There are many passages in the Haggadah that are hard to understand. But perhaps none are so deceptively simple as Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah’s discovery of Ben Zoma’s prooftext for the need to mention the exodus every night. Borrowed from the Mishnah in Berachot 12b, its formulation is exceptional. In the midst of what is generally a terse, legal corpus, Rabbi Elazar expresses great emotion at his new discovery of Ben Zoma’s teaching that the extra word, “all,” in the verse, “In order that you remember the day of your going out from the land of Egypt all the days of your life” (Deuteronomy 16:3), can be understood to add the nights as well as the days.
There are many questions about this passage. For one, given the implication that Rabbi Elazar had been looking for such a teaching, why he did not think of it himself. After all, he was Ben Zoma’s superior both in years (even as his seventy years are generally understood to be metaphoric), and in his rank as head of the academy.
Before we attempt to answer the question, it is worthwhile flushing out the implications of Ben Zoma’s teaching: As pointed out by others, when the verse above speaks about days, its simplest understanding is twenty-four hour periods. But the question then becomes whether there is a more fitting part of that twenty-four hour period to remember God’s greatest intervention in nature. And about that there seems to be a consensus, that it would be the day and not the night. That, because the darkness of night makes us feel removed from God’s power, which in many places is associated with light. And while we may perhaps have a greater need to feel God’s power when we feel more vulnerable, our natural inclinations are not like that. In other words, man is most aware of God’s power when he sees it evident. And it is in such a situation that he is most prepared to relate to a time when that power was so greatly exhibited. Of course, there is nothing stopping us from nonetheless attempting to relate to it at night as well. But given that we will be much more successful during the day, why bother forcing it at night?
In the context of this type of quandary, the rabbis would often turn to the Biblical text for guidance. Whether they sought bona fide evidence or subjective inspiration is secondary here, and it is likely a reason why the rabbis generally did not differentiate. Yet it is the nature of the thing that each person can only try to understand the text within the frameworks created by his or her own personality. That means that even bona fide evidence can be missed if you are not primed to see it.
The textual indication that we should also relate to the exodus every night is something that Rabbi Elazar could not see, even as much as he very much wanted to (in another context, seventy years – that he mentions as his age – is a metaphor for the darkness of the seventy-year Babylonian exile, and so possibly an expression of his own life being more similar to night than day). Ben Zoma’s ability to see what R. Elazar could not may well have been a result of his own propensity to see God’s power even in the darkness. If so, it was his inner awareness of this reality made him more responsive to corresponding hints in the text. And R. Elazar’s celebration of Ben Zoma’s proof was accordingly just as much a celebration of Ben Zoma as it was a celebration of his proof.
We are all stuck in our own perceptions. There are many things that we would like to see or believe, but cannot. When no one else sees them, there is really no way for us to bridge that desire to see something and actually seeing it. However, when we know that someone else does see it, that can give it actual existence for us as well.
The retelling of the exodus at Pesach is meant to deepen our faith; and the excerpt from the Mishnah towards the beginning of the Haggadah presents a model for how to do that. It teaches us to follow the example of R. Elazar: First, we have to want to see God’s power as pervasively as possible, and even in the places where we have difficulty finding it. Secondly, our ears must be attentive to the Ben Zomas – both living and historical – who are able to find God in those places. Finally – and perhaps most importantly – we must emulate R. Elazar’s modesty. That is, we must learn not to pull intellectual – or any other – rank, and allow for the perception of any competent person to create a reality from which we can benefit.