It is a positive command of the Torah to discuss the miracles and wonders that were done for our ancestors in Egypt on the night of the fifteenth of Nisan. [This is] as it says, “Remember this day that you went forth from Egypt.” (Rambam, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Chametz U’Matzah 7:1)
Searching for the meaning of the seder
Rambam – Maimonides – explains that we are obligated to recount the events of our redemption. This commandment is fulfilled at the Pesach seder. Arguably, it is the seder’s central mitzvah. Why is recalling this historical event so critical? What is the message or meaning that we are to take from the seder and the narrative to which it is devoted? Perhaps, the answer to this question lies in understanding the meaning of our redemption. Afterall, the seder recalls our redemption. If we wish to understand the importance of recalling an event, it is reasonable to begin by understanding the meaning of the event, itself!
And I will take you to Me as a nation, and I will be to you the L-rd, and you will know that I am Hashem, your L-rd, Who brought you forth from under the burdens of Egypt. (Sefer Shemot 6:7)
Redemption’s educational objective
Hashem instructs Moshe to describe to the Jewish people their impending redemption. In the above passage, Hashem explains the final objective of the redemption. The Jewish people will know Hashem and be His nation.
Commenting on this passage, Ramban – Nachmanides – explains that the events of the redemption will demonstrate to the world Hashem’s omnipotence and that the Jewish people are His chosen nation. In other words, Ramban contends that the objective of redemption is educational. It will reveal or demonstrate important truths to the Jewish people and to humanity.
In this passage and Ramban’s comment an important idea is communicated. The objective of the redemption was not our freedom, ending the injustice of our suffering, or punishment of the wicked. The objective was the education of the Jewish people and humanity.
Redemption demonstrated fundamental truths
Ramban elaborates on the educational objectives of the redemption. He explains that among the basic truths demonstrated by the redemption are the following:
- Hashem is omnipotent. He is not restricted by the laws of nature. This is because He is the Creator.
- His knowledge encompasses the actions and affairs on humanity.
- He interacts with humanity.
- Hashem communicates with humanity through His prophets.
Ramban further explains that Hashem endowed humanity with intelligence. We have the capacity to discover and know truths. These truths are the foundation of our relationship with Hashem. It is through this relationship that creation’s objective is achieved. Because these fundamental principles are confirmed through the events of the redemption, multiple mitzvot are designed to focus our attention upon it. These include the commandment to retell the story of our bondage and redemption on the seder night.
It seems we have answered our initial question. What is the message of the seder? We retell the story of our redemption to reaffirm the fundamental tenets that these events established.
And it is us that He brought forth from there to bring us, to give us, this land that He promised to our forefathers. (Sefer Devarim 6:23)
The Torah describes an encounter between a parent and an inquisitive child. The child asks the parent to explain the significance and meaning of the Torah’s commandments. The parent responds by relating our history to the child. The parent recounts our slavery in Egypt and our deliverance. The parent tells the child that after redeeming us Hashem brought us to the Land of Israel and gave it to us as He promised our forefathers. Hashem commanded us to observe His commandments and to fear Him. Our obedience to His commandments will benefit us and enrich our lives.
This passage is incorporated into the Hagadah:
“In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as if he went forth from Egypt. [This is] as is stated: And you shall tell your son on that day, “Because of this Hashem did [these wonders] for me when I went forth from Egypt.” (Sefer Shemot 13:9) It is not only our ancestors that the Holy One, Blessed be He, redeemed. Rather, also, we were redeemed with them. [This is] as it is stated: And it is us that He brought forth from there to bring us, to give us, this land that He promised to our forefathers. (Sefer Devarim 6:23)”
The Hagadah is explaining the meaning of our passage. We are required to recall and to recount the story of our bondage in Egypt and our redemption. However, we do not fulfill this obligation through simply reviewing or retelling the events. We must perceive the events as a personal experience. We fulfill our obligation only when we regard the bondage in Egypt and our redemption as more than historical events. We must relate to these experiences as our personal story.
Rambam – Maimonides – codifies this requirement. In his discussion of the mitzvah of retelling the story of our redemption, he explains:
“In every generation one is obligated to conduct oneself as if he, himself, went forth – at this moment – from Egypt… (Mishne Torah, Hilchot Chametz U’Matzah 7:6)”
Through relating to these events as personal experiences we intensify their meaning. We are moved to express our gratitude to Hashem with Hallel and praise. We are motivated to observe His commandments.
