכר ליציאת מצרים – in memory of the departure from Egypt. The reason we do this is because this is the very foundation of being Hashem’s people.

Secondly, the function of a kiddush is to express service and allegiance to Hashem. This is true of kiddush on every Shabbos and all Yomim Tovim. This is the first cup of wine that we drink.

The second is drunk after Maggid. Maggid’s place in the Seder is to perform the mitzva – exclusive to Seder night – of in depth discussion of the events of redemption from Egypt – סיפור rather than the זכר of Kadesh. The function of the mitzva of סיפור יציאת מצרים is to recreate and relive the events, rather than to remember. The wording of the halacha is “כל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאלו הוא יצא עתה” – a reliving.

To fulfill the mitzva of סיפור , there are three requirements. The first is the most basic – the educational engagement that occurs in question and answer form. It is dialogue that differentiates it from the monologue of a זכר.
The second requirement of סיפור is for the participants at the Seder to imagine Yetzias Mitzrayim. This is achieved through story telling. As with any story, it begins with a problem and ends with a solution.
The final, most demanding requirement of סיפור is the טעמי הצמוות – the rationale behind the mitzvos of the Seder must be explained and understood.

R’ Chaim Brisker says that these requirements distinguish the mitzva of סיפור from the regular mitzva of זכר . The mitzva of סיפור constitutes a key highlight of the Seder, and this is why the second cup of wine is drunk at the end of Maggid.

The third cup is consumed at the conclusion of Birchas Hamazon, Barech. The blessing gives thanks to Hashem for what we have eaten – including the Matza and Maror, as well as the meal. The Birchas Hamazon is the conclusion of all the mitzvos of the evening, and as such, the reason we drink the third cup of wine at this point.

The fourth cup is drunk at the conclusion of Hallel. Hallel is a shira, a song of praise and gratitude for all the kindness Hashem has done for us, which is what the entire Seder was about.

Wine is prestigious and indicates prominence – the reason it is used for any kiddush. We mark the prominent events of the Seder, at which point we drink, encompassing the entire evening.

On Seder night, we trace the steps recounting the origins of the Jewish People:

וְעָנִיתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ לִפְנֵי ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב. וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים, וַיְעַנּוּנוּ; וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ, עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה. וַנִּצְעַק, אֶל-ה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ; וַיִּשְׁמַע ה אֶת-קֹלֵנוּ, וַיַּרְא אֶת-עָנְיֵנוּ וְאֶת-עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶת-לַחֲצֵנוּ. וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ ה, מִמִּצְרַיִם, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל–וּבְאֹתוֹת, וּבְמֹפְתִים. וַיְבִאֵנוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וַיִּתֶּן-לָנוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ. וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת-רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַתָּה לִּי, ה; וְהִנַּחְתּוֹ, לִפְנֵי ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ, לִפְנֵי ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ. וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל-הַטּוֹב, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לְךָ – You will answer and say before your God, “The Aramean pursued my father, and he descended to Egypt, and dwelled there, where he became a nation, great and many. Egypt cruelly afflicted us, and they gave us hard labor. We cried out to Hashem, God of our fathers, and He heard our cries and saw our suffering and affliction. He extracted us from Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with great wonders and miracles; and brought us to this place. He gave us this land, flowing with milk and honey. And now, see I have brought my first fruit, which God has granted me, and I place it before God,”. He shall place it before God and bow, and rejoice at all the good he has been given. (26:5-11)

What fascinating is that this section isn’t from the primary record in the book of Shemos. It’s from the end of the Torah, about the mitzvos pertaining to the Land of Israel, and this section is part of the prayer recited when a farmer would bring his first fruit – ביכורים.

Why does the Hagada quote the paraphrased story and not the original story of the Exodus?

The Sefer HaChinuch explains that the mitzvah of Seder night is not accomplished by telling a history story; we need to express gratitude, which the historical sections do not have.

The sections about the mitzvos of the Land of Israel sharpen our appreciation for the Exodus, because having once been oppressed slaves in Egypt, we have a finer understanding of what it means to be free.

One of the most common offerings was for thanksgiving – the Korban Toda – which was brought if someone was released from jail; crossed an ocean or a desert, or recovered from illness. It provides a template for gratitude.

The offeror presented a sheep with 40 loaves of bread and had to finish the entire feast within a day. No man can or should eat an entire sheep or 40 loaves of bread, let alone both; you’d have to invite your friends and family in order to finish it before the time limit.

The Abarbanel notes that the Korban Pesach is essentially a national Korban Toda; the Jewish People were liberated from slavery; crossed an ocean and a desert; and when they stood at Sinai, were healed of all sickness.

Accordingly, it makes a lot of sense that the Hagada quotes from the first fruits because the goal of Seder is to appreciate all our blessings publicly.

The blessing’s conclusion sums it up perfectly – וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל הַטּוֹב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ – you should rejoice in every single thing Hashem does for you.

