Yakov had a difficult life. In childhood, he was overlooked by his father and had to flee from his murderous brother. In the place he took refuge, he was an indentured servant to his swindling father in law and was betrayed by his firstborn son. Later on in life, he lost his great love in childbirth and lost one of his sons under acrimonious circumstances.

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

After a life of pain and misery in exile, how could his final years turn out to be the best years of his life?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that like exercise, resistance can do a world of good. By adapting to 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 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; 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 a vacuum, because 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 it’s no good waiting on one trouble to end in order to move on to something else. The multitude of events in our life form one cohesive canvas, and we have to be present for each moment.

The Jewish People have been in exile for far longer than they haven’t. We hope for a World to Come, a utopian epoch of peace and wisdom. And yet, we don’t need that time to come in order to live our best lives. There is beauty and goodness in the daily grind of today – if we only look for it. So get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Because the good stuff happens outside your comfort zone.

The Exodus story is plain on its face that just as much as the Jewish People must understand there is a God, Egypt must also know and understand – וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי-אֲנִי ה.

In the Exodus story, why is it important for Egypt to know that God is God?

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. 

Yet, when the Egyptian army drifted in the waves of the Red Sea and the Jews celebrated, God would not – “Shall angels sing while my creations drown?!”

This parallels the conclusion of the book of Jonah as well, where God admonishes Jonah for only caring for his narrow corner of the world – וַאֲנִי לֹא אָחוּס עַל־נִינְוֵה הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ־בָּהּ הַרְבֵּה מִשְׁתֵּים־עֶשְׂרֵה רִבּוֹ אָדָם אֲשֶׁר לֹא־יָדַע בֵּין־יְמִינוֹ לִשְׂמֹאלוֹ וּבְהֵמָה רַבָּה.

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.

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

But the elephant in the room needs addressing, without which the entire Seder is irreparably compromised with no contemporary relevance at all.

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

But that begs the question, what’s 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 for the rest of their lives, yearning to go back to Egypt.

Yet, however flawed that generation’s 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 mark the anniversary of an ancient generation’s ages past liberation; we have a Seder to celebrate what germinates from the seed planted by the Exodus – the innate ability to redeem ourselves.

Remarkably, the Torah and Haggada openly embrace the notion of an imperfect redemption; both subvert our expectation of a happy ending resulting in the Jewish people living happily ever after in peace and prosperity in Israel.

R’ Shai Held notes that the Haggada is powerfully suggesting to us that the journey is more important than the destination. The Gemara warns against believing 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, we 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.

The redemption story of the Haggada opens with Matza, the bread of affliction – הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא. It’s what our ancestors ate, and we invite whoever is hungry to join – כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל.

If you think about it, it’s a strange invitation. It’s one thing to invite someone to a lavish banquet; 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 fundamental freedom – we can act as we choose with no external coercive influence.

Freedom is oxygen for the soul – and freedom is a state of mind.

Rav Kook explains that the difference between a slave and a free man is not solely defined by physical liberty. There can be an enlightened slave whose spirit is free; and a free individual whose whole life is slavishly lived on other people’s terms.

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

God physically freed the Jews of that time, but mentally, they never left. The people who walked out of Egypt and through the Red Sea to stand at Sinai 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.

Even in the worst of times, we can choose to share with others, and in doing so, we become partners in redemption.

Jews have a daily duty to recall the Exodus.

Remembering the Exodus is a perpetual mitzvah, and is ever-present in our daily prayers and blessings – זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם. It is pervasive to so many commands and rituals, to the extent that we could miss the point entirely.

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

It’s not the historic event 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 didn’t deserve to be saved because they were so good or so special; in fact, quite the opposite.

The Zohar imagines the angels arguing whether or not God should save the Jews, and the argument was that “this lot are just a bunch of idol-worshippers, and so are those!”. The Haggada admits as much – מִתְּחִלָּה עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה הָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ.

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 greatness, saw Yisro’s daughters getting bullied and got involved in the dispute 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 particular 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 rescuing 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 – אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים. It’s not a command – it is just a simple statement of fact. We might not deserve redemption, yet God redeems us all the same.

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.

So when we remind ourselves about Egypt, it’s not just that it happened once, but that, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe put it, God’s redemption is not contingent on our worthiness.

When Avraham pleads for Sodom to be spared, he speculates that perhaps fifty righteous people would make the city worth saving.

Hashem agrees:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה, אִם-אֶמְצָא בִסְדֹם חֲמִשִּׁים צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר–וְנָשָׂאתִי לְכָל-הַמָּקוֹם, בַּעֲבוּרָם – Hashem said: “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous in the city, then I will forgive all the place for their sake.” (18:26)

The Ibn Ezra notes that the repetition of “in Sodom” and “in the city,” implies that these people are righteous in public – בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר.

R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch teaches that righteous people live among and interact with other people, leading by example and inspiring their communities, like Avraham himself. A righteous man is not hidden away with books but is part of a community -including its sinners – as a teacher and a neighbor.