We discovered above that through retelling the story of our redemption, we reaffirm fundamental principles of Judaism. We have discovered also that we are obligated to recount this event as a personal experience. Are these two elements of the mitzvah related? Does this personalization of redemption play a role in the educational objective of the seder? Is this personalization a necessary prerequisite to the affirmation of the truths outlined by Ramban?
Appreciating one’s blessings
Rabbaynu Bachya ibn Paquda, in his Chovot HaLevavot, explains that we can know and appreciate Hashem’s infinite wisdom and kindness through the study of the universe He created. In its greatest elements – the sun and the stars – and in its most minute – a tiny insect – we discover immense wisdom. In the ways in which the components of the universe interact with one another and sustain humanity, Hashem’s immeasurable kindness is demonstrated. However, it is difficult for us to recognize the evidence of His wisdom and kindness. Three factors interfere with our assessment:
- We are distracted. Our involvement in the mundane affairs of life and our pursuit of our desires deflects our attention from consideration of the world from which we benefit.
- From the moment that our intelligence asserts itself we are accustomed to the wonders that surround us. Because we cannot imagine an alternative to our world, we do not recognize its wonders. We are like children who have been reared in opulence. Such children struggle and generally fail to recognize their good fortune. They cannot imagine another life; so, they take for granted their blessings.
- Inevitably, we experience sorrows and disappointments. These events have a tenacious hold upon our attention and obscure from us the infinite blessings that surround us. We assess the world from the perspective of our suffering and not with objectivity and balance. We see an imperfect and even wicked world rather than Hashem’s wisdom and kindness.
What is the effect of these obstacles? They prevent us from contemplating the meaning and message of the world. To appreciate the wisdom and kindness of Hashem we must overcome these obstacles.
Appreciation precedes contemplation
There is an important lesson in Rabbaynu Bachya’s comments. The prerequisite to contemplating the wonderous phenomena that surround us is appreciation. We will contemplate natural phenomena and discover the wisdom expressed in the design of the universe only after we take notice of and appreciate these wonders. If we are too distracted to notice them, discount these wonders, or take them for granted, we will not contemplate them or recognize the wisdom they embody.
Let us apply Rabbaynu Bachya’s insight to the seder. The objective of the redemption was to establish fundamental truths. At the seder we recount the story of our redemption to reaffirm these truths. However, if we are to fully contemplate the events surrounding our redemption and to uncover their meaning and the tenets that these events demonstrate, we must take redemption seriously. If we regard it as a chapter in the history of long-forgotten ancestors, then we will not contemplate the meaning of redemption or appreciate the principles it establishes. We must connect with it on a personal level. The personal experience of redemption is the catalyst for our serious contemplation of redemption and our discovery and affirmation of the truths it reveals.
The mitzvah of recalling redemption – two elements
In conclusion, the mitzvah of recalling and retelling the story of redemption incorporates two related and complementary components. First, we must retell the story. Second, we must experience it as our personal history. We are moved to contemplate the meaning of the events and discover and reaffirm the truths demonstrated by redemption through our personal relationship with the redemption.
 The phrase, “on the fifteenth night of Nisan” is a dangling participle. It is not clear whether it describes the events to be recalled – those that occurred on the fifteenth of the month, or whether it refers to the date on which the mitzvah is performed. However, the passage cited by Rambam suggests that the first interpretation is correct. The mitzvah is to recall the events that took place on the fifteenth. If this is correct, the inclusion in the seder discussion of events leading up and subsequent to the fifteenth of Nisan provides context but is not the fundamental element of the mitzvah.
 In the following passage, Hashem explains that the Jewish people will be brought to the Land of Israel and given the land. This can take place only after the nation knows and accepts Hashem. The Land of Israel is given to the descendants of the Patriarchs because they are their spiritual heirs.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 13:16.
 This inquisitive child’s question is posed by the Hagadah’s wise son.
 Rambam replaces the obligation to “see oneself as if one went forth from Egypt” with an obligation to conduct oneself in this manner. This is not a contradiction. Apparently, he agrees that the goal is for one to view the events of bondage and redemption as personal experiences. However, this objective is achieved through acts of demonstration that take place at the seder. These include reclining when eating and drinking, and drinking the four cups of wine.
 Rabbaynu Bachya ibn Paquda, Chovot HaLevavot, Introduction to Sha’ar HaBechinah.