Gratitude is a pervasive and recurring theme, not just in Judaism, but in a good life. Take each opportunity to count your blessings with your family and friends.

The Maharal observes that all halachos of Korban Pesach pertain to unity; roasted in one piece, the bones have to be kept whole, eaten in one group, in one place, at one time etc. All these are meant to reflect that ה’ אחד – that G-d is One, and His unity is everywhere.

However, this would seem to be at odds Korbanos in general, that are meant to reflect the person bringing it. If the Korban Pesach displays Hashem’s unity, how does it relate to the people bringing it?

R’ Yehoshua Hartman explains that as a nation, we reflect the אחדות of Hashem. We have nothing to rely on but Hashem, with no fall back option. This is true across the spectrum of Judaism. In Egypt if it doesn’t rain for years, it’s not a problem, as the Nile provides water. If Israel has a poor rain season one year, there are serious shortages, and people start worrying(and when people start worrying, they start praying). We can place our faith in Hashem alone.

When the Jews said נעשה ונשמע – we will do and we will listen – what they were effectively meant was that they did not enter the equation. When Hashem asks something of us, that is all that matters.

This explains why so many Jews in history were willing to be מוסר נפש – display self-sacrifice – rather than cause a desecration of Hashem’s name. The rationale behind this is that Hashem doesn’t want something done, and if it is done, it’s removing oneself from godliness, as it is antithetical to what God wants.

In reality then, there is no contradiction. We say in Aleinu that אין עוד – which means there is no other reality other than what G-d wants. No one symbolises this more than the Jews. The Korban Pesach reflects both Hashem’s unity and the people bringing it.

While the Seder is about transmitting memories and identity to our children, the Haggada acknowledges that there is no one size fits all answer to education.

When the wise son asks what the reasons behind our observance are, we give part of an answer – אֵין מַפְטִירִין אַחַר הַפֶּסַח אֲפִיקוֹמָן. The Sfas Emes explains that the beginning and end of observance is the Torah is ours to keep – it is who we are and what we do. There needn’t be a loftier reason than that.

And yet, R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch quipped that if you perform symbolic acts without understanding the symbolism, you end up doing a bunch of strange things for literally no reason at all.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that we need to engage with the wise son, and stimulate his thinking. There are many reasons for everything that we do, and different reasons speak to different people. But the reasons are secondary to why we choose to be observant. There is no one reason, but he can find the reasons that speak to him.

To the wicked son, the Haggada offers an incredibly harsh rebuke – blunt his teeth and remind him that if he’d been in Egypt, he never would have left – הַקְהֵה אֶת שִׁנָּיו וֶאֱמוֹר לוֹ: “בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם”. לִי וְלֹא־לוֹ. אִלּוּ הָיָה שָׁם, לֹא הָיָה נִגְאָל.

While our parents’ generation might have taken this very literally, it’s not necessarily as harsh as it seems.

R’ Shlomo Freshwater observes that prior to Sinai, people who went bad tended to stay that way, for example, the Flood generation, Yishmael, and Esav. So he’s fortunate to live in an era where he can make amends – אִלּוּ הָיָה שָׁם, לֹא הָיָה נִגְאָל.

As far as blunting his teeth – רשע has the numerical value of 570. Remove שניו – numerical value 366; and the result is 204, the numerical value of צדיק. Behind the cutesy numbers game lies a fundamental truth that the wicked son harbors bitterness and negativity; and if we just neutralize his bite and dig past the surface, there is a good person in there waiting to be recognized.

The simple son can’t get past shallow simplicity – “What is this?”. Yet we don’t talk down to him, and the Hagadda has us patiently explain the answer in a way he can process.

The Haggada tells us to say something to each son, but not to the son who doesn’t know how to ask. Instead of saying something in particular – the Hagadda just says to open for him – אַתְּ פְּתַח לוֹ.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that it means we need to cultivate curiosity – the entire Seder is full of strange customs and rituals to do just that. There is no point in just giving a speech or forcing the issue, it is possible to nurture with silence.

Whatever challenges the wise, wicked, simple, and mute sons all pose, at least they are at the Seder. They’re present and engaged in different ways, and we can work with that. The Lubavitcher Rebbe wonders about a fifth son – the one who isn’t at the seder because he’s given up.

We can recognize these archetypes in our friends and family, but they’re even true of ourselves at different times in our lives. Know yourself, know your family, and know how to tailor what needs to be said under the circumstances.

With all the different sections of the Seder, there’s one anomaly – Urchatz. It starts with ו – “and”. Unlike all the other standalone titles, it is attached to the previous section of Kadesh. We say kiddush, and we wash our hands, like all year round.

And yet it seems counterintuitive. Like a doctor sanitizes before seeing a patient, wouldn’t you expect to clean yourself before making kiddush?

R’ Moshe Feinstein explains that we have to kickstart our lives with good deeds despite the fact we still carry baggage.

There is an old Chassidic fable of a man with dirty boots in a muddy field. He should only clean his boots at the end of the field; there’s just no point cleaning them halfway through.