This remarkable point teaches a tremendously portable lesson about Sodom’s destruction; Sodom was not doomed because of its evil, but because no one was willing to work for its salvation. If even 10 such people had been working with the public to improve the moral state of the community, the city might have been saved.

Nechama Leibowitz notes that Jeremiah mentions the same theme:

שׁוֹטְטוּ בְּחוּצוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וּרְאוּ-נָא וּדְעוּ וּבַקְשׁוּ בִרְחוֹבוֹתֶיהָ, אִם-תִּמְצְאוּ אִישׁ, אִם-יֵשׁ עֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט מְבַקֵּשׁ אֱמוּנָה–וְאֶסְלַח, לָהּ – Run through the squares of Jerusalem and search its streets; if you can find just one single man who practices justice and seeks the truth, I will forgive her! (5:1)

The Radak explains that no righteous men could be found in the streets of Jerusalem because they were too afraid to stand up for what they believed in publicly.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe said that our souls are candles God gives us to illuminate the world, like the Chanukah Menorah, which is ideally positioned by the front door or window, so that it lights up the inside of our homes, but outside as well. He famously dispatched followers to the ends of the earth based on the understanding that part and parcel of wholesome observance is seeking others out to help them find their own religious expression. The discomfort of swimming against the tide of popular culture is the sacrifice that validates how much we care about other people – if we abandon those who are wandering or lost, do we care about others at all?

R’ Mordechai Gifter taught that altruism is superior to empathy; because while empathy requires us to tune in to other people’s needs, whereas altruism requires positive outreach – Avraham had no-one to help, so he stood outside his home to find someone to take care of.

The few can save the many, so long as they care enough about their communities to get involved – בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר / בְּחוּצוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַם / בִרְחוֹבוֹתֶיהָ.

A single candle can dispel a lot of darkness.

Philosophers debate the nature of altruism, the practice of being concerned with the welfare of others, and how self-interest can intersect with it.

Altruistically, Avraham is the first man to reach out to others about God’s ways; yet when God promises fame, family, and fortune, Avraham can hardly be considered selfless:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ. וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ, וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ; וֶהְיֵה, בְּרָכָה. וַאֲבָרְכָה, מְבָרְכֶיךָ, וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ, אָאֹר; וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ, כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה – Hashem said to Avram: “Go for yourself; from your land, from your neighborhood, and from your father’s house; to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those that bless you, and those that curse you I will curse; and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” (12:1-3)

Rashi explains that Avraham must go for his own sake; he must seek family, fame, and fortune because he wants them – לֶךְ-לְךָ / לַהֲנָאָתְךָ וּלְטוֹבָתְךָ.

Why does God command Avraham, the paragon of altruism, to pursue self-interest?

Perhaps our understanding of altruism is slightly skewed.

The conventional wisdom suggests that pure altruism requires one person to sacrifice for another with no personal benefit.

Yet in practice, we rightly admire people who create or contribute opportunities for our communities; and we don’t respect people who let others walk all over them, which amounts to lack of self-respect, not altruism.

Perhaps the difference between the two is motivation. When our motives are extrinsic, we end up manipulating our social environment and relationships and end up resentful when outcomes don’t turn out the way we hope.

As the famous saying in Avos goes, if I am not for myself, what am I…? Rabbeinu Yonah explains that extrinsic motivation is fleeting; we need to pursue our goals for our own purposes – אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי.

Hashem tells Avraham to go on the journey for intrinsic purposes because it will be personally rewarding for him.

The Rambam says that wise people do the right thing because it is the right thing to do; any optimistic hopes about what may follow will always be secondary to doing the right thing.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that only once we value ourselves can we learn to value others.

For Avraham to open his home to the world, he needed to have a house large enough to share with others, and something to share with them. He had to establish himself in order to help others – וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי.

The how and why are everything. It is perfectly ok to have lots of money, for example, but the qualifier is what we do with it.

Avraham is altruistic, but he is not selfless, which is extrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is outcome oriented so it cannot last – whether we win the deal, marry the person, or build the school, what happens then?

In contrast, intrinsic motivation is process oriented, which is more reliable in the long run, because it is objectively fulfilling.

The Torah does not expect or condone selflessness; it is not an ingredient for a lasting legacy. Hashem says to Avraham that he must take the journey for his own sake; not for God and not for others. His approach would only endure if it wasn’t contingent on something extrinsic.

The Seforno notes that Hashem promises Avraham that on this journey of self-fulfillment that takes care of others, he will not only be blessed; he will literally become a blessing – וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ; וֶהְיֵה, בְּרָכָה.

As the saying in Mishlei says, a kind man cares for his wellbeing, and a cruel man afflicts himself – גֹּמֵל נַפְשׁוֹ, אִישׁ חָסֶד; וְעֹכֵר שְׁאֵרוֹ, אַכְזָרִי. Altruism is possible, and altruism is real, although in healthy people it intertwines with the well-being of the self – our actions promoting our values; not other people’s approval.

It’s ok to establish and stand up for yourself. The balance to strike is that we also utilize our blessings to help others.

