Imagine the following Seder “teaching” technique. (Full disclosure: my wife has forbidden me from actually doing this at our Seder this year. Or any year.)
After Kiddush, sometime after eating the Karpas and breaking the middle matzah, you turn to one of your children arbitrarily, point to her angrily and say, “Go to your room. Now!” “Why? What did I do?” “Get in your room I said! And the longer you take to get there, the longer you’ll be there.” After either a small or large argument, your child will storm off, likely in anger, perhaps in tears. Wait five minutes. Then call the child, giving her permission to return to the Seder, and ask her the following: “How do you feel? Wouldn’t you like to celebrate the fact that you’re now free to return to the Seder? Hasn’t your time in your room given you a new appreciation for your newfound freedom?”
If your child has calmed down enough to speak, her answer will probably be “no.” Before celebrating her freedom, she’d want to know why she was sent to her room in the first place. It’s hard to celebrate redemption from a perceived injustice.
But isn’t that exactly what we do at the Seder.
We’re supposed to relive the Redemption from Egypt. We’re supposed to act like kings on the night of the Seder, luxuriating in our newfound freedom. But in order to appreciate the good, the Mishnah (Pesachim 116a) tells us that we must first begin with the bad: מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח – “we begin with the criticism and conclude with the praise.” With which “criticism” do we begin the Seder? The Gemara presents two answers:
רב אמר מתחלה עובדי עבודת גלולים היו אבותינו [ושמואל] אמר עבדים היינו
Rav said, “Originally our forefathers were idolaters” and Shmuel said, “Our forefathers were slaves.”
Examining Shmuel’s explanation, I wonder: Sure, we were slaves. And yes, God redeemed us from slavery. But why were we in slavery? How did we get there? Was it not the same God that redeemed us Who also sent us into slavery in the first place? Rav’s explanation seems to answer this question. We entered into slavery because we were idolaters. In essence, God initiated the process of שעבוד מצרים in order to redeem us. Commenting on the section of מתחילה עובדי עבודה זרה in the Hagaddah, Rabbi Yishaya of Tarani (רי”ד) explains:
לפי שיש לשאול, מה שבח הוא זה שהכניס אותנו המקום למצרים ואחר כך הוציאנו. לא יכנוס ולא יוציא והרי אנו בני חורין, ולמה נשבח על אותה הוצאה?
For one might ask, what praise is there that He brought us into Egypt and only then redeemed us. Let Him not bring us in nor redeem us, and we would have remained free. Why should we offer praise for this redemption?”
Good question. Rabbi Yishaya answers:
לכן אמר מתחילה עובדי עבודה זרה היו אבותנו; אף על פי שהיו אבותינו בני חורין היו עובדי עבודה זרה, ומה שגזר עלינו הקדוש ברוך הוא שעבוד לטובתנו היה, שעל אותה שיעבוד חס עלינו הקדוש ברוך הוא והוציאנו, והכנסנו תחת כנפיו, ונתן לנו את השבת ואת התורה, ובנה לנו בית הבחירה לכפר על כל עוונותינו.
For this reason it says, “Originally our forefathers were idolaters”; even though our forefathers we free, they were nonetheless idol worshippers, and that which God decreed upon us was for our own benefit. For, through this subjugation the Holy One had compassion upon us and redeemed us, and brought us under the canopy of His wings, and gave us the Shabbat and the Torah, and built for us the Temple to atone for all our sins.
In essence, God punished us in order to redeem us. He took away our freedom in order to give it back to us in a new, fundamentally different way. He couldn’t just give the Torah to Ya’akov’s sons in Cana’an. Their children (us) would never have accepted it fully. Only through the crucible of suffering and the joy and relief of redemption could we come to appreciate God’s greatness and the redemptive nature of the Torah.
All this makes me wonder: how much do we as parents impose suffering upon our children in order to make them grow?
What cruel parent imposes suffering upon her children, you wonder. We all do, as well we should. What child wants to sit and do her math homework? Which self-respecting teenager wants to wash the dishes, or sweep the floors on erev Shabbat? What child wants to spend time in her room (or without internet or cell phone access, God forbid!) as a punishment for some minor or major infraction?
We “subjugate” our children by “forcing” them to do countless things that they would prefer to avoid in order to help them grow. In fact, if we failed to “subjugate” and “oppress” our children; if we gave them complete freedom to act as they pleased and do whatever they wished, we would be abdicating our parental responsibility. We would be bad parents.
All of this brings me back to our original scenario. The gemara I mentioned above concludes with a story:
אמר ליה רב נחמן לדרו עבדיה עבדא דמפיק ליה מריה לחירות ויהיב ליה כספא ודהבא מאי בעי למימר ליה? אמר ליה בעי לאודויי ולשבוחי אמר ליה פטרתן מלומר מה נשתנה
Said Rav Nachman to Daru, his slave: A slave whose owner freed him, and gave him money and gold – what should he say to [the owner]? He answered: he must thank him and praise him! [Rav Nachman] said back, you have exempted us from reciting the Mah Nishtanah.
The story in the Gemara sounds to me much like my “educational” scenario. Retelling the story of the Redemption to our children isn’t about reading the text of the Hagaddah and sharing commentary on the text. It’s about personalizing the story so that our children can come to appreciate both the meaning of suffering that they taste in the Matzah, and the value of redemption they must feel as they lean back and drink their wine.
Which makes me wonder: while I won’t send my child to her room on the night of the Seder (remember, I’ve been forbidden to do so), wouldn’t I be a better parent and “teller” of the story of the Redemption if I did?
Rabbi Reuven Spolter is the director of student recruitment and teaches Jewish studies at the Orot College of Education in Elkana, Israel. He also coordinates Israel Immersion programming for the kollel fellows at Yeshiva University’s Gruss Kollel in Jerusalem. Rabbi Spolter also teaches a weekly shiur in Parshat Hashavua to Women (available online here) at his home in Yad Binyamin, Israel.