If we take a close look at the Passover Haggadah, we will soon discover that this is not a historical record of the Exodus from Egypt. The point of our reciting the Haggadah anew each year is not to refresh our memories about historical facts, but to facilitate a reliving of an experience which is pivotal to our nation's very raison d'être.
In short, the Seder night is intended not as an intellectual exercise, but as a deeply moving emotional experience that engraves its lessons on our hearts for the entire year. On this night, we share the agony and frustrations of bondage. We taste the anticipation and sanctity of the very first Seder night, there in Egypt, when our forefathers prepared to leave the land of their bondage the next morning as free men. What is more, we pour out our thanks to our Creator as we partake of the ecstasy of the redemption which our forefathers experienced thousands of years ago.
If we are successful this night, we too will experience the exhilaration of the former slaves who were reassured of their permanent redemption by witnessing the downfall of those who had so cruelly persecuted them; who slaughtered so many of their young, who had cruelly oppressed young and old, and refused for ten months to release them despite one devastating plague after another. And we will succeed in conveying all this to our children and grandchildren.
In preparation for the Seder, we set the table with our finest vessels – silver, china, and crystal ̵ the best that we have at hand. This is to accentuate the fact that now we are free men, not slaves and not subservient to any mortal power. Today, we are servants of the King of Kings, who rescued us from slavery that we be free to serve Him alone. Likewise, we recline while partaking of the special foods that serve as reminders of our status as free men. We commemorate our release from bondage by drinking four cups of wine or grape juice, each one marking another of the four expressions of redemption mentioned in the Scriptures.
However, to appreciate the dawn, we must first experience the darkness of night. The Haggadah opens with descriptions of the suffering brought upon us by the cruel persecutions of Pharaoh and his countrymen.
We recount in detail the stages of Pharaoh's wily stratagems that brought us deeper and deeper into the misery of slavery: the initial call for patriotic "volunteers", followed by one ruse after the other that gradually ensnared the unsuspecting Hebrews in the mesh of physical bondage.
"And the Egyptians ill treated us, as it says:
'Come let us deal wisely with him, lest they multiply, and if it should happen that we are at war, then they will join our enemies, and fight against us and then leave this land'."
By and large, the Jews in Egypt attempted to assimilate. They conducted themselves as full-fledged Egyptians, and expected to be accepted. How did their hosts respond? They had no confidence in the Hebrews' loyalty. On the contrary, they were filled with trepidation, and felt an urgent need to exercise full control over them:
"These Jews are becoming too powerful and too numerous. We have to find a way to protect ourselves against them, lest they join our enemies, and fight against us."
This was just the beginning of a pattern that was to repeat itself again and again throughout our history. The Jew assimilates and is certain that he has become an integral part of his host country; then, an appalling anti-Semitic incident brings about a rude awakening, and forces him to admit that, in the eyes of his host country, he is first and foremost a Jew. He can never become a full-fledged gentile like those around him.
In Egypt the oppression was even more anguishing because of Pharaoh's sly subterfuges that led the Jews to "cook their own goose." First, the Egyptians imposed heavy taxes; then they called on the Jewish community to demonstrate their loyalty to their adopted homeland by volunteering to labor for the national interest. They were called upon to help renovate the storage cities of Pitom and Ramses. Pharaoh himself came out to the work site and went through the motions of joining the workforce so as to encourage them. Anxious to prove their loyalty, many of the Jews outdid themselves, working overtime, and exerting themselves to the maximum.
Once the Jews had joined the others in the volunteer labor force "for the homeland", the next step was not long in coming. The gentiles were sent back home, but the Hebrews were ordered to continue ̵ not as volunteers, but as slaves. The wily Egyptians had kept a precise record of how many bricks the Jews had produced each day during their superhuman effort to prove their loyalty. This now became their daily quota.
Even this was not enough to make Pharaoh feel safe from the "Jewish threat." Stage by stage, the cruel taskmasters demanded that the Hebrew slaves produce higher and higher quotas of bricks. Then they added another requirement: Find your own straw, and continue to turn out the same number o bricks each day.
Were the Egyptians really so hard up for bricks or straw? Not at all; their motive was to drive the men to physical exhaustion, so that eventually, only the women would survive.
When grueling physical labor failed to accomplish their goal, they turned to emotional warfare. As backbreaking as one's labor might be, if it serves a constructive purpose, one can still find some meager satisfaction therein.
Now the Egyptians used demoralization to break the spirit of their slaves. They gave men the labor of women, and vice versa. They imposed purposeless tasks on the men: "Take this load over to that corner," they ordered. Once it was there, they issued a command to drag it back to the starting point.
The Egyptians sought to convey the message that the Jews' lives were without purpose, thus breaking their spirits. This is the ultimate form of enslavement.
Even this was not enough to satisfy Pharaoh. There followed inhuman decree against all male babies born to the Jews. The Haggadah describes the cries of the Jewish people which rose on high to their Creator; no longer did they seek to merge with the subjects of Pharaoh. Now they realized painfully that there was only one possible source of salvation: not assimilation, but their Creator.
The Haggadah continues with details of the Ten Plagues that preceded the Exodus. These came to demonstrate both to the Egyptians and the Jews that it is G-d, and G-d alone, who is in control of the universe. He manipulates the world of "Nature" as He wishes, transforming water to blood and light to darkness. He sends frogs, locusts and wild beasts to do His bidding, as a powerful general sends warriors to the front lines of battle.
All this leads to a description of the actual Exodus, which we now clearly see is not some sort of national liberation movement designed to secure political freedom for an oppressed ethnic group. This was not a case of a rebellion against a tyrannical overlord, but of the Creator manipulating world history as He ordained. The author of the Haggadah stresses that our redemption came not through a national hero, nor through a Heavenly messenger or angel, but through G-d Himself, who chose to redeem His chosen people from slavery to freedom, and from bondage to redemption.
If we are successful in our recitation of the Haggadah's ancient, sacred words, its potent message will remain with us all year.