Humans are the apex predator on Earth. We possess superior intelligence, which we communicate through speech in order to cooperate with other humans, giving us a considerable advantage in forming groups, as we can pool workloads and specializations. Speech is the tool through which we actualize our intelligence and self-awareness.

Through speech, we have formed societies and built civilizations; developed science and medicine; literature and philosophy. Crucially, we do not have to learn everything from personal experience, because we can use language to learn from the experience of others.

The Torah holds language and speech in the highest esteem because words are tangible. Indeed, they are the fabric of Creation – וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר.

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that the concept of covenant is a performative utterance that creates a relationship between two people – a mutual commitment created through speech. Whether it’s God giving us the Torah, or a husband marrying his wife; relationships are fundamental to Judaism. We can only build relationships and civilizations once we can make commitments to each other.

We make important decisions based on thoughts and feelings based on words on a page or a conversation with someone. It has been said that with one glance at a book, you can hear the voice of another person – perhaps someone dead for thousands of years – speaking across the millennia clearly and directly to you.

Given the potency of speech and language, the Torah emphasizes in multiple places: the laws of the metzora; the incident where Miriam and Ahron challenged Moshe; and even the Torah’s choice of words about the animals that boarded the Ark:

מִכֹּל הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהוֹרָה, תִּקַּח-לְךָ שִׁבְעָה שִׁבְעָה–אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ; וּמִן-הַבְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה הִוא, שְׁנַיִם-אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ – Of every clean creature, take seven and seven, each with his mate; and of the creatures that are not clean two, each with his mate. (7:2)

The Gemara notes that instead of using the more concise and accurate expression of “impure,” the Torah uses extra ink to express itself more positively – “that are not clean” – אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה הִוא. The Lubavitcher Rebbe preferred to refer to “death” as “the opposite of life”; and hospital “infirmaries” as a “place of healing.”

The Torah cautions us of the power of speech repeatedly in more general settings:

לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ, לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ:  אֲנִי, ה – Do not allow a gossiper to mingle among the people; do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am Hashem. (19:16)

The Torah instructs us broadly not to hurt, humiliate, deceive, or cause another person any sort of emotional distress:

וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת-עֲמִיתוֹ, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹהֶיךָ: כִּי אֲנִי ה, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – Do not wrong one another; instead, you should fear your God; for I am Hashem. (25:27)

It’s interesting that both these laws end with “I am Hashem” – evoking the concept of emulating what God does; which suggests that just as God speaks constructively, so must we – אֲנִי ה.

The Gemara teaches that verbal abuse is worse than financial damages because finances can be restituted but words can’t be taken back.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that as much as God creates with words, so do humans.

Of course, one major caveat on harmful speech is the intent. If sharing negative information has a constructive and beneficial purpose that may prevent harm or injustice, there is no prohibition, and there might even be an obligation to protect your neighbor by conveying the information – לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ.

Language distinguishes humans from other animals. It’s what makes us human. God creates and destroys with words, and so do we.

Rather than hurt and humiliate, let’s use our powerful words to help and heal; because words and ideas can change the world.

We believe that we are judged on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur for the year gone by and the year to come.

If our forecast is inescapable, why would we spend the year hoping for anything different?

While we believe in a Judgment Day, we nonetheless believe that it is still only a snapshot in time and that with repentance, prayer, and charity; we can change our fates – וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe notes that the conventional translation of these words obscures their literal meanings.

The word for repentance means homecoming or return – because however lost we may be, we can find our way home – תְשׁוּבָה. The word for prayer means judging ourselves through earnest introspection – תְפִלָּה. The word for charity means justice – because it is something we dispense ourselves – צְדָקָה.

These are all aspects of ourselves that we have agency over.

R’ Micha Berger notes that they each parallel the three kinds of relationships we have – with God; with others; and with ourselves.

Reminding ourselves that there is a God who wants us to be more than sentient mammals; who watches over us, and what that means for the way choose to live are expressions of Tefila that we control.

Giving charity; volunteering; speaking kindly; helping a neighbor, and appreciating family and friends are all expressions of Tzedaka we control.

Improving ourselves; developing a more even temper; cultivating humility, and choosing to live an authentically Jewishly oriented lifestyle are all expressions of Teshuva that we control.

Improving just a single characteristic constitutes a change substantial enough that we believe it can change the future.

You are the master of your fate and the captain of your destiny.

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

When the wise son asks what the reasons behind our observance are, we give part of an answer, just a law really – אֵין מַפְטִירִין אַחַר הַפֶּסַח אֲפִיקוֹמָן. The Sfas Emes explains that the starting point of observance is that the Torah is ours, and there needn’t be a loftier reason than that.

And yet, R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch quipped that if you perform symbolic acts without bothering to understand 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, and he can find the ideas 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 before 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 a 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, but 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 give him an opening – אַתְּ פְּתַח לוֹ.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that creating an opening means cultivating curiosity – the entire Seder is full of strange customs and rituals to help do just that. The most wonderful and profound speech just doesn’t matter to someone who doesn’t get it, but it is also possible to nurture with silence.

Whatever challenges the wise, wicked, simple, and quiet 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.