In just one week, many of us will find ourselves sitting around a seder table reading from our respective haggadot. In one way or another, we will all be fulfilling our obligation to telling the Passover story. At the very beginning of a traditional Haggadah we are told "All that extend the Exodus story are praiseworthy--Harei zeh meshubach." Furthermore, the Shulchan Aruch (15th c. law code) tells us that we should speak about it all night – "until sleep overtakes us" (OC 481:2). I don't know about you, but there is no way for it to take me all night to read through my haggadah. So what is really intended by this instruction?
I think the answer comes later in the haggadah, when we say, "In every generation each of us must see ourselves as if we have personally gone out of Egypt." We are called to extend the story to our time, to our lives. We are not separate from this retelling. The Sefat Emet explains that when the Torah says, "You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day (be'etsem hayom) I brought you out of mitzrayim," what it really means is be'atsmo (from within yourself) you came out of a narrow place. What story is uniquely yours to tell this year, be'atsmo, from your own experience?
In truth, the Haggadah is, was, and will be a still life, an imperfect prompt for our own searching. And the rabbis knew this to be true. Take for example the fact that in the Torah women are central to the Exodus story. From the midwives who save the Hebrew babies to the prophet Miriam and her wandering well. And yet women are absent from the Haggadah. We learn in the Talmud, Rav Avira teaches, "In the merit of righteous women that were in that generation, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt." While women may be absent from the pages of our haggadah, here is Rav Avira giving full credit to women for the redemption of the entire Jewish people of that generation. What was it that they did that merited God's saving hand in Egypt?
Get a load of this midrash, as retold by Rabbi Avi Strausberg. "Rav Avira explains in the continuation of that passage that at that time, the men, backs broken from oppressive labor, would come home defeated and tired. One can imagine that in situations of such desperation, the focus would be on surviving in the now rather than looking to producing future generations. But, the women were able to look toward the future. They'd go to the river and come away with pots filled with water and fish. They'd bathe their husbands, rub them with oils, feed them the fish and ultimately through their loving, rejuvenating actions, these couples would come to have sex, and the women would become pregnant. Once pregnant, these strong women would continue to take matters into their own hands. When it came time to give birth, they would give birth under the apple tree, and the Holy One would join them, sending a midwife to care for the newborn. These babies were resilient like their parents. When the Egyptians would come for them, a miracle would occur, the earth would absorb them, holding them safe until the threat had passed. They would then emerge from the ground, like grass of the field. As they grew, they would return home, like flocks of sheep, healthy, numerous and whole.”
Wow, now that’s a story! While the editors of the haggadah may not have seen fit to include these stories of feminist resilience, it is on us to give these women, and ourselves, the proper place in the Passover story. To tell the story of our going out from a narrow place all night, until sleep overtakes us.
As you prepare for Passover, may you search out not only your chametz, but also your personal Exodus story, which is praiseworthy to tell.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.