The Haggadah is the story of the Exodus from Egypt. But there’s a section towards the beginning that doesn’t quite fit the theme:
צֵא וּלְמַד מַה בִּקֵּשׁ לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי לַעֲשׂוֹת לְיַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ: שֶׁפַּרְעֹה לֹא גָזַר אֶלָּא עַל הַזְּכָרִים, וְלָבָן בִּקֵּשׁ לַעֲקֹר אֶת־הַכֹּל – Go learn what Lavan from Aramean sought to do to our father Yakov; Pharaoh only oppressed the males, whereas Lavan tried to destroy it all!
If we are even slightly familiar with the story, it doesn’t exactly ring true. Pharaoh was a genocidal despot who cruelly enslaved an entire race and murdered children indiscriminately – לֹא גָזַר אֶלָּא עַל הַזְּכָרִים – he ticks every box on the villain archetype bingo card! Lavan, albeit a tricky swindler, provided refuge and safe harbor when Yakov was on the run with nowhere to go, and in time, provided him with a family, a home, and tremendous wealth.
In what universe can we plausibly say that Lavan was worse than Pharaoh?
The Torah discusses this issue repeatedly; before Moshe’s death, he warned his audience about a mistake we consistently 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 does 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 the Haggadah warns us of Lavan’s threat as a powerful warning that the story does not end with Pesach.
There’s nothing surprising about our response to clear and obvious danger. When calamity strikes, in the face of a Pharaoh type villain, we know what to do; across the ages, in the face of adversity, Jews have been resilient, doubling down on study, prayer, and observance – וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ.
The danger Lavan poses is far more insidious; that Yakov might forget who he was – לַעֲקֹר אֶת־הַכֹּל. The most significant threat to Jewish continuity may well be affluence and freedom.
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. But the Haggadah and the entire Seder night provide the antidote – we must remember our history and where we come from so that we do not lose our way.