It is commonly understood that Maggid means telling the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim. When we take a closer look at the actual text of the Haggadah, though, we find a surprising phenomenon. Directly following a one-paragraph answer to the Mah Nishtanah, we find ourselves meandering through ten paragraphs of various halachic discussions before we finally reach the story of the Exodus.
First we learn who has to perform the mitzvah of Sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim (even great Rabbis), how long we have to spend on it (the longer the better), and whether the obligation extends to every night of the year (it does). Then we learn how we have to fulfill this mitzvah in four different ways for different types of children, and we end by learning exactly when we are commanded to perform this mitzvah – not on Rosh Chodesh, not on the afternoon of Erev Pesach, but on the Seder night. This halacha shiur, replete with explorations of the different halachic opinions and the sources for each conclusion, is interrupted only by the paragraph ברוך המקום ברוך הוא, in which we praise Hashem for giving us the Torah – and make no mention of Yetzias Mitzrayim. We may well wonder why we spend so much time telling our children halachos, some of which do not even pertain to the Seder night, instead of the actual Sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim.
Upon reflection, it seems that this is exactly the deeper message the Haggadah is trying to convey. Don’t rush into the actual mitzvah of Sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim, the Haggadah tells us, until you have learned all the halachos that pertain to it. If we look carefully, we see this message explicit in the answer to the wise son – אף אתה אמור לו כהלכות הפסח; we teach the learned son the laws of Pesach and not only the story of the Exodus. And while the five sages mentioned in the Haggadah spent all night engrossed in the story of the Exodus, the Tosefta (Pesachim 10:12) tells us that Rabban Gamliel and his colleagues stayed up the entire Seder night learning Hilchos Pesach. This is not just an insight, then, but an actual halacha – the mitzvah of סיפו Sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim demands that we learn not only the story, but the halachos of telling the story as well. But now the question becomes even greater. Why should this be so? Why should the minutiae of halacha be considered a part of the story of the Exodus?
Perhaps we can suggest an explanation based on understanding the purpose of Yetzias Mitzrayim. We may have noticed that in Sefer Shemos, Moshe Rabbeinu asks Paroh time and again to let the Jews go, but he never actually asks him to set them free from slavery. Rather, he requests over and over that Paroh allow them to worship Hashem in the Sinai desert. Why didn’t Moshe just tell Paroh the truth, that the Jews wanted freedom?
Many answers have been suggested to this question, but perhaps the simplest answer is that he did tell Paroh the truth. Hashem’s reason for redeeming us from Egypt was not so that we could be free, but so that we could be free to accept the Torah at Har Sinai and serve Hashem. We tell the wicked son בעבור זה עשה ה’ לי בצאתי ממצרים – “because of this Hashem performed the Exodus for me.” Rashi asks the obvious question – because of what did Hashem redeem us? He answers based on the interpretation found in this section of the Haggadah – בזמן שיש מצה ומרור מונחים לפניך. Because of the matzah and maror lying on the table, because of the mitzvos that we do, that Hashem knew we would accept on Har Sinai and would perform loyally to this very day, He took us out of Egypt. This is the answer to the wicked son, who wants freedom devoid of obligation, freedom without Torah and mitzvos. We tell him בעבור זה – the reason Hashem miraculously changed the course of history and redeemed us from slavery was not to give us more leisure time or economic mobility, but to grant us the opportunity to become deeper and nobler people, to grow spiritually and connect with the Divine, to realize our full potential as human beings by serving Hashem and performing His mitzvos.
We learn in Pirkei Avos (6:2) that אין לך בן חורין אלא מי שעוסק בתלמוד תורה – the greatest freedom can be found in the structure provided by the Torah. Freedom can be squandered on the shallow pursuit of ephemeral gratification, or harnessed and channeled in the direction of spiritual growth in order to bring meaning into our lives and achieve true greatness. Hashem gave us the halachos of the Torah to help structure our lives so that we can utilize our freedom properly and realize our deepest goals.
We can now understand the message of this section of the Haggadah. If we only told our children the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim, we would miss the point of the story. We must first tell them that we’re doing a mitzvah tonight, and fulfilling all of the relevant halachos. We preface the narrative with Hilchos Pesach in order to convey the crucial message that our freedom only reaches its fruition when we use it to do mitzvos and serve Hashem. Perhaps this is why we call the Pesach experience a “Seder,” meaning order or structure, and we are careful to announce at each turn that we are following the structure, “kadesh,” then “urchatz,” all the way to “nirtzah.” It is the seder, the halachic structure of the Torah lifestyle, that transforms freedom from emancipation into redemption, from emptiness into fulfillment, and from chaos into glorious opportunity.
About the Author: Rabbi Asaf Bednarsh is the Ruth Buchbinder Mitzner Chair in Talmud and Jewish Law at Yeshiva University-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.
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