As I prepare to sit down to the seder again with family and guests, I think about a question one of my dear friends asked me recently.
“Rabbi,” he wanted to know, “what is so important about all the minutiae of the Passover rituals? Why do we focus on so many details during the seder, why not just talk about the value of freedom, the indomitable spirit of mankind, and how we humans always cast off the yoke of oppression?”
“Well,” my first answer was, “sorry, but that’s not one of the four questions!”
But I could see that my friend wasn’t going to buy that. So I told him about my bounced e-mails. He couldn’t understand what e-mails had to do with matzoh. So I explained: If you want your e-mail to reach the recipient, you need to remember to focus on the details. A misspelled address, or a forgotten “dot” can make the most important e-mail vanish into cyberspace.
Our ancestors were taught by God the secret of keeping our traditions alive throughout generations of oppression, indifference, and assimilation. The Dayenu is in the details. Freedom is a universal concept, to be sure. It is easy to relegate the Jewish redemption story to the same category as the yearnings of many other oppressed peoples. But then we miss the wonderful lesson that the details of the matzoh teach us.
We eat matzoh to remind ourselves that it was not our desire for freedom that broke Pharoah’s oppressive regime. To paraphrase the words of the Haggadah: “Why do we eat this matzoh? To remind ourselves that the King of kings redeemed us from Egypt, and we had not even prepared proper food for the Exodus, since we were not expecting it to happen.”
The Torah tells us that, as a people, we had given up. We had become resigned to being oppressed, and had accepted that being slaves was the norm. When Moses and Aaron first came and informed the Jews that they would be redeemed, the harshness of their slavery did not allow the Jews to consider freedom possible. It was only after experiencing many miracles that the natural Jewish belief in God began to break through the crust of the hard labor. Eventually, the Jews came to realize that God would indeed set them free.
But what does being “free” mean? Interestingly, nowhere in the Bible does the famous declaration, “Let my people go!” appear. Nowhere does Moses demand that Pharaoh treat the Jews with respect for their basic human rights. That was not the message he had been given by God, and it was not a message that would have resonated with an evil, tyrannical dictator. God told Moses to demand that the Jews be “let free to worship God in the desert.”
From the outset, it was clear that Project Exodus was about much more than a tribe reclaiming its independence. It was to be the beginning of a spiritual journey, one that has lasted 3,320 years to date. In the process, humanity has learned that it is wrong to enslave a fellow human being, not only because they have rights, but because they have obligations to another, higher Being.
When we pass the matzoh around the table this Pesach, please remember to tell your guests that our story is unique. We Jews were taken out of Egypt — we did not escape ourselves. It was not the human spirit that triumphed in the Passover story. It was rather the Divine spirit, infusing our humanity with belief in a Power greater than ourselves, that changed our status amongst all the nations forever.
Our children need to hear that as Jews, we have a special mission to fulfill. We have a special responsibility, one that can only be done by keeping our beautiful traditions with all of their details. When we reduce our experience to a universalistic event, we take from our children the power to live up their special Jewish destiny. Our Exodus forever broke the back of the cruel oppressor. And now we can be a light unto the nations, teaching the world that acts of goodness and kindness are the norm — not oppressing a weak and helpless minority. And that is no mere detail.