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that we search for chametz in our homes with a candle. A person who uses a burning torch needs to search again with a candle because a burning torch is a fire hazard that will scare people off checking too closely, from fear of burning the house down. So look through the cracks of your soul with a candle, and be careful you don’t burn the whole thing down.

You can try to be a good person while acknowledging you are flawed and there are still things about you that aren’t perfect. It’s a Kadesh before an Urchatz.

And when a person finds those flaws, they might feel broken – Yachatz.

But crucially, we don’t break the Matza and throw it out; we save it for later, and the poor man’s bread is transformed into the afikoman, the defining mitzvah of the evening.

The broken heart of improvement doesn’t go to waste; it is fully redeemable.

We are capable of being good, of fielding constructive criticism, and improving incrementally. We needn’t beat ourselves up too badly.

The Korban Pesach is meant to commemorate the miracle of the Jewish households being “passed over” in Egypt.

But why were they ever at risk? The plagues were punishments for enslaving the Jews. If the first nine plagues were targeted at Egyptians, why should the tenth have been any different, requiring being “passed over”?
Why is the salvation of the Jewish firstborn different that it required spreading blood on their doors, and later generations then had to commemorate this act by eating the Korban Pesach?

R’ Yitzchak Blaser explains that the Gemara in Yuma 86a teaches that even though repentance alone does not usually atone for a violation of a negative commandment; nevertheless, on Yom Kippur the flood of mercy is so great that if a person repents, he can have attain forgiveness – even if they might not deserve it!

The Midrash says: Woe to the wicked, who convert Divine mercy to strict justice – מדת הדין into מדת הרחמים.

R’ Yitzchak Blaser explains that what the Midrash is the reverse application of the Gemara – if a person had a chance to erase sins they couldn’t get rid of an entire year, and turned their back on such an opportunity, the disdain shown for the mercy offered rebounds, and it becomes strict justice.

Although the Jews had served the Egyptian idols, it hadn’t been out of choice. But with the slavery effectively over, they had the chance to throw off any trace of idol worship and show their commitment and dedication to Him by taking a lamb, an Egyptian deity, and publicly display that they did not accept

If they turned their backs on this ideal opportunity they would have incurred Hashem’s wrath and מדת הדין.

The other plagues were specific punishments that the Jews were not deserving of, but the 10th plague was not “just” a punishment for the Egyptians, unlike the previous plagues, it had a secondary function. The first nine plagues were punishments that they revealed Hashem’s hand in nature; the Jews had done nothing to be punished in this way – they were victims. But here they had an opportunity to throw off the yoke of idol worship, and had they not taken their chance, they would have incurred a מדת הדין – putting themselves in danger.

The Korban Pesach we take is a remembrance of the kindness we were shown, that led to us being saved. The Targum actually translates ופסחתי (Shemos 14:13) as a word meaning “compassion”.

In the Hagada, one of the four questions asked is that שבכל הלילות, אנו אוכלין חמץ ומצה, הלילה הזה כולו מצה – Why on other nights do we eat chametz and matza, whereas tonight we only eat matza?

The Abarbanel explains that this question has an additional subtle nuance to it. The Korban Pesach is essentially a Korban Toda, a thanksgiving offering, for having been saved. With an ordinary thanksgiving offering, the sacrifice is brought with chametz loaves and matza crackers as part of the offering. The question therefore becomes; why is the thanksgiving offering on Pesach only supplemented with matza?

The Chasam Sofer explains that chametz is a metaphor for negativity. It is symbolic of the inflation of the ego, among other things. Matza is synonymous with the positive and pure – it is representative of things the way they ought to be, in their simple, distilled, natural state.

When we offer a regular thanksgiving sacrifice, we are thanking Hashem for the good He has done, but equally, the bad from which we learn to appreciate the good.

But on Pesach there is no such thing as bad; even being enslaved served a “good” purpose – it certainly wasn’t a punishment for anything the slaves had done! If the Jews could achieve perfection without going through Egypt, they wouldn’t have had to – therefore it served a constructive purpose. The purpose was so that when they were offered the Torah the Jews would be able to understand and accept the concept of service – they had been pushed to the limit and beyond in Egypt; they could do the same for Hashem. We answer how Pesach is a night where כולו מצה – there is no such thing as bad, there is only good.

The Chafetz Chaim wonders why Moshe was unable to build the Menorah, a problem he had not had when building everything else, and had to ask many times for the instructions to be repeated. The answer parallels the above. The Menorah is compared to to the Torah – hence the phrase “the light” of Torah – and it’s eternity. Moshe’s problem was that he did not understand how he could make something that was meant to reflect the infinite and eternal. Homiletically, how could the Jews keep the Torah forever? Wouldn’t there be evil? Exiles, wars, Holocausts, Inquisitions, expulsions and pogroms?

Hashem’s answer to Moshe illustrates this concept perfectly. “Put it in the fire, and see what comes out”. In reality, there is no negativity, and challenges are not bad. It is only a trial from which there is potential to grow. Adversity builds character.