The Passover Haggadah: a Constitutive Narrative of Liberty and Movement

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti*

When Rabban Gamliel states, in the Mishnah tractate of Pesachim 10:5, that “in every generation a person must regard himself as though he personally had gone out of Egypt,” traditionally one tends to bend the accepted conception of time and diachronic depth / distance, into a synchronic merging of moments – the past is not distant, but is here and now. It is not merely a matter of suggesting to the reader of the Passover Haggadah that he perform a forceful mutation of her understanding of time and intergenerational difference or distance – Rabban Gamliel uses the Hebrew term חייב and thus turns the cognitive sphere into something which can be fashioned, voluntarily. This act of intellectual mutation is performed by the individual herself, by means of a narrative –

“as it is said: ‘And you shall tell your son in that day, saying: ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.’ Therefore it is our duty to thank, praise, laud, glorify, exalt, honor, bless, extol, and adore Him Who performed all these miracles for our ancestors and us; He brought us forth from bondage into freedom, from sorrow into joy, from mourning into festivity, from darkness into great light, and from servitude into redemption.”

The story is what fashions understanding – the perception of historical facts passes, pace my beloved colleagues in history departments, through the narration of events. Passing through the verbal act of והגדת לבינך or better “and you shall tell your son,” tradition is passed on to future generations. At this point I would like to stop the triumphant tones of this rather boring (mainstream-ish) mass of soteriological clichés, and point out how the story of the the People of Israel in general and of the Passover Haggadah in particular, are fraught with failures. In other words, what we are invited to see in the story of the Haggadah, in that fashioning speech-act of the traditional narrative, is nothing more than a sequence of ups and downs. Yes, it is true, this night is different from all other nights – but once this night will be over, we will go back to our routine, in which questions will not be asked, and in which the burning fire of novelty and redemption will be put out by the disconcerting sequence of events, one after the other. To put it in Frank Kermode’s terms, after having enjoyed the buzz of Kairos, we will carelessly sink back into chronos.

And yet, we cannot ignore the fact that there is a narrative of redemption – God does redeem the people, He does take them out of the Land of Egypt, he does strike the Egyptians with ten plagues, and the Israelites do leave Egypt triumphantly. So how do we tackle this paradox? Why are we encouraged to experience the uplifting moment of redemption? Is it in order to instill a momentary self-illusion, or are we supposed to do more with this?

I would like to propose a possible solution: Passover is about the narrative, the story, the obligation to tell this specific story all night long. And the liberty we experience is from the obsessive urge to possess a fixed state of understanding, an everlasting state of affairs in which the individual knows the presence of God in history – the freedom we are thrust into is a cognitive state in which change, mutation, movement, construction and deconstruction, are the perpetually alternating poles of reality. And as readers, we are freed, enfranchised, emancipated – as Terrence Cave has argued, “between the polarities of hunger [for stability] and possession [of that very stability],” the story of the Haggadah points to a “movement towards an authentic understanding” which can be attained only by means of a paradoxical “deferment of [the] ultimate revelation.” For the “proper working of human cognition there has to be, therefore, a perpetually suspended “tension” which, of course, is also “inherent [in] the reading process.” In other words, the Passover narrative is a textual aporia – it never ends. What must put an end to the narration is the halachic framework of everyday life:

It happened that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarphon were reclining [at a seder] in B’nei Berak. They were discussing the exodus from Egypt all that night, until their students came and told them: “Our Masters! The time has come for reciting the morning Shema!”

The story is one of transitions, of movement, of interpretation – God redeems through tokens, signs of presence, and then retreats into the apparent absence of history. How many plagues were there? Again, it is a matter of interpretation – 10, 50, 100, 200, 250… How beautifully blatant is the rabbinical capacity to perform on historical facts / events a forceful transmutation into a matter of interpretation and discussion. God intervenes in history and acts in order to redeem the people – but here again, there is a sense, in the Haggadah’s version of facts, that things are not as fixed and univocal as we would like them to be:

If He had brought us out from Egypt, and had not carried out judgments against them Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!

If He had carried out judgments against them, and not against their idols Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!

If He had destroyed their idols, and had not smitten their first-born Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!

If He had smitten their first-born, and had not given us their wealth Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!

If He had given us their wealth, and had not split the sea for us Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!

If He had split the sea for us, and had not taken us through it on dry land Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!

If He had taken us through the sea on dry land, and had not drowned our oppressors in it Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!

If He had drowned our oppressors in it, and had not supplied our needs in the desert for forty years Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!

If He had supplied our needs in the desert for forty years, and had not fed us the manna Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!

If He had fed us the manna, and had not given us the Shabbat Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!

If He had given us the Shabbat, and had not brought us before Mount Sinai Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!

If He had brought us before Mount Sinai, and had not given us the Torah Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!

If He had given us the Torah, and had not brought us into the land of Israel Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!

If He had brought us into the land of Israel, and had not built for us the Beit Habechirah (Chosen House; the Beit Hamikdash) Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!

What frees the individual is thus not a state of liberty from obstacles, whether physical or spiritual – we are free when we finally accept that things change, that we are always “here” and “slaves,” but must always defer the acquisition of the “then and there” of Jerusalem. What frees us is the acceptance of the process, of the never-ending discussion, as in the Talmudic dispute, where the Divine is not revealed in answers but in dialogue and difference / variety, and where it is an act of humility to accept the existence of challenging differences. It is in this intergenerational displacement, בכל דור ודור, that the reader has to fashion herself into a broken image of things that were, turning herself into one who knows that she is both here and there, both in the here and now of השתא הכא (as in Ha-Lachma Anya) where slavery binds and demeans the human understanding, and in the perpetually deferred and utopic state of שנה הבאה בארעא דישראל or better in the “there and then” of redemption in the Land of Israel. It is the process that frees women and men – not arrival. It is only by accepting and embracing the ever-changing movement of history from hunger to satisfaction, and back to hunger and on to satisfaction again, that we can hope to enfranchise our minds – and in order to perform this act of liberation one has to tell the story. The words of redemption are semantically constitutive – we perceive the world, history, events, God, society, everything through words. So the central obligation is to break the illusory immediacy of the hic et nunc and to accept our cognitive displacement within the flow of the story. We are never fully free – but we have the obligation to weave and tell a story that will allow us to move ahead, change, and relinquish the fixity of the present.

*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.

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