The Lessons We Learn from the Haggadah

By Rabbi Yona Matusof

I would like to share some thoughts on the Haggadah.

We start the Haggadah with the passage, “This is the bread of affliction . . . whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is in need, let him come and conduct the Seder of Passover.” Yet there is no potential guest to hear this invitation, and anyone hearing it is presumably already at the Seder.

One explanation is that this is not meant as an invitation to the poor to join (which presumably was already done at this point). Rather, we’re teaching our children that part of the mitzvah of Passover is making sure that those in need are provided for, and that we can only fulfill the mitzvah of being joyful on the holiday if we have done so.

Later in the Haggadah, we quote a line from the Book of Exodus:

“I will pass through the land of Egypt, and I will smite every firstborn, and upon all the gods of Egypt I will perform acts of judgment: I, G-d.”

The sages queried the frequency of G-d referring to Himself with the personal pronoun and explained that G-d was promising to do it all Himself.

I’ll rescue them, and not send an angel. I, and not a seraph. I, and not a messenger. I’ll do it all Myself.

Why was G-d so insistent on doing everything Himself? Why not leave something for the angels to do? There is no shame in delegating, so why go to such pains to point out that G-d acted alone? This is a foundational teaching as to how we are meant to respond to others in need.

We must be ready to sacrifice personal comfort in our effort to assist a fellow Jew. Going “down to Egypt,” descending from our position of comfort and ease—nothing is too great a sacrifice.

It would be so easy to relax and leave the heavy lifting for others. Sure, we would play our part, offer our effort to the joint task force; no one would fault us if we waited for others to join in before we stepped forward.

But that’s not the lesson we learn from G-d. He did it all Himself, without waiting for angels or agents to play their part. People in trouble don’t have the time or luxury to wait while we quibble over the command structure; they’re waiting for us to be there for them in their time of need.

We conclude the Passover Seder with the wish, “Next Year in Jerusalem!”

Jerusalem is much more than a city. It’s an ideal that we are struggling to reach.

The Jewish story can be summed up as a long journey from Egypt to Jerusalem. Beyond being just geographical locations, they symbolize two opposite spiritual states. The journey from Egypt to Jerusalem is a spiritual odyssey. Both as a nation and as individuals, we have always been leaving the slavery of Egypt and heading towards the freedom of the Promised Land.

The Hebrew name for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which means limitations, restrictions, obstacles. It represents a state in which our souls are trapped in our bodies, enslaved to material desires, and tied down to physical limitations. It is a world in which righteousness, justice, and holiness are held captive to corruption, selfishness, and egotism.

Jerusalem means “the city of peace”—a place of peace between body and soul, heaven and earth, the ideal and reality. When our body becomes not a prison for the soul but rather a vehicle for the soul’s expression; when we live our lives according to our ideals rather than our cravings; when the world values goodness and generosity over selfish gain—then we are in Jerusalem, we are at peace with ourselves and the world.

The Jewish people were born in Egypt, in slavery. But they were told that on the other side of a vast desert lies their destiny, their Promised Land. As our forefathers walked out of Egypt, they were taking the first steps of a long journey to Jerusalem. Every generation since has pushed further forward along the road to Jerusalem.

As we sit at the Seder, we note that another year has gone by, and we have yet to complete the journey. But we are getting there. We are that much closer to the Promised Land than we were last year. We have advanced a few more steps in a march to freedom that has spanned generations.

Next year in Jerusalem . . . literally.

Faygie and I, and all of us at Chabad, send our best wishes for a Happy and Kosher Pesach.

Rabbi Yona Matusof is the Director of Chabad of Madison. Born in Casablanca, Morocco, and studied in Paris, France. After completing his studies at Rabbinical College in New York where he was ordained, he moved with his wife, Faygie, to Madison in 1980 as Rabbi of Chabad (Lubavitch) of Madison, serving the Madison and Dane County Jewish Community.

Disclaimer: The From Our Rabbis feature seeks to provide a platform representing the diversity of our community clergy. The views, information, or opinions expressed in the From Our Rabbis articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Jewish Federation of Madison.